Conference summary

Cambridge 2017

The 12th annual BVSN conference took place in Cambridge, September 2017. Helen Cooper (Magdalene College) was our gracious host this year.

Many of the 15 delegates met on the evening of September 26th for a pleasant wine reception at Professor Cooper’s rooms at Magdalene. The conference proper began on the morning of Wednesday the 27th, in the swish and modern rooms at Cripps Court.


The theme on this occasion was “Strange Shakespeare”. Even though historians tend to call the period in question the “Early Modern,” thereby implying continuity and commonality with our own times, this label fails to acknowledge the significant differences that exist between then and now. Some of these differences are known, but perhaps difficult to grasp; others are hidden behind seemingly relatable and recognisable forms and words: transhistorical “false friends”. The fact is that when we look more closely at the Jacobethan period and its literature, we often discover that these things are more foreign than we sometimes think.

Delegates were encouraged to see past their long-standing familiarity with the field (which is not to suggest that this would be a new experience for anyone!), and consider what this strangeness might mean for our reception of works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Performance, cultural codes, gender relations, religion, imitation and adaptation, and general epistemology; all of these things are interesting from the point of view of the strange, the different or the downright weird.

Day 1

Stuart Sillars started us off by reviewing the eccentricities of Shakespeare’s language, deftly reminding us of how unusual his images, phrases, allusions and word choices could be, and how patterns of strangeness seem to form throughout the canon.

Second, John Wilhelm Flattun discoursed on the weird and wonderful medieval and renaissance iconography of dragons, including how they were viewed and what they were used for in political rhetoric, as symbols of power and in literature; codes regarding dragons were quite different in the time before Tolkien and Hollywood.

Next, from the point of view of semiotics and body politics, Attila Kiss explored how the fascinating and fecund concept of “demetaphorization” operated on the Shakespearean page and stage, and how surprising turns of literalisation could be used to comment on Reformation as well as Revenge. Turning what appears to be a figure of speech into a literal statement is a rug-pulling exercise with great potential for palpable discomfort.

Continuing with a focus on the body, Zita Turi spoke on the role of anatomy books (and anatomy illustration) in Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. Her paper looked at how the body might be a site for metaphysical truth in the Renaissance, and at how this quest for truth through dissection is reflected in Greenaway’s film.

After lunch, Ruth Morse provided a fascinating account of how Victor Hugo and his family became embroiled in table tapping during the Spiritualism craze of the late 19th century, communing with the spirits of famous authors. Apparently, the most active spirit was that of William Shakespeare, who had many nice things to say about Hugo’s own talents – something he expressed through so-called automatic writing.

Siri Vevle explored how the strangeness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is amplified and equipped with new layers in William Blake’s verbal-visual reconfigurations in Jerusalem, reading through the new theoretical concept of exegenesis. The Dream functioned as a conduit to a Druidic past in which Blake was very interested.

Day 2

On Thursday morning, Svenn-Arve Myklebost presented comparative close readings of esoteric imagery in Julius Caesar (the play) and the presence of Julius Caesar (the man and legend) in esoteric imagery, emblems and so forth, arguing that an insight into esotericism might provide extended insights into Shakespeare’s figurative language and political analyses.

Perry McPartland investigated the unusual ways in which Shakespeare treats of art in The Winter’s Tale, with an especial focus on the statue of Hermione, arguing that Shakespeare employed aesthetic strategies which would have created spaces of potentiality that diverge from what is possible or thinkable within contemporary art production.

Anthony Johnson’s paper addressed how Shakespeare’s Cymbeline invokes “the words ‘strange’ and ‘strangely’ more frequently than any other work in the Shakespearean oeuvre,” drawing attention towards its own peculiarity. Johnson argued that Lutheran conceptions of alchemy are key to understanding some of the play’s imagery.

Up until this point, the sessions had been named “Strange Arts” I-IV. Next on the agenda was “Strange Comedy”.

Goran Stanivukovic discussed how The Comedy of Errors achieves “strangeness” through stylistic and plot-related patterning, utilising confusion on many levels in order to challenge the audience’s (missing) expectations. The paper also explored how strangeness operates on the affective level, for the play’s original audiences as well as today.

Kent Cartwright looked at the easily-missed ways in which Shakespearean comedies would use stage props and objects to “manifest” desires, wishes and ideas held by a play’s characters. One case of this is the letter to Malvolio in Twelfth Night, which is also an example of how “manifestations” operate on ironic or even satiric levels. It manifests Malvolio’s desires and is an ironic reversal (because it is a prank) at the same time.


Day 2 of the symposium was concluded with an informative guided tour of the Pepys library on the Magdalene College grounds.

Day 3

The final day of the conference was devoted to spiritual, religious and philosophical strangeness in the Renaissance.

First, Raphael Lyne investigated the strange and inconsistent moral philosophies of Shakespeare’s long poem “The Rape of Lucrece”. Lyne’s reading was based on a theory of attention – or attentive reading – and he argued that the amount of detail in the poem plays tricks with the reader’s ability to absorb its subtleties.

Next, Sean Geddes looked at the epistemological strangeness of Montaigne’s Apologie in John Florio’s 1603 translation, and took into consideration Shakespeare’s use of Montaigne in the equally strange, late play The Tempest. In this way, Geddes sought to extend our understanding of the nature of Shakespeare’s imitative strategies.

After the break, Charles Moseley asked us to consider what it must have been like to watch or read a Shakespeare play from within the religious framework of the Renaissance, more specifically a Calvinist ideology. Moseley reminds us that even though we do not know much about Shakespeare’s religious preferences, “99,9 % of his audience shared a Christian world view, as naturally as breathing.” Attempting to see the plays from inside world view makes for a strange experience indeed.

Finally, Helen Cooper discoursed on the Golden Legend, exploring to what extent Shakespeare may have been acquainted with its “Catholic Wonder Tales.” Looking for traces of it in the canon opened up new perspectives on Shakespeare’s art as well as the role remnants of Catholic tradition may have played in the Jacobethan era.

The conference ended with a very pleasant meal at the wonderful The Punter, near Magdalene.


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