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Scholars take an oceanic view of Shakespeare

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

LAWRENCE – As far as historians know, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) never left the British Isles. But the Mediterranean Sea, and the lands bordering it, loomed large in his literary imagination and serves as the setting for some 23 plays. Then, as now, it was a place where continents, cultures and people came together, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes clashing.

The Bard’s notions about crossing boundaries both geographic and socially constructed are explored in a new special issue of the journal Mediterranean Studies, guest-edited by University of Kansas Professor of English Geraldo Sousa.

KU Professor Emeritus of English David Bergeron and two KU alumni also contributed articles to the special journal edition.

Sousa wrote the volume’s introduction and one of its five articles, about a family of migrants and refugees, seeking to find a permanent home in Shakespeare’s early work “The Comedy of Errors,” set in the rival Mediterranean city-states of Ephesus and Syracuse.

In the play, Sousa writes, “Shakespeare gives his Mediterranean Sea a contemporary feel and raises questions.” He added, “The Mediterranean Sea erases boundaries, shakes a sense of identity and becomes a force for change.”

“What the sea takes apart,” he wrote, “it will also put back together.”

Sousa has been involved with the Mediterranean Studies Association for 20 years and formerly edited its journal on a regular basis. The special Shakespeare issue of the journal grew out of a series of papers presented at its 2016 conference in Palermo, Sicily. These articles, he writes, constitute “a vibrant record of scholarly discussions in beautiful settings across the Mediterranean region.”

The chapters in the journal, Sousa said, explore themes of “migration and cultural interconnectedness” and challenges that communities and countries face in maintaining cultural identity at moments of transition and change.

“Comedy of Errors,” he said, was inspired by a play by the ancient Roman Plautus. Shakespeare read widely, Sousa said, in contemporary and ancient sources, and he adapted other materials from contemporary Italian, Spanish and French writers. Shakespeare was a keen observer of the world around him and often found a way to comment on then-present-day life.

And while he never traveled to Italy, Greece, Egypt or other parts of the Mediterranean, Sousa said, Shakespeare did talk to traders, sailors and travelers who did, and there is no doubt that he loved Mediterranean authors.

“Shakespeare imagines the Mediterranean as being both European and, at the same time, bordering on regions beyond,” populated by different ethnic and religious communities, Sousa said.

This can be seen especially, he said, in the two titular personages of the plays set in Venice: “Othello” the Moor and Shylock the Jew, “The Merchant of Venice.”

“His Mediterranean sometimes seems real and sometimes imaginary, but it’s never very realistic, even in the two plays set in Venice,” Sousa said. “He refers to specific places, like the Rialto Bridge and the Jewish Ghetto. Other plays evoke specific locations, including the River Nile and life in Egypt, the Adriatic Albanian coast, the Turkish/Anatolian region of Ephesus, the beautiful Sicilian landscapes, the woods outside of Athens, Florence and the south of France.”

Like the Bible, Shakespeare is endlessly relevant and adaptable to changing times, Sousa said.

“I’m teaching ‘The Merchant of Venice’ right now,” Sousa said, “and I am reminded of how much Shakespeare was fascinated by the Mediterranean region and global forces that shake our lives. Then comes the pushback, and we want to erect borders — physical, cultural or psychological.”

Photo: Detail from map in “New General Atlas,” via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: John Thomson (1777-1840)