Monday, March 29, 2010

Did Shakespeare read Cervantes?

I attended a lecture titled "Cervantes and Shakespeare: Metatextualities in Don Quixote and the Late Plays" by Professor Valerie Wayne from the University of Hawaii sponsored by the Early Modern Colloquium at the University of Michigan on March 26 at 4:30 p.m., in a third-floor conference/classroom in Angell Hall on the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The 80-seat conference room is luxurious with tasteful cool-green and black printed wall-to-wall carpeting, expensive Steelcase chairs upholstered in a green-leaf print and black woven seatbacks. Golden oak paneling accents walls painted in a restful pale green. The paneling is accented with painted floral tiles in shades of earthy greens, golds and warm black. Upholstered benches are placed at intervals along the walls for overflow seating. It's hard to describe the opulence of university spaces. This room is clearly a renovation and thus lacks the majestic proportions of many older spaces, but the feel of no expense spared in the quest for a beautiful space is evident.

The university is generous in welcoming the community, and most academic programs and events are open to the public -- to which the public generally responds with apathy. I would suppose that the kabuki-like posturing at these conferences and colloquiums frightens away the ignorati.

The presenter at this event is a lovely, assured lady -- a university professor, who according to her online bio is currently working on an edition of Cymbeline for the Arden Shakespeare. Her collection of essays co-edited with Mary Ellen Lamb, Staging Early Modern Romance: Prose Fiction, Dramatic Romance, and Shakespeare, has just appeared from Routledge, and she is also an associate general editor of The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton that was published in 2007 by Oxford University Press. She is also a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America, serves on the editorial board of Shakespeare Quarterly, and is a member of the MLA’s committee on the New Variorum Shakespeare. And that's just the top of her resume.

Wayne's topic at the colloquium on Friday is how the "metatextualities" in Don Quixote -- published in Spanish in 1605 and in English in 1612 -- showed up in Shakespeare's "late" plays by which she meant Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, and The Tempest -- all of which she dates to the period of 1610-11. By "metatextualities" I understood her to mean self-referential aspects of the plays such as the play-within-a-play. She didn't address the source of meta-textual, plays-within-a-play in earlier works such as Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream.

Waynes thesis is that Shakespeare and his playwriting cohorts of the Jacobean period used the red-hot, new theatrical techniques that Cervantes introduced with Don Quixote. Her paper was received with applause and erudite interrogation that seemed to baffle the presenter as much as it confounded attendees, although Wayne rallied with equally inscrutable volleys.

No one asked the foundation question that I wanted to know the answer to, so before they could all brush off their hands and move on to the reception, I asked:

"Do you think that Shakespeare had access to an English translation of Don Quixote before it was published in 1612?"

She said:

"I think it's possible that people besides Shelton prepared translations leaving open the possibility there was a recounting of the events in Don Quixote that Shakespeare might have heard. I'm holding out for the possibility of oral translation or early access to Thomas Sheldon's translation. I don't think we'll ever really know."

The program ended with her reply. I didn't get the sense that anyone in the room found the question particularly relevant, or the answer in any way lacking.

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