This chapter seeks to define Shakespeare in ‘European’ terms. First, he is presented as an English and a British author, as perceived within the culture of his native island environment. Shakespeare is also brought into focus as a bilateral and a multilateral author, emphatically between the various nations that make up Europe. At the same time, Shakespeare is outlined as a writer who also tends to provide a joint, transnational frame of culture within such a European context. Finally, Shakespeare has been and is perceived as ‘European’ for his merits and demerits by non-European outsiders. This perspective from the outside brings into play issues involving the potential Eurocentrism of the man, his work, and the Shakespeare industry at large.
Keywords: William Shakespeare, commemoration, appropriation, nationalism, World War I, World War II, postcolonialism, Brexit
Introduction – Shakespeare and European Authors
During the past 400 years, and chiefly since the beginning of Romanticism in the late eighteenth century, most if not all countries of Europe have, in their attempt to fashion distinct cultural, ethnic and linguistic self-identities, focused on native writers to represent the nation. Through a self-perpetuating process of celebration and commemoration, these writers have risen to pre-eminence as major representatives of their nation both by birth and by their perceived cultural and linguistic achievement. Thus, in the course of the centuries, England has come to embrace Shakespeare as its national poet, Portugal Camões, Spain Cervantes, Italy Dante, Germany both Goethe and Schiller. France, particularly during the politically turbulent nineteenth century, pondered the merits of Corneille and Racine, as well as Molière. This handful of more or less canonical authors only represents the tip of the iceberg. The fame of these few – which may even be said to extend across the globe – tends to eclipse that of countless other poets in Europe whose names may well sound unfamiliar to non-natives to their particular region: Alberto Salvadó (Andorra), Hristo Botev and Ivan Vazov (Bulgaria), William Heinesen (Faroe Islands), George Métivier (Guernsey), and so on.
The cultural history of Europe may record that all of its member states have a tradition of celebrating and commemorating their literary hero figures, but among these figures Shakespeare holds pride of place.