WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – The Tempest at 400. Performing (pre)texts.

On 1st November 1611 The Tempest was first performed. Four hundred years later this conference wishes to explore the gestural and linguistic performability of the text and the history of its changing performances to the present.

University of Verona, 15-17 December 2011
Polo Zanotto, Faculty of Modern Languages

Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Straniere, Università degli Studi di Verona in collaboration with The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

Con il patrocinio della Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere dell’Università degli Studi di Verona.





Other sponsors:


Agli studenti della Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere che frequenteranno le tre giornate di convegno (15-17 dicembre 2011), assistendo anche allo spettacolo e alla tavola rotonda (16 dicembre 2011), sarà riconosciuto 1 CFU.


The Tempest: still swell at 400.

The Tempest at 400. Performing (pre)texts, a conference dedicated to the fourth centenary of the Shakespearean play, closed on December 17 at the University of Verona after three days of lively discussion and fruitful scholarly confrontation. The event was jointly organized by Silvia Bigliazzi and Lisanna Calvi from the Department of Modern Languages (Verona), and Ewan Fernie from the Shakespeare Institute of Stratford-upon-Avon (University of Birmingham).

This conference was not the only one to deal with this Shakespearean anniversary: in the first days of December a celebratory conference was held at the University of Porto (Portugal) with the intent to focus on the tempest as a natural disaster in order to promote a discussion of the impact of nature’s accidents on the literary imagination (‘Dashed all to pieces’: tempests and other natural disasters in the literary imagination). Earlier in July, Tobias Döring and Virginia Mason Vaughan led an articulated panel on the four hundred years of The Tempest at the World Shakespeare Congress in Prague, and in April, the 2011 ESRA conference in Weimar was entitled Shakespeare’s Shipwrecks: Theatres of Maritime Adventure. Four international conferences in eight months devoted to this play in Europe alone are proof of the lively interest that it continues to arouse, albeit the enormous amount of criticism that is daily put forth all over the world.

Given this bulk of celebrations and critical outpouring, this conference was devised so as to unravel fresh perspectives on topics left untouched in the other events, and thus concentrated on issues concerning the play within the context of its theatrical performances. The central question on which it was built was: why do Shakespeare and the Tempest still prove to be so much in the limelight today, and what makes this play so appealing even to the new generations? To this end, rather than privileging discussions of storms and shipwrecks as literary and cultural topics at large, or resuming debates on pro- or anti- post-colonial issues or on the recent relocation of the play within a Mediterranean context – to mention only a few of the current focuses – this conference discussed the play as such, and examined what makes it a performable and highly performed one.

With this in mind, three major areas of inquiry, related to the stageability and staging of the play over the centuries, were identified and looked into:

1. Firstly, pre-texts as sources of stagecraft were explored in order to shed light on the context of its composition with attention paid to theatergram migration and contemporary theatrical influences;

2. Secondly, the performability of the play over time and in different cultures led to focus on its intrinsic theatricality and its adaptations in actual performances;

3. Finally, translation as performance was addressed as another option to look at via cultural and interlingual spectacles.

The idea was to offer a comparative and contrastive over-view of different theatrical practices and cultural appropriations of the play in a single event which could provide a fresh ‘brainstorming’ on its theatrical potential. This was accomplished by gathering at Verona many distinguished scholars from European and American Universities, among whom Andrew Gurr (Reading), Russ McDonald (London), Peter Holland (Notre Dame), Alessandro Serpieri (Firenze), Keir Elam (Bologna), Robert Henke (St Louis), Tobias Döring (Munich), David Lindley and Martin Butler (Leeds), Kathleen McLuskie and Ewan Fernie (Shakespeare Institute).

The discussion started from an investigation of sound, music, and noises in the storm scene and throughout the play, and continued with the exploration of two further main topics: 1. visuality as a complement of sound effects; 2. the hermeneutical and theatrical function of hearing. On the one hand, visuality was discussed within the spectacular frame of the masque by following a masque and anti-masque pattern which related Shakespeare to Ben Jonson. Specific references to the function of music as both a thematic and dramatic component, but also as a ‘musical score’ embedded in the play, enhanced the idea of performance as spectacle. This facet was also stressed within the context of 20th century television and cinematic versions of the play. Indeed, cinema provided a privileged area of investigation of The Tempest’s visual and narrative potentialities through techniques of remediation typical of our contemporary age. On the other hand, the dramatic function of hearing was also examined and situated in conjunction with the pervasive role of story-telling within the play, which linked The Tempest back to Hamlet showing how revenge tragedy may easily turn into romance precisely by adjusting the dramatic purpose of memory and narrative to the specific frame of this late play.

Faustus too was conjured up as a prototype of Prospero, and was was looked at as a graver and more potent ancestor of the desert island’s domesticated magician. By establishing a relation between Shakespeare and Marlowe, Faustus raised questions also on the stageabilty of magical formulas and their cultural, religious and political implications. These were debated within a frame of reference that included the delicate topic of the forgetting of language connoting Caliban’s approach to verbal signs.

Eventually, through the topical connection between Caliban as an Elizabethan incarnation of the homo selvaticus and Prospero as that of the mago, the focus was shifted to an analysis of theatergram migration both in the field of Italian improvised theatre and in pastoral tragicomedy.

This last connection, with special regard to the commedia dell’arte tradition, was performatively explored through the mise en scène of a theatrical experiment, mixing scenes from from The Tempest and relevant bits from Arcadian scenarios belonging to the repertoires of Flaminio Scala and Basilio Locatelli. This composite playtext was successfully staged by the Verona-based Compagnia del Teatro Scientifico, and is the outcome of a stimulating collaboration between Giovanna Caserta, director of the play, and Silvia Bigliazzi and Lisanna Calvi from Verona University, who selected and translated the Shakespearean scenes. The rationale of the selection and re-ordering of the text was that The Tempest can also be read as a complex combination of theatergrams belonging to a wide pool of dramaturgical motifs typical of the Arcadian enchantment of the commedia dell’arte.

The mise en scène was followed by a round table with Alessandro Serpieri, Richard Andrews (Leeds), Rosy Colombo (Sapienza), Michele Marrapodi (Palermo) and Giovanna Caserta. The debate focused on the staged play and its experimental import, as well as on its translatability for the Italian theatre, through a comparative and contrastive analysis of famous performances, such as Strehler’s 1978 production, and a critical discussion of the performability of some current Italian translations.

Many colleagues from Verona and from other Universities, as well as a large group students, attended the event, giving their vivacious contribution to its success, and above all demonstrating that The Tempest’s amazingly labyrinthine complexity is still sparkling after four hundred years.