The Project



The project has the aim of promoting the study of cultures in contact. It focuses on Europe and on Shakespeare, because the choice of this clearly defined field makes it possible (a) to concentrate on urgent questions using a suitable paradigm; (b) to contribute to international research on the cultural history of Shakespeare (c) to pool and develop existing competence at Basel University.


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Cultures in contact

Increasing mobility, the development of global trade, and the availability of electronic media have led to a dramatic multiplication of encounters between cultures. Reactions to these have been of different kinds, in particular: Resistance to other culture, repression, destruction, but also tolerance, emulation, and the development of new syncretic forms.

Where conflicts between cultures could not be dealt with this has led to political instability, even civil and international war. Under these circumstances the study of cultures in contact is an area in which cultural studies ("Kulturwissenschaften") have a contribution to make to an urgent problem of the contemporary world.

How can cultures in contact be studied?

The Definition of Culture

Questions like these can only be discussed if there is an understanding on how "culture" should be defined. This definition has to be tentative, because it is itself culture-determined. It is proposed here that, as a working definition, culture should be understood in the broad sense of a whole way of life (Raymond Williams). Culture in this sense can be found in all areas of social life, elite and popular, not only in the arts and literature.

The comparison of cultures

Intercultural questions are often studied in terms of conflicts and their negotiation. There are good reasons for this, among them the urgency of actual conflicts and their resolution, but also the traditions of many disciplines involved in intercultural studies. These traditions tend to be national (e.g., in literature), or interested in the authentic (anthropology, etc.)

Instead it may be of interest to study the kind of similarities and synergies that encounters between cultures make visible.

The need of a focus

It is possible to imagine international projects of huge size and complexity to study the questions suggested here. Useful as they might be they could only be successful if they are based on clear notions, and if they are based on focused studies of clearly demarcated areas. It is important to focus on certain topics that lend themselves for the purpose. They should allow for a tertium comparationis, and offer a clearly delimited area of study that is of interest in all the cultures involved. At the same time they should include a historical dimension and various types of representative cultural expressions.


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One of the questions preoccupying European scholars at the historical moment when Europe is emerging as an economic and political institution must be: Is there a European culture? In particular, is there a European culture that goes beyond the common roots (re-constructed in the Renaissance) of Greek and Roman antiquity? Or should not, on the contrary, the diversity of cultures, like that of languages, be characteristic of the notion of Europe? But would this diversity be perceived as something shared (and not as mere contingency) unless there were common features that make diversity visible?

This is a complex situation, complicated additionally by the fact that any study of "European culture" at this moment will be a contribution to creating one as much as an attempt of collecting evidence for its existence.


Theatre and Drama

The theatre lends itself as a focus because it is there that cultures constantly rearticulate their concerns, registering, even anticipating changes that take place.

Drama, especially in the shape of the classic dramatic text, facilitates the comparison of these geographically and historically different articulations.


Shakespeare - The European anecdote

In 1984 five quality newspapers in five European countries--Lire, El Pais, La Stampa, Die Zeit, and The Times--made the playful experiment of establishing, beside the EEC, an ELC, a European Literary Community. They asked their readers for the names of the most important European writers. The results were clear: the French, the Spanish, the Italians and the Germans chose Shakespeare. Only the British preferred Dante--the rules of the poll barred the naming of writers from one's own country (Fritz Raddatz in Die Zeit).

Shakespeare's importance for European culture is also documented by his influence, since the late eighteenth century, on national literatures, by the many translations and adaptations made, and especially by the frequency of Shakespeare productions on the European stage.

There is no other author whose works offer as rich material for the kind of study suggested here. Shakespeare offers the tertium comparationis--a modern one as against possible classical ones, which have so obviously been used to create what they would be used to describe.

Shakespeare as a cultural phenomenon

Shakespeare will be studied as a cultural phenomenon in its various cultural and historical contexts, rather than as a universal genius as he was conceived in the eighteenth century. This means that questions of cultural, social and political discourse will have a role to play as well as long as they relate to the situation outlined under „Premises" above.


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Issues like the following are of particular interest:

  • William Shakespeare and Shakespearean figures as a cultural icons
  • How does Shakespeare appear in various cultures and at different times, what does his figure stand for etc. (Shakespeare monuments, names of buildings, prizes, etc.). How have the figures from his plays been used?
  • Shakespeare on the stage
  • Shakespearean figures
  • How are figures presented in the theatre of different countries? One possible project: Shylock in different countries in different periods.


How do various cultures deal with the concept of location?

Shakespeare adapted

How are Shakespeare's works adapted in different genres: opera, novels, etc. How has Shakespeare been modernised? How has Shakespeare been adapted to various regional/local, political and emotional needs?


What notions of translation have been applied to Shakespeare? Which linguistic expressions/phenomena are considered to be equivalent in different places and at different times?

Shakespeare in academic criticism

Are there European/national traditions of studying Shakespeare? What has Shakespeare's role been in shaping the academic traditions of various countries?


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Why Basel?

There are a number of reasons why Basel is the best place for such a project. Basel is a European location, situated as it is on the borders of France, Germany, and Switzerland, on the Rhine. Its location has also given the city a European urban tradition, marked by openness and the awareness of difference.

The university, founded in 1460, has from it beginnings relied on an international constituency. It has always been a university of European standing, but never grown beyond a certain size, which now may prove a great asset. Communication between different disciplines and between different faculties is still possible, and indeed has been formulated as one of the objectives in developing the university; it also has an Institute of European Studies, which offers degrees on a multi-disciplinary basis. Moreover, the university is part of EUCOR, a scheme that has successfully promoted collaboration between the universities on the Upper Rhine, in France, Germany and Switzerland.

The English department has a long tradition in Shakespeare studies, as the research done there indicates. In recent years it has been one of the centres of Shakespeare editing in the German-speaking world.


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Local staff

The following members of staff at the English department of Basel University will be involved in the project.

 ... .


  • Jenny Jermann, Dr. phil.
  • Sylvia Zysset, cand. phil. (employed by the Nationalfonds)

Local resources - The Shakespeare Edition

The English department of Basel University has been involved in the project of a bilingual (English-German) critical Shakespeare edition since its inception. Four editions have been published (Othello, Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens), another four (Henry VI, part 1, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) are being prepared. (Compare Sylvia Zysset's Article "Shakespeare's Sprache" or see photo or visit http://www.stauffenburg.de)

Work on this edition has created a solid basis for the new project: Extensive experience in questions of mediating between cultures, both historically and geographically (strategies of explanation, translation). It has also created an active network with other universities, especially in Germany and Austria.

Resources in the library

Work on the edition and a long tradition of Shakespeare studies (of which the edition may be seen as part) have led to the development of extensive resources in the field of Shakespeare studies, both in the shape of books (both editions and secondary literature) and of CD-ROMs (Shakespeare Editions, English Verse Drama, OED, The English Bible).



If you would like to find out more about the 'Shakespeare in Europe' project please write to

Department of English
Basel University
Nadelberg 6
CH-4051 Basel

e-mail to:

or phone (0041) 61 267 27 89

Shakespeare in Europe
University of Basel, Switzerland

for suggestions, additions, dead links etc. contact

last changes: February 2003