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“Shake this island”: Armenian Shakespeare Association Conference

“Shakespeare and Italy: Between the Crossroads of East and West”

Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik

In July this year, Trust Librarian Mareike Doleschal had the opportunity to represent the Translating Shakespeare blog at a conference in Venice and to participate in a panel discussion. Her fellow panellist, Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik, shares her impressions of an unforgettable conference.

panel photo, Shakespeare conference in Venice
The conference venue

The Armenian Shakespeare Association’s (ASA) 3rd conference, organised with the support of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Congregation, was held in Venice on 14th and 15th July 2019 in memory of the great Shakespearean actor and director Vahram Papazian (1888-1968). An event both educational and academic in nature, it gathered together 30 delegates from Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Cyprus, France and Finland, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the Republic of Ireland, Romania, Serbia, Sweden, Taiwan, the UK and the USA. All of them came to the place that holds a special significance for both Shakespeare studies in general and Armenian cultural history. A setting for two plays by Shakespeare, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, Venice was an important economic, political and cultural centre during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Its economic influence extended well beyond the Italian Peninsula, and for this reason, the city-state became a host to diverse minorities, including the Armenian community, serving as an important partner in the trade with the Levant since the 12th century, when Venice strengthened its ties with the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. Unsurprisingly, the theme of the conference focused on Venice itself: the way in which the city-state negotiated, organized and complicated identities of its citizens and the new-comers, forging in its multi-ethnic furnace a millefiori jewel of great beauty; a cultural empire, whose reach went beyond the immediate trading routes, and whose translucent myth became an ever-lasting source of inspiration for artists and thinkers alike.      

Delegates group photo
Conference delegates

The myth of Venice as a site of unencumbered exchange did not disappoint indeed: for two days the city became an intellectual haven for the conference participants. The vibrant history of the small yet relevant Armenian community in Venice was disclosed to the group when it wandered with a local expert through the Armenian neighbourhoods and paid respects to the last Queen of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia, Catherine Cornaro (1454-1510), buried in San Salvador Church. After the first working lunch, the guests visited the monastery on the isle of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where a group of Mekhitarist Catholic monks continue to collect and guard the treasures of the Armenian past. The beginnings of the monastery date back to 1717, when father Mekhitar of Sebaste established the congregation of his followers on the little isle previously belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic monks continue with their curatorial work, managing an impressive art collection as well as a library of about 150.000 volumes, with a breath-taking repository of incunabula and manuscripts from all over the world. Considering the long history of the Armenian-Italian relations, it comes as no coincidence that the first Armenian books were printed in the Veneto region: the repository holds one of ten copies of the first printed book in Armenian, the devotional Urbathagirq or The Book of Friday (Venice, 1512). As Father Hamazasp Kechichian explained, the library was an inspiration to many, including Lord Byron, who visited the monastery in 1816-1817, while working on his translations from Armenian as well as an English-Armenian grammar book and dictionary that he collaborated on with the Mekhitarist Fathers.

San Lazzaro degli Armeni
The church on San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon

The conference venue, also steeped in Armenian history, was the Hall of Mirrors situated in Palazzo Zenobio that had been the home of Moorat-Raphael Armenian College for boys, founded in 1836 and active for over 150 years. At the time of the conference Palazzo Zenobio also served as the East-Asian Pavilion for the ongoing 58 La Biennale di Venezia, whose ominous title, “May you live in interesting times” and Domenico Pellegrino’s moving “I am the Island” installation in the main hall spoke directly to the ASA conference’s dominant theme, as many of the papers discussed the political potential of Shakespeare’s work both in the past and in the present.

Following a brief introduction from Jasmine Seymour (the founder of ASA in 2016), Father Serop and Venice-based journalist and author Avedis Hadjian discussed the Italian-Armenian historic links. Father Serop talked about the first Armenian studies on Shakespeare that were conducted in the 1830s by Mekhitarists in Venice, as well as the first-ever production of Shakespeare in the Armenian language that was staged by the Mekhitarist fathers and students in 1864 to celebrate the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth.

The keynote lectures delivered during the morning session started with Prof. Peter Billingham (University of Winchester, UK), whose presentation on Edward Bond’s play Bingo was concerned with Shakespeare read through the Marxist lens. The second keynote speech, The Christian Golgotha; Shakespeare and Dante, was delivered by Prof. Henrik Edoyan (Yerevan State University, Armenia), who juxtaposed the work and the legacy of both authors. The final keynote presentation was from Prof. Sheila Cavanagh (Emory University, USA) on Shakespeare in Contemporary Wordless Performance which she devoted to US-based Georgian directors staging Shakespearean plays through mime, dance and music.

Group photo conference delegates
Conference delegates

Jasmine Seymour (Queen Mary University of London, UK), and Dr. Lusik Hovakimyan (Yerevan State University, Armenia) presented The Italian Years and Influences of Vahram Papazian (1888-1968), to whom the conference was dedicated. Papazian had studied at Moorat-Raphael College in Venice and performed as a teenager during festive celebrations at the Hall of Mirrors before he entered the Milan Academy in the early 1900s. During his three years in Milan he seized his chance to tour and perform with the renowned Girolamo Gozzi, one of the last masters of Commedia dell’Arte. He then joined the troupe of the celebrated Shakespearean tragedian Ermete Novelli and finally performed with the legendary Eleonora Duse.

After the working lunch in a cosy local osteria, the afternoon sessions were divided into a series of panels, where the participants jointly presented the outcomes of their pre-arranged discussions. Prof. Lisa Hopkins from the UK (Sheffield Hallam University) chaired a panel on ‘Shakespeare and Strangers’, during which Prof. Nicoleta Cinpoes (University of Worcester, UK), Dr. Kiki Lindell (Lund University, Sweden), Stephanie Mercier (University of Helsinki, Finland) and Dr. Koel Chatterjee (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, UK) discussed the issues connected with identity construction and otherness.

Panel 2 chaired by Prof. Kay Stanton (California State University, US) concerned the fictive and the real in the Venetian myth, with eager participation from Dr. Eleni Pilla (Cyprus), Dr. Coen Heijes from (the University of Groningen, the Netherlands), Dr. Artemis Preeshl and Eric Harber (UK).

The participants of Panel 3 “Translations of Shakespeare, Transcultural Dialogues and Adaptations” led by Dr. Shauna O’Brien (Trinity College, Ireland) included Shakespearean translator, Prof. Miguel Ángel Montezanti (Universidad de La Plata, Argentina) and Dr. Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik (Tischner European University, Poland), who discussed the domesticating and foreignizing potential of translations for page and stage, while Mareike Doleschal (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, UK) commented on the use of translation repositories, such as the collection held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and discussed her on-going blog of Shakespeare translations in as many as 40 languages.

Display Translating Shakespeare pamphlets
Display of articles featured on the Translating Shakespeare blog

The penultimate Panel 4 of the conference, chaired by Prof. Kyle de Roberto (University of Arizona, US), delved into Shakespeare and politics, tackling censorship, migration, philosophy and ideology, with Dr. I-Fan Ho (Taipei National University of the Arts, Taiwan), Zora Martin (US) and Petra Bjelica (University of Verona, Italy) as discussants.

The final Panel 5 dedicated to “Shakespeare in Arts” was led by Dr. Xenia Georgopoulou (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece) who analysed the presence of Shakespearean themes and plots in film, music, ballet and opera together with Mark LaRubio (University of Arizona, US), Dr. Maria-Clara Versiani Galery (Federal University of Ouro, Brazil) and Dr. Srabani Basu (SRM University, India).

The conference concluded with a brief address from the Chair of the ASA, Jasmine Seymour, in which she thanked all the attendants for their participation, and expressed her gratitude to the Mekhitarist Fathers, in particular, to Archbishop Boghos Lévon Zékiyan, for welcoming the ASA’s third Shakespeare conference in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palazzo Zenobio. The Chair of ASA highlighted the importance of the cultural and human exchange in Shakespeare studies in a globalised world from an international, but likewise localised perspective. She emphasised that alongside reputable and renowned academics, the conference welcomed in Venice the next generation of young dedicated Shakespearean scholars, giving them a platform to discuss their on-going doctoral research.

The convivial atmosphere of the entire event extended well into the night hours. The ASA participants indeed seemed to “carry this island home” (The Tempest, 2.1), and the 2019 ASA Venetian a(d)vventurino will remain in their hearts of hearts, a thing most rare.

Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik, Ph.D.Vice-President of the Polish Shakespeare Association Poland

For more information on the Armenian Shakespeare Association, please visit:

or email: [email protected]

Images courtesy of Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik, Jasmine Seymour and Mareike Doleschal.

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