The World of Conversion and the Conversion of the World: Shakespeare and China

Seminar/Forum

The World of Conversion and the Conversion of the World:  Shakespeare and China

Linked presentations by Benjamin Schmidt and Paul Yachnin

The World of Conversion: Shakespeare

Paul Yachnin is Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

For more than a century up to and including Shakespeare’s time, conversion was the centerpiece of religious, social, and political life. It was also a site of crisis. How could Spanish Christian authorities be sure that the conversions they had compelled their Jewish subjects to undergo would stick? The same kinds of challenges dogged the conversional programs in the Americas and also through the sixteenth century in Britain as the population, including Shakespeare’s family, was harried back and forth by wholesale shifts in the confessional identity of the Church.

Shakespeare mined the resources of problematized conversion from The Taming of the Shrew to The Tempest, where characters such as Katherine and Caliban grow deeper on account of the undecidability of their conversions. Shakespeare did not un-tether conversion from religion, but he let out so much line that conversion came to live and signify primarily in particular characters and in their particular stories. By relocating conversion to plays that were almost emptied of religious doctrine but were nevertheless filled with religious language, thought, and emotion, Shakespeare created a world in which playgoers found themselves free to think feelingly about the individual and collective crisis of conversion through which they were living.

The Conversion of the World: China/china

Benjamin Schmidt is the Giovanni & Amne Costigan Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington in Seattle (USA).

In January 1708, Europe triumphantly discovered China/china. That is, nearly half a millennium after the departure of the Polo brothers for the East and the ensuing, energetic, enterprising pursuit by Europeans of China, an alchemist sequestered in a dungeon in Dresden managed to produce hard-paste porcelain, thus solving the ancient arcanum of Asian ceramics. This discovery marked a critical change in material arts and the production of china, of course; yet it also sparked a fundamental shift in Europe's conception of China—and, ultimately, of the world. This talk looks at the alchemical moment of Meissen (as the new porcelain would be called) in the context of evolving European conceptions of its place in the world—as a form of geo-conversion of broad-reaching repercussions. It draws connections between material arts and geography, and it argues that an essential shift in global imagination took place in sync with the technological innovations, material productions, and decorative strategies developed in Meissen. It narrates, in short, an alchemical drama—a veritable conversion—that changed the world.

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