Professors present on Shakespeare and Beowulf at conference

Elise Wennberg—Staff Writer

When thinking about early British literature a few key writings may come to mind. Maybe Beowulf, Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton. However, there are a lot of topics within early British literature that intrigue scholars and academics across the world. 

From April 16-17, Dordt University held the 28th Northern Plains Conference on Early British Literature hosted by Dr. Bob De Smith, and English professor at Dordt. The conference featured 24 papers presented by academics from all over the world. 

“One of my reasons for bringing the conference to campus was to make it accessible to students, that was very important to me, and then to give an opportunity to my colleagues to participate in any way either coming to listen or to present,” De Smith said.

“I thought the virtual attendees would be kind of in and out, and there was some of that, but there were a lot of people who just sat through the whole conference,” De Smith said, “And any time in between papers they were just yammering all the time; it was just fun to see.”

Of the papers presented, three of them were presented by Dordt professors: Scott Culpepper, Walker Cosgrove, and Shaun Stiemsma. 

Culpepper’s paper, titled “Shakespeare’s Historians: Getting to Know the Chroniclers Who Inspired the Bard,” focused on the unbiased and biased writers within the realm of history. 

Here’s a summary of the paper: whereas academic historians take an unbiased position on historical events, laying out all the facts and sides to history, the historians of Shakespeare’s time took dramatic license with the events using omission, invention, and insertion. Instead of just looking at the facts, these historians let their conclusion or focus influence the end point of the story; they use the narrative for present day uses, not just uses for that period, while being historically curious. 

Cosgrove’s paper, titled “The Monsters and the Translators: An Apologia for the Study of History,” focused on the idea of demonizing the “other” rather than understanding their perspective. Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf does well to view Grendel’s mother as a woman; however, it falls short to do the same to the male warriors in the epic poem.  

Here’s a summary of the paper: Through Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf, a reading of Grendel’s mother as a woman warrior rather than a monster comes into fruition, giving a human aspect to what most people see as a beast. Seeing the “other” as a human can be achieved when someone distances themselves from the “other,” looking at their views from a different perspective, can give way to empathy, hospitality, humility, and charity. Instead of essentializing on one aspect, people need to look at the whole picture, just as Headley looks at Grendel’s mother not as a beast, but as a woman. 

Steimsma’s paper, titled, “‘All Form is Formless, Order Orderless’: Marriage as Comic Resolution in Troublesome Reign and King John,” focuses on the changes Shakespeare made to the original play and how marriage is usually used as a comic resolution.

Here’s a summary of the paper: In adapting Troublesome Reign, Shakespeare shifts the original play’s emphasis on the church’s role in the failed peace treaty between England and France. In revealing that “form is formless, order orderless,” Shakespeare manipulates the convention of marriage as comic resolution to political problems in King John, taking what is a relatively simple tragic inversion of the comic mode in Troublesome Reign and making it a layered and ironic attack on the entire notion of personal marriage union as a solution to political division.

Those who attended the conference appreciated and enjoyed hearing from other scholars on their work. For students, it was a chance to learn what their professors were researching outside of class.

“These kinds of things are very reenergizing; you get to hear different viewpoints. And professors, we teach all the time, but there’s really this sense where you to be able to fill your mind and heart to deliver things well to students,” Culpepper said, “If you’re going to guide students, you need to be taught yourself and to continuing teaching yourself, so opportunities like this are very good at just kind of priming the pump, hoping to get rejuvenated by interacting with other people.”

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