King Lear and Hamlet at Wiko: A tale of two workshops

King Lear and Hamlet at Wiko: A tale of two workshops

By Meredith Reiches, Fellow 2014/2015


Workshop: "Hamlet and Succession"


In 2012 and 2013, the Wissenschaftskolleg hosted two seminars designed to bring humanist scholars and evolutionary biologists into conversation around specific biological concepts and their relationship to seminal works of literature. The concept for the workshops, which focused on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet, sprung from the observation that both humanists and evolutionary biologists regularly concern themselves with the shapes of lives, including but not limited to those of humans. How do lives, for an individual and for a species, take form? What are their possibilities and limits? Permanent fellow Stephen Greenblatt and 2014/2015 fellow Meredith Reiches began to discuss these issues at Harvard in 2010, envisioning ways of bringing humanist scholars and evolutionary biologists into dialog. Together with permanent fellows and experimental biologists Paul Schmid-Hempel and Raghavendra Gadagkar, and with the generous support of the rector and administrative staff, they set out to design the first of what would become two interdisciplinary encounter.

The organizers postulated that any major theme in life history—in 2012, aging in King Lear and, in 2013, generational succession in Hamlet—would generate questions and insights meaningful to researchers across disciplines. The ideal participants, as Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus noted, would bring to the enterprise a considerable fund of curiosity. They would also possess the simultaneous ability to speak from within their own areas of competence and to examine from a critical distance the disciplinary practices and current controversies in their fields.

It seemed to us crucially important that all the participants share the reading of certain texts, and that the texts, scientific and literary, needed to be accessible to critical examination by all discussants. We thought as well that it would be important, in order to avoid the perils of either ballooning generalizations or mutually incompatible discourses, to choose a single one of these shared texts for particular attention. We decided that this text should be a major literary work, since it is far more possible (for reasons worth exploring) for natural scientists to say original things about the grainy details of a great work of art than it is for humanists to say original things about the grainy details of scientific research. Finally, we decided that the setting had to be one that would encourage cross-disciplinary exchange. The Wissenschaftskolleg, which by design brings together scholars from a wide array of disciplines, was the ideal home for our seminar. It is a place that encourages the asking of difficult questions of purpose, means, and accountability – as Andrei Plesu did in our of our first sessions - at the same time that it supports open-ended exploration.

Once we chose our central texts for the first meeting—Shakespeare’s King Lear, G.C. Williams’ 1957 paper on antagonistic pleiotropy, an essay by Gillian Beer on nature and the natural, and an excerpt of Aristotle’s Rhetoric—we identified, with the help of Raghavendra Gadagkhar, Paul Schmid-Hempel, and Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus, invitees from the group of current and recent fellows at the Kolleg. Participants were asked to write an abstract and then, several months later, a short (less than 3000 word) paper which engaged, from their own disciplinary perspectives, with King Lear. While we offered some thoughts on the shape that the questions might take, the field was left intentionally open. The whole enterprise rested on the willingness of everyone – the natural scientists and social scientists, as well as the humanists – to write papers at least nominally centered on Shakespeare’s play, for that joint endeavor served as a shared focal point and an anchor that kept our conversation from spinning off in multiple, unrelated directions.


We compiled a list of possible participants, sent invitations, and established the group. We explained the project and set a deadline for the submission well in advance of our meeting of papers limited to 3000 words and focused on King Lear. Papers were circulated to all participants, who were then assigned to pairs—generally one scientist and one humanist—to respond briefly, in around 500 words, to one another’s work. The goal of these paired exchanges was to encourage conversation prior to the meeting and to identify themes that would be fruitful for discussion. This format was echoed in the shape of the meeting itself, in which authors summarized their papers, respondents gave the key points of their reviews, and discussion then opened to the rest of the group.

The seminars

The Wissenschaftskolleg’s generous support made possible a gathering of current and former fellows in evolutionary anthropology, biology, philosophy, and literature, a group that would not have convened in a traditional disciplinary setting. We were able not only to identify participants among the fellows in residence whose skills and interests best fit with the mission of the meeting, but also to invite scholars from abroad who, without Wiko funding, might not have been able to attend. Furthermore, the extraordinary staff managed the logistical elements of the seminar with tremendous efficiency and kept the organizers up to date on other interdisciplinary events at the Wiko preceding the Lear meeting, allowing us to direct all our energies towards designing the scholarly mission and structure of the meeting and facilitating exchange among the participants in advance of their arrival. These combined freedoms—interdisciplinary latitude and the space to act as intellectual rather than logistical architects—were essential to the wonderful engagement of the meeting.

The meeting’s accomplishments were several. First, it contributed to the body of evidence accruing at the Wiko to address the question: Is it possible for scholars from the natural sciences and scholars from the humanities to engage in sustained, productive, mutually generative conversation? The answer, as we have directly experienced, is a resounding “Yes.” The strategy of shared textual focus on King Lear, juxtaposed with the readings from Aristotle, Gillian Beer, and the evolutionary biology of aging, enabled the participants, from their diverse perspectives, not only to speak to one another but also to make human lives and their endings newly strange and worth exploring.

This fecundity of Shakespeare’s great tragedy led to results that we did not anticipate. Though we did, as we expected, explore the problem of senescence both in King Lear and in nature, we often found ourselves moving in different directions as well. For Alexandre Courtiol, for example, the tragedy pointed to the crucial importance of birth order, on which he was able to cast an intense light. For Monique Borgerhoff-Mulder, a central issue was the power of senior males in a hierarchical society to amass power, wealth, and authority, which they withhold from the young. Raghavendra Gadagkar was struck by the issue of succession - -a succession that does not always depend on age – and he brought to that issue a fascinating array of radically different models to be found among insect species. And Paul Schmid-Hempel focused his attention on the multiple and, on occasion, conflicting models of selfhood that define any individual. None of the these perspectives seemed arbitrary or irrelevant to the play; on the contrary, the tragedy’s astonishing richness invited the biologists and anthropologists to bring to bear their expertise and, at the same time, to link that expertise to other issues that they might ordinarily, for the purposes of their research, bracket or ignore.

The Wiko Lear seminar spurred the group to produce a set of concepts, metaphors, and insights. Stephen Greenblatt, Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus, and Meredith Reiches summarized a sample of themes and questions, though each of the participants and observers, we believe, would have generated a somewhat different list.

  1. Bearing witness. The humanists and the life scientists collectively shared an engagement in bearing witness to life processes, but this witnessing occurs in sharply different settings: field; laboratory; theatre. Each of these represents different methods of observation, manipulation, representation, with different canons of evaluation and success. But perhaps at moments we glimpsed more of a continuum than we might have thought? For example, Raghavendra’s account of killing successive queens in order to see the mechanism of succession eerily resembled Shakespeare’s experimental exploration of succession. Similarly, Jim Hunt’s descriptions of two-way generational cannibalism—wasps that eat their larvae and spiders that eat their mothers—echoed the references to bidirectional cannibalism in King Lear: upon disowning Cordelia, Lear references “he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite”, while Goneril and Regan are “pelican daughters.”
  2. The emotion of multitude. Yeats’ description of Shakespeare’s characteristic effect applied to our shared endeavor. The work of anthropologists and life scientists, like the work of artists, has the effect of expanding the range of imaginative possibilities and contributing to the capacity of sentient beings to increase their perceptions of potential arrangements and conceivable solutions. As Raghavendra boldly claimed, it would have been better for Shakespeare to have known about wasps, and, if we cannot say that it would be better for wasps to know Shakespeare, we can confidently claim it is better for those who study wasps to know him.
  3. Constraints and conditions. Shakespeare’s tragedy is built upon frustration – all that the aging king cannot force his youngest daughter to do; all that holds that younger generation back from their desires. Together we explored birth order (Alexandre Courtiol); kinship/descent (Borgerhoff-Mulder); boundaries of self, or rather of multiple selves (Schmid-Hempel); and above all, trade-offs (Stearns, Gadagkar, and others). The constraints – which include the inevitability of individual extinction and the possibility of group and species extinction - are bound up with the material nature of the universe: nothing will come of nothing, as Lear says, but also everything becomes nothing, or rather is emptied out and redistributed in different structures.
  4. Deceit and self-deception. These concepts, of great moment in evolutionary biology, are interlinked, in literature, with the rhetorical devices of simulation, dissimulation, and emphasis, among others. That linkage could underline the topic of language and rhetoric that is so essential for Shakespeare and that remains, as Klaus Reichert argued, a rich topic for further exploration. Is Cordelia's opposition against the rhetorical epideixis of her sisters not an implicit criticism of rhetoric in general? What are the social and cultural borders that limit the extremism and the deceitfulness of speech?
  5. The promise and dilemma of shared language Life history stories in biology and literature share many points of intersection around issues of sexuality, death, and succession. A topic like the intergenerational cannibalism explored by Catherine Robson represents such a crossing point, and Lear's phobia of female sexuality identified by Steven Stearns another. The extremism of behavior that we observed in Shakespeare's play, identified by Luca Giuliani in contrast to Montaigne’s insistence on moderation, corresponds to many traits in animal life - there is an overlap of themes and perspectives that suggest us to engage in the discussion with one another Such overlaps depend in part on the fact that scientists and humanists deploy powerful shared words, such as “altruism” and “adaptation,” that have different histories and meanings for each discipline. This imprecision of translation brings both obfuscation and a space of opaque creative destabilization to interdisciplinary conversation. Jim Hunt’s critique of Hamilton’s use of the word altruism underlined the extent to which terms may have contested definitions even within disciplines.
  6. Text as data. Excerpting and compiling decontextualized elements of a text that relate to a single theme or structure can shed light on the function of that theme or structure, i.e. compiling instances of Lear’s self-definition or of others’ definitions of Lear can aid us in assembling a sketch of what it means, in the play, to be a “self” (Schmid-Hempel). This approach, as Klaus Reichert demonstrated by recontextualizing the excerpts, may entail reading the text against its own grain. But such a reading may be valuable both within the discourse about the play and as a larger strategy.
  7. Cultural and biological evolution. When asking questions about the adaptiveness of human behavior and physiology, we must consider the extent to which culture exerts selective pressure on the organism, and it is often difficult to disentangle the relative contributions of these types of evolution. We opened up questions raised by the notion of humans as “self-domesticated apes,” as explored by Adam Wilkins among others, and glimpsed tantalizing avenues for future exploration. Furthermore, as Bram Tucker and others pointed out, concepts that are often glossed as biological, such as those of “kin,” have deeply cultural components that can supercede biology—in this case, genetic relatedness.
  8. Continuity and discontinuity among humans and non-human animals. Cross-species comparisons encourage us to examine human patterns with renewed attention and, in our particular context, to focus sharp attention on altruism and what Philip Kitcher called spite or destructiveness. For example, comparing human contests around inter-generational power transfers to queen succession in eusocial insects underlines the extent to which human ways of inheriting or seizing authority are by no means the only evolved strategies. However, policing the boundaries of human uniqueness evokes polarized responses: some regard human traits as a single set of strategies among many, not privileged. Others focus on that uniqueness as a way of locating value in and for a species aware of its own status as material and mortal, shaped by a system that rewards traits only insofar as they promote, directly or indirectly, the transmission of their host’s genes. The failure of the human capacity to distinguish acting from reality (Luca Giuilani) and to express gratitude (Beverly Stearns) were also identified as key to the social avalanche of King Lear.
  9. Disciplinary praxis. What constitutes legitimate forms of discourse within literary and biological disciplines, and why does each tribe adhere to its particular customs? What forms of training and initiation are necessary to be a credible conversant, and how do we work with the asymmetry whereby scientists may speak effectively about literary texts, if in a formally naïve manner, but humanists are not equipped to examine scientific data critically?
  10. Anticipation: What does it mean for an idea, expressed in a play like King Lear, to presage what gets theorized later? As Luca identified, ideas about nature on view in King Lear not only augur what is to come but draw on pre-Christian ideas. We must be mindful of looking back as well as forward, thinking about the non-linear shape of knowledge formation.

The success of the Wiko Lear Workshop and Raghavendra Gadagkar’s interest in questions of succession spurred us to convene a second seminar in 2013, drawing on the interests and questions of the 2012/2013 Fellows class. Using a comparable structure, we convened for a day and a half of intensive discussion of pre-circulated papers, with the addition of two fieldtrips: the first to the Schaubühne where many of us were able to see Thomas Ostermeier’s “Hamlet,” which excluded Fortinbras altogether, thus opening new interpretive possibilities for the play; and the second to the Museum für Naturkunde where, guided by Paul Schmid-Hempel, several participants had the opportunity to situate questions of human evolution in a vast time scale and to encounter directly the materials and spaces of scientific production. We summarize below the ten main points that the organizers extracted from discussion.

  1. Political v. reproductive succession. How do genetic and other forms of passage of power segregate? Systems of governance need not be connected to heredity, evolutionary anthropology demonstrates; transmission of property rather than genes is crucial, though marriage systems have evolved as systems of linking wealth transmission to genetic fitness. Why, in that case, is father-son lineage “natural?” And why should there exist a compulsion to reproduce when it is understood that children will not resemble their parents? Hamlet mythically represents this double perception with Hamlet 1 followed by Hamlet 2 and Fortinbras 1 followed by Fortinbras 2, while the play is characterized by total accident and contingency with no reproduction whatsoever. Reproductive succession is subverted utterly, in fact, except in the case of Fortinbras. The language used around reproductive succession shows the distancing effect of abstraction by using the definite article, while language about political succession uses indefinite articles.
  2. Questions of interpretation in the play. A set of interpretive questions arose around Gertrude: The play gives no backstory or lineage; where does Gertrude come from? Her centrality is not only sexual but political, encapsulated in the mysterious neologism “jointress.” What does it mean for Gerturde to be a jointress? Does it mean that she acted quickly to determine the succession so that she could remain regent? Are we to understand her as one who joins two worlds, as Jenabai, an elderly female bootlegger and police informer, gives mafia boss Dawood Ibrahim a connection to the legitimate world? Further questions concerned knowledge and motivation: Does the text support the possibility that Gertrude was aware of Claudius’s murder of Old Hamlet prior to Young Hamlet’s revelation? Is Gertrude of childbearing age, and at what level does that question operate? Are our assumptions about it important to our understanding of the play? If not, why not? Further questions concerned the valence of setting in interpretation. To what extent is the elective monarchy of the Danish court the important political framework for the play relative to the hereditary monarchy of Early Modern Britain? How are we to understand Old and Young Hamlet’s labeling the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude as incest? Does the text support the possibility that Claudius is in fact Hamlet’s father? What is Horatio’s relation to the Danish court, particularly the monarchs? How does the story Horatio recounts differ from what Hamlet requested, if in fact it is? Is Hamlet’s interiority a waste product of the plot or the play’s central factor?
  3. Time and history. What is the human place in time, and how do we handle its shallows and depths? Hamlet works not on literal but on generational, imperial, and eschatological time. It plays with the use of time later found in novels, i.e. the interim between actions, while most plays showcase action. What, though, is the time span of a generation? Just as interpreters wrestle with the figure of “thirty” for Hamlet’s age, uncertain how literally to take it, so the dilation of the time of the play creates uneasiness alongside the certainty—but is it certain?—that the play will end as it does. The historical moment in which the play was written bears the imprint of the Lutheran Reformation, which foregrounded the apocalypse. However, the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is far enough from its origins for its ending plausibly to startle audiences. The invocation of the Reformation connects to a question about how history can be used when talking about a literary text: Is the aim to juxtapose events or to contextualize them? What is the relationship of embeddedness—historical rootedness—to transcendence, the play’s ability to speak across time? Another literary effect wrought with time is the inclusion of roads not taken; we can experience a longing for “what might have been.” Biologists struggle with changeability in history, seeking to understand why behaviors like patricide are sometimes prevalent and socially condoned and at other times forbidden.
  4. Kin selection. Kin selection, the idea that selection will promote actions that benefit not only the ego but the carrier of ego’s genes, has been complicated and qualified as an explanatory paradigm. It is in fact a special case of the rules governing social interactions in which actors incur costs and accrue benefits; in the kin selection model, the term representing genetic relatedness may be overvalued. It is also under-contextualized: the key frame of reference is “relatedness of actors with respect of background relatedness in the population.” However, the level at which selection acts—the gene, the organism, the hive—is not stable, just as the probability of paternity is not stable. While some see movement in systems of succession or social organization as transitions between equilibria, others regard transition as the default state. The latter vision has much in common with the ecological perspective, which recognizes the gene as the thing being transmitted but not necessarily the locus of selection; we not only inherit environments, which exert selective forces on us, but we comprise one another’s environments across species, such that we are both the targets of selection and the selective pressures at work on others. Kin selection models have struggled historically to account for the power of non-genetic and non-reproductive relationships of the sort eulogized by Hamlet when he holds Yorick’s skull. It is a father-son moment but without the father-son relationship.
  5. How do “nature/natural” function? The words “nature” and “natural” appear to be tied to questions of legitimacy that emanate from varying sources depending on the historical moment and the status of civic law. Regardless of this variation, they represent policing of the boundaries of the normative; “against nature” and “unnatural” point to deviance in an ideological vein and freeze action, as in the eternally incomplete tasks of Hades. At the same time, the words did not, in the Early Modern period, constitute a normative or desirable category; it was seen as unnatural for kings to crawl in their infancy, though this is a developmental phase through which humans pass. Rank, in this case, informed the understanding of the valence of nature or what constitutes natural. The danger located in natural emerges, too, in its contrast with custom, as in Hamlet’s claim that custom transforms nature in his injunction to Gertrude to absent herself from Claudius’s bed. At the same time, Hamlet declares that his conduct with his mother should be cruel but not unnatural, using nature as the line across which one commits morally reprehensible acts. Claudius, meanwhile, destabilizes the concept of nature both by using its rhetoric for self-justification and by “naturalizing” through marriage to Gertrude his transition from the underworld of power hunger to the over-world of legitimate rule.
  6. Methods. Franco Moretti points out that the humanists’ focus on Hamlet as a text and the scientists’ emphasis on producing and testing generalizable models poses a challenge to sustained, focused dialog. How do we talk productively when one set of readers is trained to read “in” while the other is trained to read “out”? Among the humanists, there arose questions of form: What happens when we read a play as a novel, a bildungsroman? Unlike a novel of any kind, a play must answer the question: What can be performed? Form is an important question in light of other “counterfactuals” that would shift the premise of analysis: just as conceiving of the large, egg-laying member of a hive as a king or as a Mrs. rather than a queen might change the way scientists describe and investigate apian behavior, so alternative models of organization of a play (a re-telling focused on the consciousness of Laertes, for example) would alter criticism entirely. Additionally, when examining the frequency of words in a play, as Franco did with speeches about succession in Hamlet and as Paul did with language about self in Lear, how does one account for context in order to quantify the words’ valence? In noting the use of anthropomorphic (“individual; heir designate”) and optative (“know”) language in Raghavendra’s work on wasps, Margreta De Grazia draws attention to the shared literary and biological tendency to ascribe action to will, even as Hamlet depicts the process of succession as an outcome of chance or mischance. Methodologically, she notes, the bridging of distance between wasp and human is perhaps less perilous than the collapse of “real” individual with literary character; while the natural and social sciences strive to describe a world available to the senses, theater stages the sensational, preferring fantasy to faithful replication.
  7. What do fictional representations do to evolutionary models? On one hand, art can be regarded as a useful counterfactual, a place to explore “what if.” Through another lens, literature establishes norms. This account situates literature as a reflection of underlying patterns and a data source for measuring those patterns. Alternately, fictional representations may be seen as tests of an evolutionary model: Does literature meet predictions of the model? Fictional representations in addition may destabilize the artificial division between culture and biology, highlighting, for example, the ways in which kinship is not only biological but also fictional, as when Hamlet says to the Ghost, “I’ll call thee father,” and Claudius declares to Hamlet, “I’ll call thee son.”
  8. Humanists should be interested in biology as a human product, but why should biologists read humanist texts? Humanist texts throw up paradoxes; there may be much biological models can’t explain. Literary texts point out the inadequacies of the theory. In this sense, they are data points; this account attributes value to plot but not to form or style. The question here assumes that biology is of interests to humanists, given that humans produce it, and, if so, why? What do humanists learn from individual biology texts?
  9. Classical context for Hamlet. Rather than Oedipus, Orestes may be an apt model for understanding Hamlet, given the focus on inappropriate sexuality in a mother in both and the flirtation of Hamlet with matricide (while Orestes is enjoined to carry it out), though the primary conflict in Hamlet is with Claudius, not with Gertrude, and though Claudius had no reason to kill Old Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s rendering, commensurate with Clytemnestra’s motive to kill Agamemnon. It is possible that the name Claudius gestures to Gertrude’s likeness with Agrippina, Nero’s mother. Hamlet’s attack on Gertrude precipitates the violence that caps the play. Classical literature also grapples with the natural biological law of succession, pitting fathers against sons; in the works of classical writers such as Aristophanes, fathers, who resent their sons and fear the sons will kill them, are victorious. Finally, a primary difference between Hamlet and Greek tragedy is the absence, in Hamlet, of knowable truth; the play contains no court where we can determine what Gertrude knew when, whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were aware that they bore the order for Hamlet’s death, etc.
  10. Succession in the text. In the text, the characters who speak the greatest percentage of their words about succession are the player king, player queen, and Ghost. While succession is important enough as a theme to devote two characters entirely to its airing, it is worth noting that they speak of reproductive but not political succession and that their language is clumsy relative to the rest of the play, relegating them to the status of backdrops to the antics of the mousetrap for which an audience will be watching. When Hamlet speaks about succession, he uses indefinite articles. Gertrude never speaks about succession. How do we interpret this sort of evidence? It is an instance of a play’s central concerns not being articulated as such by its main characters, perhaps contributing to the impression that the play is “about” individual interiority rather than external systems of inheritance and status transfer.

On the heels of the two Shakespeare and evolutionary biology seminars, issues related not only to the specific texts but also to the nature and possible products of interdisciplinary discourse remain. The seminars have inflected the current book projects of their organizers, Stephen Greenblatt and Meredith Reiches, both of whom are examining the interactions between religious or literary narrative on one hand and, on the other, the Darwin-inspired paradigms that place humanity in an integrated and decentralized relation to the rest of the living world.

Process and perspective

Global history is both an object of study and a particular way of looking at history: it is both a process and a perspective, a subject matter and a methodology. In this Janus-faced character, it resembles other fields/approaches in the discipline, such as social history and gender history. In practice, the two dimensions are usually linked, but for heuristic purposes, we can keep them apart. Generally put, we can differentiate between global history as the perspective of historians, as the perspective of historical actors, and as a scale of the historical process itself. (12)

When historians opt for a global perspective, they in some ways create the global that is at issue. This is apparent in the case of comparisons, in particular when such comparisons do not rely on exchange between both cases or on strong causal links. If we compare, to take a typical example, the Roman Empire and Han China, the global perspective is entirely in the eye of the beholder. There were hardly any significant links between these two cases, and an encompassing world economy had not yet emerged. When we then compare the strategies of conquest and border control and of population management and the negotiation of ethnic and religious difference, we need to assume a global history of empire as the yardstick against which to measure both cases. The “global” can then not be read off the historical record, but is a construct of the historian.

In general, global history is one perspective among others. It is a heuristic device that allows posing questions and generating answers that are different from those created by other approaches. The history of slavery in the Atlantic world is a good example. Historians have inquired into the social history of the slave population, their working conditions, and their community formation. They have used a gender approach to speak about families and childhood, sexuality and masculinity. The economic history of slavery has been very prolific, focusing on productivity rates, on life standards compared with other workers and indentured servants, and on the macro-economic impact of plantation production. However, the experience of slavery and the slave trade can also be placed in a global context. Apart from the issues already mentioned, this would put different issues on the agenda: the creation of a transatlantic space in the “Black Atlantic;” the repercussions of the trade on societies in West Africa; the connections to complementary slave routes across the Sahara and the Indian Ocean; the comparison with other forms of enslavement; and so forth. Global history as a perspective highlights particular dimensions of the slave experience, while potentially being less attentive to others.

An important effect of treating global history also as a perspective is that research does not necessarily have to encompass the entire globe. This is an important caveat. The rhetoric of the global may suggest limitless coverage; but many topics are best studied in more confined spaces. This also means that most global history approaches do not attempt to replace the established paradigm of national history with an abstract totality of the “world,” i.e., to write a total history of the planet. It is often more a matter of writing a history of demarcated, i.e., non-“global,” spaces, but with an awareness of global connections and structural conditions. Global history, then, is not a synonym for macro-history. The most interesting questions often arise at the intersection of global processes and their local manifestations.

On the other hand, however, global history is not solely a perspective. Any attempt to contextualize globally will have to consider the degree and quality of the entanglements of the world. The implications of the Vienna stock market crash in 1873 were not the same as those of the economic crises of 1929 and 2008 – simply because the degree to which the world economy and the media were integrated in the 1870s had not yet attained the density of later years. In this respect, global-history-as-perspective is also, often implicitly, tied to assumptions about the ability of cross-border structures to impact on events and on societies. We will return to this tension between process and perspective in the chapters that follow. (13)

Promises and limits

The global history trend currently seems unlikely to halt, and it has already helped to bring about some significant changes in historical scholarship. One clear indication of this is the fact that the major history journals, such as the American Historical Review and Past & Present, have increasingly published work in this new field. Global history has long ceased to be merely a niche or sub-discipline; it has turned into a broad trend that extends to both research and teaching. Specialized journals, book series, and conferences have created forums for scholars to exchange ideas and discuss research. These forums do not exist in parallel to the rest of the discipline; they are not a luxury that one must be able to afford. This differs from the situation even in the twentieth century, when “world history” was an occupation of established and generally older historians. Today even dissertations may pursue a global agenda. The approach has also entered teaching, in individual seminars or entire degree courses. It is also interesting to note that the debate is advanced in very diverse quarters. Environmental and economic historians are as interested in the global historical context as social and cultural historians. A global history perspective can essentially be integrated into all aspects of historical scholarship.

In the light of the interconnectedness of today’s world, it is difficult to imagine that this trend could simply be reversed anytime soon. At the same time, there are also many obstacles to overcome. Institutionally, creating space for the new approach may remain an arduous process. Even in Western Europe or the United States, it can by no means be taken for granted that the discipline of history, so heavily dominated by the history of the nation, will be open to concerns of a global historical scope. And even where global perspectives have garnered general support, they compete with other approaches for funds and positions. Every hire in global history may mean sacrificing a position in medieval history or other time-honored fields of the national past. Global history does not come for free. (14)

All in all, the rise of global perspectives is an important development that helps us move away from a merely partial view of reality. As territorial boundaries can no longer be assumed as given, history as a result has become more complex. In retrospect, some older studies may come to seem like discussions of a football match that look at only one of the two teams, to say nothing of other factors such as the audience, weather conditions, and league ranking. Global history opens up a view of processes that were for a long time invisible, or at least considered irrelevant, within the knowledge systems of the academy.

In important ways, then, this is a welcome and in some respects even liberating development. However, here, too, the adage applies that everything new comes at a price. A global history approach is not a panacea or a passe-partout. Not every research question requires a global perspective; not always is the global context the most central. Not everything is linked and connected to everything else. It is therefore important not to regard global history as an absolute – neither the historiographical perspective nor the reach and density of the entanglements it explores. In every situation, a whole range of forces are at play, and the cross-border, let alone global, processes are not a priori the most important of them. Many phenomena will continue to be studied in concrete, precisely demarcated contexts. It will be difficult to go back and to forsake the insights that the global turn has generated. At the same time, the rise of global history must not cause us to lose sight of historical actors who were not integrated in extensive networks and to turn them into victims of a current obsession with mobility, circulation, and flows.