Five Things to Know about Global Shakespeare

AArden Handbookdaptations of the classics not only creates channels between geographic spaces but also connects different time periods. Performing Shakespeare in different languages opens up new pathways to some often glossed over textual cruxes in Anglophone traditions.

Take, The Tempest, for example. What exactly do Prospero and Miranda teach Caliban? The word “language” is ambiguous in act 1 scene 2 (Caliban: “You taught me language …”). It is often taken to mean his master’s language (a symbol of oppression). But it can also mean rhetoric and political speech writing, a new tool for him to change the world order. One way to excavate the different layers of meanings within the play and in performances is to compare different stage and film versions from different parts of the world. Caliban’s word, “language,” is translated by Christoph Martin Wieland as redden, or “speech” in German. In Japanese, it is rendered as “human language”, as opposed to languages of the animal or computer language.

Global studies enable us to examine deceivingly harmonious images of Shakespeare. We can better understand global Shakespeare through the key concepts of race, gender, censorship and redaction, genre, and politics of reception.

As powerful as the Shakespearean oeuvre may be in its canonical status in many cultures, it has historically been subjected to editorial redactions and censorship. Contrary to popular imagination, censorship is not a top-down operation. It is a communal phenomenon involving both the censors and the receivers who willingly accept the Shakespeare that has been improved upon. Shakespeare’s words have been used to divert around censorship, ‘sanitized’ and redacted for children, young adults and school use. While censors have reacted differently to Shakespeare, self-censorship by directors and audiences is part of the picture as well.

The phenomenon of censorship leads us to transformations of genres in Shakespeare’s oeuvre and in world literature. A society’s aversion to a genre reveals the exigencies of an age. In contemporary, post-Holocaust, post-911, post-Brexit Anglo-European contexts, it is difficult to imagine The Merchant of Venice as a comedy—at any character’s expense—as it was performed on the late sixteenth-century stage. The Māori Merchant of Venice (dir. Don Selwyn, He Taonga Films, 2002) presents the narrative as a colonial allegory. The suffering of Waihoroi Shortland’s Hairoka (Shylock) parallels the subjugation of Māori at the hands of British settlers in New Zealand who forced the Maori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. In the Japanese tradition of performing The Merchant of Venice, the play is often retooled as a romantic comedy, a Bildungsroman of an attractive woman lawyer, or an outlandish tale involving a pound of human flesh.

Embodiment—the act of bringing characters to life through actors’ bodies—is a key factor in the creation of global Shakespeare. The first element of embodiment we will examine is gender. Performances of gender in a global context shed light on some of Shakespeare’s most iconic female characters, including Viola, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia. Ophelia has historically been performed both as an innocent ‘rose of May’ and a sexually aware singer in Act 4 of Hamlet. Both her lyric sufferings and her suicide-as-resistance-to-the-patriarchy enabled contrasting interpretations. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film Hamlet cuts Ophelia’s soliloquy to make her seem even more powerless and vulnerable. In one scene an angry Hamlet pushes Ophelia down the stairs, making her literally a fallen woman.

Gender issues intersect with racial identities in performance, because both gender and race are markings of difference. It is one thing for Indian actors to perform Shakespeare in India, where the actor is not part of a minority. It is quite another to do Shakespeare in a country where one is perceived to be non-mainstream (such as Yellow Earth Theatre’s Mandarin-English bilingual King Lear in Stratford-upon-Avon) or in the United States (such as American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb, Anacostia Playhouse, 2015; Young Jean Lee’s Lear, Soho Rep, New York, 2010; and Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s pan-Asian Winter’s Tale, dir. Desdemona Chiang, 2016) where classic theatre is assumed to be aligned with some versions of upper-middle-class white masculine culture.

The oeuvre of Shakespeare has been used to initiate reparative discourses about race. In particular, King Lear has frequently been adapted in this vein. Anthony Sher and John Kani’s play Kunene and the King (Stratford-upon-Avon and Cape Town, 2019; a co-production of the RSC and Fugard Theatre) depicts how two characters come to terms with ageing, cultural biases and their mortality through situations that parallel those in Lear and their re-enactment of scenes from the play. Kunene and the King features Lunga, a South African black male nurse, and Jack, an ill-tempered white actor coping with terminal liver cancer in South Africa. Throughout the play they recite passages from King Lear to expose each other’s cultural biases and eventually reconcile their differences. They rehearse South African racial histories through the text of Lear as well.

For intercultural films and stage works, there is often a gap between artistic intent and audience response. The gap is less visible in relatively homogenous contexts (such as a Royal Shakespeare Company’s production in Stratford-upon-Avon), but it is enlarged in contexts where artists and audiences do not share the same cultural heritage. Some directors find these accidental meanings productive, while others resist being pigeonholed or profiled on the basis of their cultural origins. This phenomenon can produce the artistically positive effects of flipping stereotypes and offering an alternative pathway into a classic work with established interpretations (e.g. postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest). Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado about Nothing (RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 2012), for example, was set in contemporary Delhi and performed by a cast of second-generation Indian British actors. The production appropriated Bollywood-inspired music. Within the context of the UK’s World Shakespeare Festival, it was quickly compared by the press to two touring productions at the London Globe from the Indian subcontinent that were perceived to be more authentic, including Company Theatre’s Hindi adaptation of Twelfth Night (dir. Atul Kumar) at the London Globe’s 2012 World Shakespeare Festival.



Excerpted from Alexa Alice Joubin, “Global Studies.” The Arden Research Handbook of Contemporary Shakespeare Criticism, ed. Evelyn Gajowski (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), pp. 247-261. Full text freely available.