As we continue to showcase contemporary perspectives on Shakespeare and his world, today’s VOICES post sees the first in a three-part series by scholar, Calyx Clifford, who explores the ideological role of Shakespeare on the global stage and in the classroom.
During the Renaissance, William Shakespeare may only have been known as the man from Stratford, albeit a successful but relatively anonymous player and playwright. Nowadays, his name is celebrated across the world, hailed as a literary genius whose works are as relevant today as they were during the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century.
Shakespeare is synonymous with his native homeland, England. Every year, millions of tourists flock to The Globe in the Southwark district of London or make the journey to pay their respects at his grave in Stratford-upon-Avon. While America too has established their cultural relationship with the Bard; his words have been quoted by presidents, inspired political activists and have also garnered new audiences through new mediums, resulting in an array of blockbuster films (Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet, anyone?!).
The extraordinary festival demonstrated just how broad Shakespeare’s appeal is and how his words can cross cultural and political barriers, but has his work always been recognized and respected?
But what about the rest of the world? The recent success of Shakespeare’s Globe’s ambitious project, ‘Globe to Globe’, saw the 37 plays performed in 37 languages. Over 600 actors took part, performing in their native tongue, united through their love of Shakespeare. This extraordinary festival demonstrated just how broad Shakespeare’s appeal is and how his words can cross cultural and political barriers, but has his work always been recognized and respected?
When Laurence Olivier directed Henry V as part of England’s WWII propaganda campaign, you may be surprised to learn that England’s adversary, Germany, had already staked a claim on the Bard, positioning him as one of their own literary greats, with racial scientist’s studying his portrait and declaring his Germanic ancestry.
According to Korte and Spittel in their article Shakespeare under Different Flags, Germany, ‘”naturalized” the Bard, firmly integrating him into their own culture’ and was ‘accorded an eminent place in the evolution of a German national literature’. To this day he remains an imposing figure on the German stage and in German schools. Since the eighteenth-century, Korte and Spittel claim that German appropriations of Shakespeare have been ‘created and re-created to serve all political formations on German soil, including the Third Reich and the GDR, where Shakespeare was contested, but never abandoned’.
The German cultural community felt as though Shakespeare and his ideals better represented the political motivations of their own country than they ever did his homeland. The Merchant of Venice (Der Kaufmann von Venedig) was even adapted to include the Race Law of 1935 to uphold and demonstrate Germany’s disapproval of the inter-faith relationship of Jessica and Lorenzo.
Shakespeare also found prominence in other Eastern European countries, including Russia, where he was first introduced in the eighteenth century. During this time Shakespeare’s plays became political casualties with Alexander II (1818-1881) going so far as to ban productions of Julius Caesar from Russian stages as a result of the play’s themes of republicanism and the assassination of a dictator. While in the Communist bloc, Shakespeare found himself generously funded by Communist authorities, whilst being strictly policed.
From East to West, countries and cultures have both welcomed Shakespeare and claimed his as their own, placing the poet in their theatres, on their bookshelves, and in their classrooms
In countries struggling with oppression, some productions were forced to uphold sanctioned dogma, while some productions attempted to subversively express provocative politics.
Hamlet is the primary play which came to possess great political influence for many countries in Eastern Europe, including the Czech lands. For these countries it was a matter of proving that the Czech language translations were important enough to be read and watched. Prior to the first printed play in the Czech language, Macbeth in 1786 published by K.H. Thám, Shakespeare was only performed and read in the German language. The Czech language was predominantly the language of the lower classes, therefore, as translations of Shakespeare’s plays became more accessible to the Czech people, there was a rise in linguistic nationalism as Thám and his compatriots encouraged not only the spreading of the language but also the improvement and education of the nation.
In countries such as Japan, China, Korea and India, Shakespeare was instrumental in the quest to move away from feudal thought, and was also an ally in anti-colonial struggles. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century, Japan, China, and Korea were all members of feudalistic societies. The emerging generations began reading Shakespeare’s works and saw the plays as examples of overcoming the feudal hierarchy and bringing about cultural change and modernization. But despite the nationalistic appropriations of Shakespeare by these countries, global politics and cultural ideologies clashed during World War II, especially in Japan and China, where his works vanished from both the stage and the bookstore. However, a recent resurgence in Shakespeare has seen a revival of his popularity in the Orient.
From East to West, countries and cultures have both welcomed Shakespeare and claimed his as their own, placing the poet in their theatres, on their bookshelves, and in their classrooms. From 1589 to 1613, Shakespeare brought to life the cultural anxieties of the era in which he lived and though he no longer has the power to, his plays continue to highlight the trials and tribulations of contemporary society. The potentially subversive political and cultural interpretations that his plays foster still hold the power to unite or undermine nation states the world over, making Shakespeare the moral battleground on which global politics, culture and ethical issues are fought.
In 1599, when penning the popular comedy As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote those now illustrious words ‘All the world’s a stage’, in which one man ‘in his time plays many parts’. Four hundred years later, the world remains Shakespeare’s stage, but it is he more than any actor who has been compelled to play many roles and as his plays continue to find meaning and significance in foreign countries and cultures across the globe, he will, no doubt, continue to do so.
Next week: Calyx discusses the role of Shakespeare in the classroom.
Calyx Clifford graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with an MA in English Literature. Her dissertation investigated the appropriation of Shakespeare in English and American Secondary Schools. She has recently returned to the US to complete her Masters in Education.