Global Shakespeare

Shakespeare adapted and borrowed from the stories and traditions of other countries, and in turn his plays have been adapted, translated and performed all over the world. Andrew Dickson considers Shakespeare's global reach, and the reactions his plays have received in different countries and centuries.

In Shakespeare’s writing, ‘world’ is a tantalising and somewhat elusive word. ‘O / how full of briers is this working-day world!’ (1.3.11–12) sighs Rosalind in As You Like It: an image of it as humdrum, almost forgettably ordinary. Miranda in The Tempest, altogether more optimistic, turns the idea smartly around: ‘O brave new world / That has such people in’t!’ (5.1.183–84) she exclaims, seeing a party of well-dressed Italian courtiers abruptly arrive on the rocky island where she has been brought up.

In the late play Antony and Cleopatra – a text in which ‘world’ occurs more than any other – worlds are bought and sold, won and lost. Philo talks of the heroic Antony as ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (1.1.12); Antony himself casually declares to his new Roman wife Octavia that ‘the world and my great office will / Sometimes divide me from your bosom’. Once Antony is dead, Cleopatra laments: ‘His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear’d arm / Crested the world’ (5.2.82–83).

The word seems to encompass both everything and nothing – perhaps unsurprising, given that Shakespeare was the house dramatist of a theatre called the Globe, whose motto was legendarily totus mundus agit histrionem, translated by Jaques as ‘all the world’s a stage’ (As You Like It, 2.7.139).[1] I can summon whole worlds, the playwright seems to say, and make them vanish again as you watch.

Engraved view of London by C J Visscher showing the Globe

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

According to legend, the motto of the Globe theatre was ‘all the world’s a stage’.

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The story of global Shakespeare is similarly fascinating, and similarly difficult to pin down. It offers a riddle: how a middle-class man from the English Midlands who never journeyed outside England (as far as biographers are aware) became perhaps the most translated and travelled author in history. Shakespeare’s texts have been adapted into languages from Armenian to Zulu, Brazilian Portuguese to isiXhosa. They were some of the earliest dramas filmed in India, and travelled across East Asia and Africa in the 19th century in storybook versions intended for children. Shakespeare was the most performed dramatist on the frontiers of the emerging United States, and is venerated with near-religious zeal in Russia and Germany. In China people talk of Shashibiya or ‘Old Man Sha’, in Poland, of Szekspir, in Japan, of Sheykuspia. Run your fingers over many world cultures and, sooner or later, you will touch something that feels Shakespearean. Cultures out of this world, too: Hamlet, infamously, has been translated into Klingon.[2]

Photograph of a Palestinian-Israeli Romeo and Juliet, 1994

Photograph from a Palestinian-Israeli Romeo and Juliet, 1994

This production of Romeo and Juliet was jointly produced by the Al-Kasaba Theatre in Ramalla and the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem.

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All at sea?

Perhaps appropriately, the beginning of the story is itself a riddle. Speculation surrounds the theory that in September 1607 an East India Company vessel called the Red Dragon, anchored in Sierra Leone en route to Indonesia, was the venue for the first performance of a Shakespeare play outside England. The ship’s crew are recorded to have performed a version of Hamlet, following this premiere with Richard II three weeks later. Unfortunately, the evidence for this thespian feat has perished – the few surviving documents in the British Library contain no reference to it – and, though some scholars have passionately defended it, the story is now thought to be a 19th-century forgery.[3]

Far more likely is the theory that Shakespeare’s scripts (or versions of them) were toured across northern Europe in the late 16th and early 17th century by travelling bands of English and German actors, where they were freely adapted and blended with local dramas: an image of Shakespearean drama not as an English export, but as part of a more subtle cultural exchange that flowed between mainland Europe and England in the Renaissance period.[4]

Travelling players in the friendship album of Franz Hartmann

Travelling players in the Friendship Album of Franz Hartmann

A miniature painting which possibly depicts English players on their way to perform at the Frankfurt fair, 1597–1617.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The illusion of geography

It is easy to forget that this exchange flowed both ways. As a grammar-school boy brought up in the Protestant faith, Shakespeare himself benefitted from the developments in humanism pioneered on the Continent, in which skill in translatio was highly prized. He will have been drilled in Latin and Greek from a young age, and later seems to have picked up Italian and French (his skills in the latter language may have been honed in his late 30s, when he lodged in London with a family of French Huguenot expats, the Mountjoys).[5] Many of the plays show familiarity with foreign-language sources, notably Montaigne’s Essais and collections of tales such as Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommathi and François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques. Even that doughtily English play Henry V features most of a scene in French (not to mention characters who speak versions of Scots, Irish and Welsh). Indeed, Shakespeare seems actively to have avoided writing about the England of his own time: the only drama he locates in England from first to last is The Merry Wives of Windsor, and even that features cameos from a loquacious Welsh parson and a fast-talking Frenchman. Later in his career, with romances such as Pericles (a beguiling journey around the Levant) and The Tempest (notionally set in the Mediterranean yet also somehow in the Bermudas), he maps wider worlds still.[6]

Hamlet, published by the Cranach-Presse

Illustrations for Hamlet by Edward Gordon Craig

This lavish edition of Hamlet (1928) combines Shakespeare’s text with extracts from his Latin and French sources. Part of Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques is printed in the margin of this page.

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Held by© The Edward Gordon Craig Estate

It might be objected that Shakespeare’s grasp of geography is hardly literal – Measure for Measure, though its brothels and flophouses are notionally Viennese, is surely Jacobean Southwark by another name, and The Winter’s Tale boldly equips Bohemia (present-day central Poland) with a sea coast. Yet perhaps this is one clue as to why the plays have travelled so far in the centuries since the playwright’s death. For a dramatist operating in the bare-stage conditions of Jacobethan theatre, when the only thing required to whisk audiences from Rome to Egypt is a few lines of text, or when a brief burst of music can herald anything from a battle in the ancient world to the descent of a god from the heavens, geography was a fluid and gorgeously illusionistic concept, a conjuring trick requiring what Henry V’s Chorus calls ‘imaginary puissance’ (Epilogue, l. 25). The plays seem to have openness encoded in their very DNA. Add to that a more literal kind of openness – their dramaturgical adaptability and flexibility, required by Shakespeare’s colleagues’ need to perform at everything from the royal court to alehouses – and one begins to see why they might have survived in so many forms and places today.

Map of Illyria

Map of Illyria

Image of Illyria, the setting for Twelfth Night, from Ortelius’ opulent atlas, Theatrum orbis terrarum, meaning ‘The Theatre of the World’.

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Poet of empire

Yet of course this is far from the only answer. The history of what has happened to Shakespeare in the centuries after his death is also part of his global story. After the reopening of the theatres at the Restoration in 1660 his scripts became a central part of the British theatrical canon, and in the following century, as the cult of Bardolatry grew, so did the association between English culture and that culture’s most renowned playwright. Distant echoes of English colonial exploits make themselves felt in the plays – notably The Tempest, partly based on reports of a shipwreck heading to the colony at Jamestown – and when later generations of colonialists began to turn large swaths of the globe imperial pink, the plays often travelled with them. In Kolkata, where the British took up residence in the late 1600s, drama became a fulcrum of colonial life, with the first English theatre set up in 1753; its successor, opened in 1775, was supported by none other than David Garrick, who sent out texts and rolls of scenery. As might be expected, Shakespeare featured regularly on the playbills of companies both amateur and professional.[7]

Strachey's 'A true reportory of the wreck' in Bermuda

Strachey's 'A true reportory of the wreck' in Bermuda

William Strachey’s dramatic account of a shipwreck off Bermuda in 1609 was probably a source for Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

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In the 19th century, the process went further still when Shakespeare became institutionalised in the Indian education system. In an account of a select committee report given to the House of Lords in 1847, the concept takes on missionary zeal:

It is a noble work to plant the foot of England and extend her sceptre by the banks of streams unnamed, and over regions yet unknown and to conquer, not by the tyrannous subjugation of inferior races, but by the victories of mind over brute matter and blind mechanic obstacles. A yet nobler work is it to diffuse over a few created worlds the laws of Alfred, the language of Shakespeare, and the Christian religion, the last great heritage of man.[8]

Many 19th-century ‘Anglicists’, dedicated to promoting the English language by means of that language’s most important poet, would have agreed with every word. The project was less thoroughgoing in colonies such as the Cape and those in West and Central Africa, but few parts of the world that were enveloped into the almighty British empire escaped some contact with Shakespeare, in schools if not in the theatre.

Shakespeare remade

As always with colonialism, multiple ironies are at play: called upon to imitate the colonial master, many of those cultures instead absorbed Shakespeare, and remade him. In India, the plays were adapted from the mid-19th century onwards in a dazzling variety of forms, from earnest scholarly Bengali translations to riotous melodramas in the Parsi theatre of Mumbai. In West Africa, Julius Caesar was rendered into Yoruba in the 1930s, and in South Africa six plays were translated into Setswana by the pioneering human-rights activist Solomon Plaatje, the founding secretary-general of what became the ANC. In China, where ‘treaty ports’ opened by the British during the Opium Wars became busy entrepôts, versions of The Merchant of Venice were performed both in English and, later, Mandarin, laying the foundations of contemporary Chinese drama.[9]

Programme from a 1980 production of Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête

Programme from a 1980 production of Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête

The Martiniquan writer Aimé Césaire re-wrote The Tempest in 1969, setting it on a colony in the throes of resistance.

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In the United States, a country that threw off the colonial yoke early and decisively, the story is – as ever – both familiar and different. Brought across the Atlantic by a British company who arrived in 1753, the plays were soon being performed by American companies and copies read in thousands upon thousands of American households. Courtesy of the Bardolatrous Founding Fathers, Shakespeare even became a revolutionary hero: writing as the commander of the continental army in 1778, George Washington declared that ‘the Superstructure they [the British] have been endeavouring to raise “like the baseless fabric of a vision” falls to nothing’. Whether or not Washington was aware of it, the joke is a fine one: words spoken by Prospero, Shakespeare’s colonial master, are pertly repurposed to the fight against colonialism.[10]

West Side Story film poster

West Side Story film poster

Romeo and Juliet is the most filmed of Shakespeare’s plays. The film musical, West Side Story (1961), re-imagines the feuding families as two rival New York gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.

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In the post-colonial era, theorists have offered multiple reasons for Shakespeare’s apparent omnipresence worldwide. Some – a decreasing number, admittedly – argue for what they regard as the universality of Shakespeare’s themes, his ability to transcend any barrier or class, language, colour or creed. Some regard him as a symbol of what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’, part of the fluid, ideas-based economy of the global web. Others point to the influence of TEFL courses and the expansion of global English. Still others have drawn upon globalisation theory to portray Shakespeare as a ‘rhizomatic’ figure – decentred, uncontainable, his roots erupting from many different locations simultaneously. Whether all these Shakespeares are still ‘Shakespeare’ is a moot question, and one the playwright might himself have enjoyed.[11]

Photographs of a Syrian Romeo and Juliet, 2015

Photographs of a Syrian Romeo and Juliet, 2015

In this ground-breaking production of Romeo and Juliet, the cast was made up of two groups from neighbouring countries, who only ever met on Skype.

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Yet perhaps we in the global north shouldn’t assume that William Shakespeare is the key who unlocks each and every door. In a classic account of a research trip to West Africa in the 1950s, the American anthropologist Laura Bohannan tells a fascinating story of how she brought a copy of Hamlet with her, assuming the most famous drama in the Western canon would be of interest to the people she had come to observe, the Tiv.[12]

It was – but not in the way she had expected. After relating the plot to a group of village elders, she was disconcerted to find that they had little but scorn for the values of this so-called universal text: why was Hamlet so keen to murder the uncle who had so kindly taken him in? Why did Gertrude not remarry even sooner? If Hamlet went mad, was he not bewitched? She must have got it wrong; none of it made sense. As the flummoxed Bohannan gave up, an old man took pity. ‘You must tell us some more stories of your country’, he said, not unkindly. ‘We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning’.

[1] For a suggestive history of the phrase – if not a watertight case that this was in fact the Globe’s motto – see John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 75–79.

[2] Nick Nicholas, Andrew Strader, Mark Shoulson, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: The Restored Klingon Version (Flourtown, PA: Klingon Language Institute, 1996). For a more general account of global Shakespeare, see my own Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (London: Bodley Head, 2015).

[3] The Red Dragon account is most fully debunked by Bernice W. Kliman in ‘At Sea about Hamlet at Sea: A Detective Story’, Shakespeare Quarterly 62 (2011), 180–204. For a passionate defence, see Gary Taylor, ‘Hamlet in Africa 1607’, in Ivo Kamps and Jyotsna G. Singh (eds), Travel Knowledge: European ‘Discoveries’ in the Early Modern Period (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 223–48.

[4] See Alfred Cohn, Shakespeare in Germany in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London and Berlin, 1865) and Simon Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage: 1586–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[5] The fullest account of Shakespeare’s sojourn with the Mountjoys is in Charles Nicholl, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (London: Allen Lane, 2008).

[6] For a slim but useful account of the playwright’s use of sources, see Robert S Miola, Shakespeare’s Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[7] For a fine account of The Tempest’s sources, see the introduction to Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan’s Arden third edition (London: Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2011). For early Indian stagings of Shakespeare, the most useful starting point is Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz (eds), India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation and Performance (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005).

[8] ‘Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Colonisation from Ireland, Together with the Minutes of Evidence, 1847’, The Edinburgh Review 91 (January, 1850), 1–62 (p. 61).

[9] For accounts of all these episodes, see Worlds Elsewhere, especially pp. 175–91 (Parsi adaptations), 263–311 (Plaatje), 394–96 (Chinese adaptations).

[10] The quotation is from The Tempest, 4.1.151. The best starting point for the history of US Shakespeare is Alden T Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[11] See especially Alexander C Y Huang, ‘Global Shakespeares as Methodology’, Shakespeare 9 (2013), 273–90, and Douglas M Lanier, ‘Shakespearean Rhizomatics: Adaptation, Ethics, Value’, in Alexander C Y Huang and Elizabeth Rivlin (eds), Shakespeare and the Ethics of Appropriation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) pp. 21–40.

[12] Laura Bohannan, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’, Natural History 75/7 (1966), 28–33.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.