Shakespeare in Korea: Introduction

February 20, 2010

Written by Hyon-u Lee, Soonchunhyang University

Shakespeare was first introduced into Korea approximately 100 years ago mainly through Japan because of Korea’s colonization by Japan from 1910 to 1945. The first Shakespearean production in Korea was Hamlet in 1909, and then Merchant of Venice in 1910. But they were performed in Japanese by a Japanese theatre company and just for the Japanese residents in Korea in commemoration of the victory of the Russian-Japanese War (1904 – 5). It was the silent film Macbeth starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree shown in 1917 that the Korean public was first introduced to a Shakespearean production. It was narrated by a Korean silent film narrator.

Shakespeare became more familiar to Korean people when Koo Ree-byung translated Tales from Shakespeare by Mary & Charles Lams into Korean in 1919, and when Hyun Cheol’s Hamlet, the first complete Korean translation of a Shakespeare play, was published in 1922. Since then, several translations of Shakespeare plays have come out, but all of them were retranslated into Korean from Japanese translations.

The first Korean production of Shakespeare was the Forum Scene of Julius Caesar by the student drama club of Kyungsung Commerce School in 1925, and it was performed in English. When the Christian Student Club of Ewha Womans University performed Merchant of Venice in 1929, it was the first Shakespeare performance done in Korean.

It was not until Korea’s independence from Japan in 1945 that Korean Shakespeare began to develop in earnest. In 1949, the Department of Theatre at Chung-ang University performed Hamlet, which was the first complete 5 act production. Even during the Korean War (1950 – 53), Shakespeare was very popular among Korean people. Hamlet (dir. Lee Hae-rang & trans. Han Roh-dahn, 1951), Othello (dir. You Chi-jin & trans. Han Roh-dahn, 1952), and Macbeth (dir. Lee Hae-rang & trans. Han Roh-dahn, 1952), which were all produced by Shin Hyup theatre company, showed legendary successes. Choi Jae-suh, who gained a Ph.D. in Shakespeare studies first in Korea in 1963, published his own English book: Life and Arts of Shakespeare by Bantam in the United States in 1965. The Shakespeare Association of Korea was founded in 1963, and it has published Shakespeare Review since 1970.

Nineteen Sixty four was a watershed year for Shakespearean translation in Korea. Two translated versions of The Complete Works of Shakespeare came out simultaneously in commemoration of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday: Kim Jae-nam’s translation published by Hwimoon Publishing Company in July, 1964, and the 19 English Literature Scholars’ work published by Jungeum Company in October of that year. Those achievements became a cornerstone of true popularization and development of Shakespeare in Korea.

Since the 1990s, Korea has been experiencing Shakespeare boom. During the last 20 years, more than 250 Shakespearean productions have been staged, and more than 800 books on Shakespeare and his works have been published. Many of the recent Shakespearean productions have not only been staged by the most representative directors in Korea, such as Oh Tae-suk, Lee Yun-taek, Kim Myung-kon, Kim Ara, Han Tae-sook, and Yang Jung-ung, but have also incorporated major characteristics of the contemporary Korean theatre like musical form, feminism and Koreanization. These productions, which have been repeatedly performed and have made significant contributions to the recent development of Korean theatre, have received good responses from oversea performances. Of special note are Oh Tae-suk’s Romeo and Juliet and Yang Jung-ung’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which were performed at the Barbican Centre in London in 2006, and well received by the British audience. It was the first and successful debut of Korean Shakespeare to Shakespeare’s Kingdom.

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