Global Hamlets: Memphis as Cultural Crossroads

Monday, October 8th, 2012

by Scott L. Newstok

Originally published in


To see Symposium poster, click here.

Globalization” has now been a buzzword for over half a century. Whether one valorizes or villifies the notion, it’s often presumed that the process of globalization is moving us inexorably toward world-wide interconnectedness. But as the University of Memphis’ Wanda Rushing has argued, globalization is rarely uniform. Instead, it often involves a peculiar, sometimes contradictory tension between international and local dynamics. Rushing’s book, Memphis and the Paradox of Place, explores how our city retains its regional roots even as it increasingly engages with a networked global economy.

The Memphis business community certainly prides itself on being a crossroads of international commerce. Our airport ranks second in the world in terms of annual tonnage, leading Globe Trade magazine to give Memphis top honors for “Best Logistics Infrastructure” in its recent list of Top 50 Cities for Global Trade. In 2011, Memphis conferences focused on topics such as global interdependence in food markets and the emergence of global airport cities. The latter was part of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce’s renewed emphasis on rebranding ourselves “America’s Aerotropolis,” as Smart City has previously discussed.

In addition to being a global commercial crossroads, we’re also a global cultural crossroads. Well-attended festivals range from the longstanding Memphis in May and Africa in April to the more recent Global Lens Film series, the International Guitar Festival, and other celebrations supported by local immigrant communities. Colleges of Memphis encourage study with a global focus: see the Buckman Center for International Education at Rhodes; the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training (MHIRT) at CBU; and the Wang Center for International Business, Education, and Research (CIBER) at the University of Memphis.

That complex local/global tension identified by Rushing happens to be an apt way to think of the figure of Shakespeare. Here’s a writer who was locally embedded in his 16th century Warwickshire youth and his London adulthood. Yet during Shakespeare’s lifetime Renaissance Europe was already experiencing an early version of globalization. As the current British Museum exhibition demonstrates, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were clearly “staging the world” as accelerating mercantile and cultural exchange leading to a new awareness of that global/local tension.

Over nearly four centuries since his death, Shakespeare has grown into a worldwide, wildly malleable icon. Nowhere is this malleability more evident than in an overly-familiar play like Hamlet. The 17th century already saw a comically abbreviated version circulating in Germany, with slapstick pratfalls. By the 18th century there were French, Russian, Hungarian, Spanish, Polish, and Dutch translations of the play being performed across Europe. Notable actors chose to omit characters and entire scenes; women were cast in the lead role; editors struggled to come to terms with conflicting versions published during Shakespeare’s lifetime. (So much for the fantasy of fidelity to a playwright’s supposedly original intentions!) This ongoing process of cultural mobility manifested itself last summer in London, where alongside the Olympic games, a multi-lingual Shakespearean marathon took place: 37 plays were performed in 37 different languages for the “Globe to Globe” project, part of the World Shakespeare Festival.

A bit of that global energy arrives on our local Memphis stage this Friday. On October 5, a group of world-renowned Shakespeareans will come to Rhodes College to discuss Hamlet across the globe. “Global Hamlets” will be our fourth free public symposium supported by the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, a unique fund devoted to supporting Shakespeare studies. Invited speakers include the creator of the “Global Shakespeares” online performance archive (Alexa Huang); the research director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, (David Schalkwyk); a leading scholar of Shakespeare in the Arab world (Margaret Litvin); and an artist who has worked at Shakespeare’s Globe as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company (Nick Hutchison—the visiting director for our April 2013 As You Like It production). All will be exploring Hamlet’s fascinating transformations in modern-day Arab, British, Chinese, and South African contexts. As with our prior Shakespeare symposia—on race, environmental studies, and the King James Bible—this broadly interdisciplinary topic has been generously supported by a wide range of Rhodes programs: Asian Studies, British Studies at Oxford, English, International Studies, Search, and Theatre. And Memphis happily boasts a number of scholars who have engaged with issues of Shakespeare and translation via French, German, and Indian versions.

To provide a performance-based perspective on global Hamlets, Rhodes will screen the 2006 Chinese film The Banquet, a Kung Fu Hamlet adaptation (Thursday, October 4, 7:30pm, Blount Auditorium); Opera Memphis will perform the baritone aria from Ambroise Thomas’ French grand opera Hamlet (at the reception following our October 5 symposium); and the Rhodes Singers fall concert will include Shakespearean words set to music (Sunday, October 21, 3:30pm, St. Anne Catholic Church). As it happens, the Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s current show, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), focuses on Hamlet during its last satirical half hour—and their spring production at the Dixon Gallery will be Hamlet.

Speakers have been encouraged to make their brief presentations accessible to a general audience, with plenty of time devoted to informal discussion. We’ve heard that attendees will include juniors and seniors from Ridgeway’s International Baccalaureate program, and even a high school English teacher flying in from Pasadena, as she’s planning a course on this very topic. This symposium is also attracting Renaissance scholars from around the region, including the co-director of the Conference on John Milton at MTSU, the co-founder of the World Shakespeare Project at Emory University, and the director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa.

Please join this audience for “Global Hamlets,” which seeks to take a play you have long thought familiar, and make it richly unfamiliar again.

The Impermanence of Son and Stone: Transience as Personal Narrative in Wu Hsing-Kuo’s Lear is Here, Wu Hsing-Kuo Meets Shakespeare

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

By Haylie Swenson, George Washington University


First performed in a workshop with Ariane Mnouchkine in 2000 and later toured, in an extended form, around the world, this one-man show is a professional and emotional tour de force for Wu. Performing in an experimental hybrid of traditional Beijing Opera, or jingju, and postmodern theatrical forms, Wu portrays nine characters from King Lear as well as himself and powerfully engages with aspects of his biography, especially his filial relationship with his late acting teacher and his feelings of identity fragmentation. Consequently, the emphasis of this performance is not on Shakespeare, but on Wu, as Alexa Huang notes:

As its full title Lear is Here, Wu Hsing-Kuo Meets Shakespeare suggests, this play is Wu’s autobiographical rendition of Shakespeare’s dramatization of a troubled relationship between father and child. The second part of the title should be accorded primacy. It is Wu who meets Shakespeare, and it is through such an encounter that Wu is able to negotiate multiple identities, especially that of Wu as a performer and that of his dead master.” (Huang 219-220)

Critical responses to Lear is Here have followed Huang in largely focusing on these autobiographical themes; Wu himself has also foregrounded these issues in his discussions of the performance. However, this abundance of critical attention has left some of the production’s other themes unexplored. In this paper I examine how Wu uses Lear as a vehicle for a meditation not only on specific details of his autobiography, but on larger issues of transience and the inevitability of loss. Although these themes resonate throughout the play, I would argue that Act One, which features Lear in the storm, is a particularly fitting segment with which to view these issues. This is partially because of the lack of stasis inherent in the storm and the heath. As Steve Mentz argues, “New ecologists see constant change and instability as fundamental to natural systems, and Shakespeare’s play represents the human consequences of living in this incessantly mutable world” (Mentz 139). Wu’s representation of Lear on the heath, I argue, similarly engages with the traumatic consequences of living in a changeable world, especially as those consequences relate to Wu himself. In Act One Wu thus combines his personal autobiography, Lear as a character, and deeply symbolic sets and costumes to relate Shakespeare’s “universal” themes of transience and loss through a highly personal lens.

Eschewing much of the original plot of King Lear, Wu structures his production to emphasize this personal experience. Act 1, “Play,” features Lear in the storm upon the heath. Largely nonverbal, this twenty seven-minute long act highlights Wu’s mastery of pantomime and acrobatics. By contrast, Act 2, “Playing,” showcases Wu’s ability to shift roles and the identity fracturing that results. In this act Wu switches back and forth between an astonishing nine characters: The Fool, the Earl of Kent, Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, blind Gloucester, Edmund, and “mad” Edgar. Act 3, “Player,” returns the focus to Wu, who plays himself as a character in an act tinged with Buddhist overtones. As Huang notes, “the play is a journey from the inner world of the lonely Lear, through a burst of multiple identities and characters, to the autobiographical, manifested by the lonely Wu Hsing-Kuo” (220). Restructuring the play in this way thus allows Wu to dramatize his personal relationship with Shakespeare, the eponymous “meeting” of the second half of his production’s title.

Wu’s participation in—and reimaging of—the jingju theatrical tradition is an important element in his autobiographical approach to the play. Jingju is a highly stylized form of theater that combines vocal performance, dance, music, mime, and acrobatics and that has a markedly political component in Wu’s home country of Taiwan due to its close association with “Chineseness.” As Huang notes, “After martial law was lifted [in Taiwan] in the 1980s, jingju’s association with China became its ‘original sin,’ as it were. Jingju thus evolved from a state-endorsed and well-funded theater genre to one that was rejected by the majority of the Taiwanese audience” (Huang 217). Wu’s interest in and commitment to jingju has thus led to several clashes with the arts funding structure in Taiwan. Wu’s frustration at the lack of funding available for jingju performances is palpable in his Act One performance of Lear, as he himself suggests: “You can see that inside King Lear, his thought is full of rage and unhappiness—he is not satisfied. And my character is like King Lear’s; as an artist, I like to work in a way that is very open and free, but when we apply for financial support, we are often examined very strictly, and made to work in more conventional ways. So I am frustrated too!” (Wu) In Act One, Wu mixes jingju performance vocabulary—including acrobatics, stylized gestures, a heavy emphasis on percussion, and movements of his sleeves and beard—with highly symbolic sets and costumes to represent not only this frustration with the apparent transience of jingju in Taiwan, but his understanding of the larger roles ephemerality and loss play in human life.

The audience first glimpses Lear standing in a ring of dim light. Because his face and figure remain dark, however, the effect of this light is oppressive rather than revelatory, constricting rather than illuminating. Furthermore, the circle of light on the stage is veined with a lacy pattern that evokes both tree roots and the veins of the eyes, in keeping with not only the topoi of seeing and blindness so central to King Lear, but also Lear’s simultaneously antagonistic and symbiotic relationship to the natural world, exemplified by the storm. For even as Lear rages against the storm, it is presented by both Shakespeare and Wu as a crucial part of his psyche, an observation that is also echoed by Oliver’s apt reduction of the play in “Slings and Arrows” to a relatively simple matter of a great actor and a tin sheet. Wu’s presentation of Lear on the heath in his first act allows him to draw an especially explicit comparison between Lear and the storm, as it is not until the audience hears the first clap of thunder that Lear fully emerges into the light. The storm must begin before the play can.

Along with the storm, the set for Act One emphasizes Lear’s vulnerability. Lear’s stage is arranged in a circle, with four large stone figures flanking the playing area. Variously headless or armless and in an antique style, these figures evoke both the civilization from which Lear has been outcast and the inevitable destruction of that civilization. In this evocation, Lear is Here echoes Emily Sun’s argument about the “limits of sovereignty” (Sun 21). Sun argues that what Lear wants—and this is Lear’s big mistake—is freedom from the political realm. However, for this to work out, there must be a political realm to begin with, and this requires that his daughters play the necessary parts. Cordelia’s “nothing” is destructive because it demolishes the knowable political realm in favor of an as-yet unknowable relationality, a connection between people in excess of the roles given to them by the state. King Lear thus calls upon the reader to imagine a world that is “always in the process of being created, always in excess of any kingdom or community conceived according to identifiable predicates of belonging” (Sun 77). In their ability to signify both civilization and its destruction, the statues that loom over Wu’s performance in Act One similarly call upon the audience to imagine society not as stasis, but flux.

This is further emphasized at the end of the act, as one by one each of the four statues fall into the performance space. Interestingly, the statues makes room for the second act’s more naturalistic set, which consists of large piles of rocks that evoke the cliffs of Dover and that will play a crucial part in Gloucester’s intended suicide. This relegation of naturalism to the second act, much of which takes place in the palaces of Goneril and Regan and not on the heath, seems odd, especially given the first act’s emphasis on the storm and Lear’s antagonistic relationship to nature. Jan Kott is helpful here; as he notes, “objects have now been raised [in what he calls the “modern theatre”] to the status of symbols of human fate, or situation, and perform a similar function to that played in Shakespeare by forest, storm, or eclipse of the sun” (Kott 134). Although built with the intention of durability, of all but immortalizing the figure depicted, stone statues, like human beings, are always already in a state of decay. In this way statues are particularly useful as signifiers not only for the fall of civilization but, as Kott argues, for human fate. Like the statues, Lear’s vision of political stasis will chip away—indeed, it already has, for Lear’s tribulations in the storm begin after his daughters have cast him out, just as Wu’s performance begins after he has lost his relationship with his acting master, a point which I will further discuss below. By including the statues in his first act, “The Play,” Wu thus gestures to both what has come before in the play text (Lear’s degradation in the apparently civilized realm now controlled by his daughters) and what will come after (the kingdom’s descent into chaos and Lear’s death). Importantly, though, this scene does not come after anything in Wu’s version. Rather, Lear’s exposure on the heath is both the before and after event in Lear is Here, a paradox that, by presenting Lear’s madness as the founding event of the play, emphasizes the extent to which trauma is an inherent element of change. With their missing arms and heads and their ability to act as symbols of both Lear’s outcast status and the inevitability of social collapse, the statues also emphasize the close relationship between transience and trauma.

Although Act One is largely nonverbal, Lear’s few songs and speeches reveal a keen awareness of the trauma of loss. One moment particularly stands out for its pathos. Throughout the play Wu uses his considerable skills as a physical performer to evoke not only Lear’s varied moods, but the stark differences between his moments of lucidity and madness. The movements of lucid Lear are purposeful and smooth. Although his hands shake, befitting a laosheng (old man) figure in the jingju tradition, lucid Lear tends to remain fairly stationary in the playing space, and the musicians match his stasis with sustained notes and chords.

Mad Lear, on the other hand, is often all frenetic energy, his quickly mincing steps and extravagant tossing of his beard and sleeves mirrored by the discordant, frantic percussive music.

Mad Lear can also be childish, however, and it is during one of these moments of simplicity that Lear betrays his keenest awareness of loss. Previous to this moment, Lear has killed a bird that was annoying him. This could have been a humorous moment; after all, Lear’s anger was precipitated by the bird’s biting him on the nose. Instead it is a terribly sad one, as the bird’s gentle song—a marked contrast to the tumultuous noise of the storm—is cut short by its death, leaving only a deafening silence. Shortly thereafter Lear slides into a state of childish simplicity. Taking mincing steps and assuming a shy smile and high, sing-song voice, Lear reminisces about his daughter’s childhood: “I, who favor the fair March, / Spy a blossom in the wild field. / Daddy picks a flower for the youngest daughter to wear in her hair. / I wish to see neither the flowers fade, nor the spring end. /  Yet, the flowers fade and the spring stays not…” In this, his first speech after killing the bird, Wu/Lear betrays a keen awareness of the transience inherent to both human and nonhuman life. Lear’s childlike state of mind, as well as his remembrance of his daughter as a child, reflects the inevitability of aging, while Lear’s evocation of the fading flowers and passing spring serves as a meditation on the mutability of the natural world.

Fittingly for a performance in the jingju tradition, Lear’s costume is an especially important conveyance for the production’s thematic content. This is particularly apparent near the end of the act, as

in full view of the audience, Wu transforms himself from the old Lear into a Taiwanese jingju actor, removing his headdress and opera beard to reveal the painted face pattern denoting a jingju combatant male role. He also takes off his costume to reveal his undercoat. While this undercoat is part of the costume, it is never revealed onstage. It supports the heavy costume of a combatant male role. By removing the headdress and revealing what is underneath the costume, Wu stages the theater-making process in reverse. (Huang 222)

This meta-theatricality is an important part of the autobiographical story Wu is trying to tell. As Wu has noted in his stage bill and in several interviews, he was especially attracted to King Lear because of the issues it raises about fatherhood, concerns that, for Wu, also intersect with his relationship to the theater. Having lost his biological father at a young age, Wu found a surrogate father figure in his acting teacher, Master Zhou Zhengrong, who trained him in the combatant male role type (wusheng) of jingju. As Wu became a better-known performer, however, he found himself engaging in conflict with Master Zhou. Following one particularly heated exchange, Master Zhou refused to acknowledge Wu as a pupil, an estrangement that existed even upon Master Zhou’s death and that is reflected in Wu’s attitude towards the trappings of his performance of Lear.

Initially Wu throws the robe and undercoat down onto the floor in a spurt of anger, apparently rejecting the power that the character of Lear has had over him. In doing so, I argue, Wu is also rejecting his master, who he has frequently compared to Lear. Soon, however, Wu’s mood turns more contemplative. Having discarded his clothes in anger, he folds them reverentially, and for quite a while he carries the beard and wig, carefully positioning them so they continue to form the silhouette of a face. In a scene reminiscent of Hamlet in the graveyard, Wu addresses this silhouette as though it were a mirror, asking both himself and the audience, “Where is Lear?” Huang notes that “by addressing the costumes of Lear, Wu stages the king as two bodies, that of a fictional character and that of a human performer representing that character, juxtaposed to reveal the performer in search of an identity” (Huang 223). While this splitting of identity across actor and character reflects Wu’s conflicted feelings towards his late master, I would argue that it also serves to highlight the fundamentally ephemeral nature of the stage. Wu’s Lear is a powerfully realized character while embodied, but at the end of the act the audience is left only with a pile of clothes, the closest thing in the performance to a representation of Lear’s death. Lear’s mortality is in sharp contrast with Wu’s insistence on stasis: “I am back,” he says. “I’m still I that was, I that am, and I that shall be!” Given the play’s relentless emphasis on transience, such an announcement plays as profoundly defiant: in spite of the inevitability of plays to end, characters to die, and relationships to fade, the actor know as Wu Hsing-Kuo continues. Wu, like Lear, is here.

And yet this defiance falters, as, according to Steve Mentz, its source text dictates that it must:

Juxtaposing the desire of the self to maintain its identity against the natural world’s stubborn exteriority, refusal to be incorporated, and dynamic re-inscription and violation of bodily boundaries, King Lear suggests that all systems of natural order—from pastoral utopianism to homeostatic constancy—can and will become unstable. Inside this storm-filled world, the play offers clarity of vision in place of sustainable hope. (141)

Wu’s similar approach to the myth of permanence is revealed by play’s end, as a subdued Wu gives in to the unavoidable mutability of the world: “Lonely and quiet, I look coldly at the moon / That rises, sets, waxes and wanes.” Repeated twice, this final statement asserts the paradoxical fact, expressed so well in the old adage, that there is nothing permanent except change, that all life is inherently ephemeral. Wu speaks these words while he is being raised above the stage and into the space of storms and weather. Significantly, the stone statues of the first act, perhaps the play’s most evocative metaphor for instability, rise with him.


Works Cited

Huang, Alexa. Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Kott, Jan.Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966.

Mentz, Steve. “Strange Weather in King Lear.” Shakespeare 6.2 (2010), 139-152.

Spencer, David. “Slings and Arrows.” Aisle Say TV. No date. Web. 17 April 2012.

Wu Hsing-Kuo in interview with Joyce McMillan. “EIF 2011 – Interview with Wu Hsing-Kuo, the solo King Lear.” Joyce McMillan Online. March 2011. Web. 17 April 2012.

Global Shakespeares Workshop at the Queen Mary, University of London

Friday, August 31st, 2012

On May 30, 2012 Dr Joshua Edelman and Dr Aneta Mancewicz, research fellows at Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, conducted a workshop entitled ‘Watching the Watching of Shakespeare’ at The Ends of Audience Conference at Queen Mary, University of London. Mancewicz is a Global Shakespeares regional editor for Europe.

At the center of a large room, there were four computers connected to projectors and speakers. The computers were linked to the Global Shakespeares archive, with projections of selected clips from the archive on four screens around the room. The effect was that of a visual and aural cacophony of Shakespearean images, all of which were artifacts of performance but many of which might have seemed incomprehensible or odd, due to the multiplicity of languages and performance styles.

Edelman and Mancewicz took turns posing questions over a microphone to the participating audience. There were two sets of four videos with approximately thirty questions for each set. They asked, for instance, which performance the participants best understood, which they found most interesting and which most frightening. The questions moved from the more objective and emotionally neutral to the highly subjective and personal. After each question, participants indicated their choice by physically assembling around one image. The physical moving was negotiated by the group, and the nature of the answers was conveyed both by the size of each group and its behavior. The room was loud enough that verbal discussion amongst participants was difficult, so the dynamics of inter-audience relationships was expressed kinesthetically.

After the questions, the projections and sound were turned off, and the participants were engaged in a group discussion on the audience dynamics and the global nature of Shakespeare performance and research. They were asked, for instance, what was the perceived difference between the video-mediated performance of Shakespeare and the live actions of the audience members. What motivated their choices? To what extent did they feel influenced in their answers by the people around them? The workshop made visible the group pressure and the negotiation of individual opinions by drawing on the global and historical breadth of Shakespearean performance that is available on the Global Shakespeares archive.


Chinese Romeo Meeting English Juliet in Stratford?

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Romeo and Juliet East and West.

To celebrate the “cosmopolitan” 2012 London Olympics, British festival organizers invited performers from around the world to showcase their works. Shown in this photo is an actor from China’s Zhejiang Kunju Troupe walking down Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon where the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is located. They performed the Peony Pavilion (1598), a play often regarded as the Chinese Romeo and Juliet.


What Multilingual Shakespeare Can Teach Us

Sunday, July 29th, 2012


The World Shakespeare Festival in London in 2012 is arguably one of the most important and ambitious festivals since David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. Reading Shakespeare in multilingual and multimedia contexts is important. Consider for example these lines from Macbeth

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.


The repetition of ‘incarnadine’ and ‘red’ is serendipitous, but the deliberate alternation between the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and the Latinate words suggests two pathways to and two perspectives on the world. Act 1 Scene 3 of Othello offers another interesting instance (which is the focus of Tom Cheeseman’s, a multilingual crowd-sourcing project):

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

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Translations of these lines into different languages deal with the meanings of “fair” and “black” rather differently. Mikhail Lozinskij’s Russian translation says “Since honor is a source of light of virtue, / Then your son-in-law is light, and by no means black.” Christopher Martin Wieland and Ángel Luis Pujante used white in German and Spanish (respectively) to translate “fair,” while Victor Hugo chose “shining.” It’s eye opening to see how translation opens up the text in new ways.

Another fun item to consider: I was recently interviewed by BBC Radio and was asked to put together a collage of recitations of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in different languages, drawn from actual performances. The vague, versatile, and “Swiss-knife” verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. Sometimes it is translated as “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?), to do, to die, and so on.

Go to this page to listen to the speeches:

There you will find –

English [Gielgud Hamlet]
Arabic [Sobhi Hamlet]
Assamese (Indian dialect) [Hazarika Hamlet]
Brazilian Portuguese [Correa Hamlet]
Japanese [Kurita Hamlet]
Korean [Yohangza Hamlet]
Mandarin [Hamlet Unplugged]
Swedish [Lyth Hamlet]



Shakespeare in Borrowed Robes

Sunday, July 29th, 2012


Can Shakespeare’s plays give a “local habitation” to the “airy nothing” of globalization? Shakespeare is proclaimed, once again, the bearer of universal currency and Britain’s national poet as the London Olympics draw nearer. Much more ambitious than the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006 “Complete Works” Festival, the World Shakespeare Festival in summer 2012 will bring theatre companies from different parts of the world to perform Shakespeare in their own languages. Shakespeare has been transformed from Britain’s export to import industry, but the meaning of this “return” is ambiguous.

The award-winning Tempest at the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival, dir. Oh Tae-suk (Mokwha Company, Seoul, South Korea)

But a story of cultural globalization already unfolded last year at the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival which featured Asian performing arts ranging from theatre to ballet. The renowned South Korean stage director and playwright Oh Tae-suk mounted his version of The Tempest to critical acclaim in Edinburgh. Master Oh’s adaptation brought the play born at the “dawning moment of British colonialism” and inspired by “the wreck of a ship bound for Virginia” to the shore of traditional Korea, and back to the U.K. (Michael Dobson, “Shakespeare and Korea,” play bill of the Mokwha Repertory Company’s The Tempest, Edinburgh, August 13-16, 2011, n.p.). A work that has routinely been politicized by artists in nations that were formerly colonized, The Tempest was transformed by Oh into a play infused with a sense of lightness and Oh’s wit. Like Prospero, the Daoist magician King Zilzi rules the island and orchestrates the shipwreck out of revenge. But he brings the men to his island partly because it is high time his fifteen-year-old daughter “met somebody.” The Korean Miranda later reminds her suitor that the question about her purity is ridiculous, after all she has grown up on “a desert island.” The European premiere of Oh’s Tempest demonstrates that while works that criticize global inequalities receive more attention from Western critics, the genre of productions critical of resource inequities or the geo-political status quo, represent but one perspective. Oh’s version is not exactly a rollicking comedy, but extrapolates something extraordinary from both the Elizabethan genre of romance and the Korean tradition of hybrid theatrical genres.

Many people have seen international Shakespearean performances—and some of these works have become canonical and well-rehearsed success stories of cross-cultural ventures, such as the postwar Japanese director Kurosawa Akira’s Ran and Throne of Blood—but few people are aware that there is a rich and complex history of international performances of Shakespeare. This history complicates the notion of globalization as necessarily just “global Westernization” (Amartya Sen, “How to Judge Globalism,” The American Prospect, special supplement, Winter 2002,, accessed September 1, 2011). Examining Shakespeare’s place in world cultures and the impact of diverse theatrical traditions on Shakespearean performance can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the processes of globalization and localization. Globalization and digital culture are two of the catch phrases for our time, but they remain an imprecise term in the classroom and popular discourse about cultural difference and assimilation.


The Paradox of Female Agency: Ophelia and East Asian Sensibilities: Excerpt

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Excerpted from Alexa Huang’s “The Paradox of Female Agency: Ophelia and East Asian Sensibilities,” in The Afterlife of Ophelia, ed. Kaara Peterson and Deanne Williams. New York: Palgrave, 2012. pp. 79-100


The Paradox of Female Agency:

Ophelia and East Asian Sensibilities

Alexa Huang

There has always been a perceived affinity between Ophelia and East Asian women. In May 1930, Evelyn Waugh entertained the prospect of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong playing Ophelia: “I should like to see Miss Wong playing Shakespeare. Why not a Chinese Ophelia? It seems to me that Miss Wong has exactly those attributes which one most requires of Shakespearean heroines.” [i] Ophelia is a paradox in East Asian literature, drama and film. Even when she appears to depend on others for her thoughts like her Western counterpart, the figure of Ophelia in Asian rewritings signals a strong presence by her absence and even absent-mindedness. While Asian Ophelias may suffer from what S. I. Hayakawa calls “the Ophelia syndrome” (inability to formulate and express one’s own thoughts), they adopt various rhetorical strategies—balancing between eloquence and silence—to let themselves be seen and heard. [ii] Asian incarnations of Ophelias occupy a broad spectrum of interpretive range and possess more moral agency. (more…)

Highlights from select Brazilian performances

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

MIT Team and Brazil Editors working together

Global Shakespeares editors for Brazil — Liana de Camargo Leão, Anna Stegh Camati, and Cris Busato Smith — traveled to Boston last month to attend the 2012 Shakespeare Association of America conference. During their stay, Liana, Anna, and Cris visited the MIT team and worked closely with us to brainstorm and plan for the expansion of the Brazil regional portal within Global Shakespeares. Here are a few English subtitled video clips they have produced. (more…)

Shakespeare and Translation: Excerpt

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Excerpted from Alexa Huang, “Shakespeare and Translation.” The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett, Adrian Streete, and Ramona Wray. Edinburgh University Press, 2011. pp. 68-87.


Shakespeare and Translation

Alexa Huang

Catherine: I cannot tell vat is dat.

King Harry: … I will tell thee in French …  Je quand sur le possession de France, et quand vous avez le possession de moi,–let me see, what then? … It is as easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French.  …

Catharine: Sauf votre honneur, le Francois que vous parlez, il
est meilleur que l’Anglois lequel je parle.

King Harry: No, faith, is’t not, Kate: but thy speaking of my
tongue, and I thine, most truly-falsely, must needs be granted to be much at one. But, Kate, dost thou understand thus much English, canst thou love me?

Henry V 5.2.169-183

Literary translation is a love affair. Depending on the context, it could be love at first sight or hot pursuits of a lover’s elusive nodding approval. In other instances it could be unrequited love, and still others a test of devotion and faith. Or an eclectic combination of any of these events. Translation involves artistic creativity, not a workshop of equivalences. As human civilisations developed and intersected, translation emerged as a necessary form of communication and a way of life. It highlighted and put to productive use the space between cultures, between individuals with different perspectives, and within one’s psyche. (more…)

Shakespeare in Europe: Introduction

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

For centuries, Shakespeare’s plays have been at the heart of European culture. Owing to their canonical status in European drama and theatre, they have been used both to reflect on and to advance aesthetic, social and political transformations in Europe. Over time, they have served to develop theatrical and cultural patterns, to stimulate social, political and historical changes, to form the notion of nationhood in individual countries, and to shape a sense of common European identity. (more…)