Teaching Shakespeare and Globalization

March 16, 2013

Written by Alexa Huang

 It is easy to incorporate the issues of global Shakespeare or globalization into the standard Shakespeare course.

Global Shakespeare as a curricular component answers the competing demands of internationalizing education to prepare our next generation for a complex world and of sustaining traditional canons. There are many ways to incorporate issues of politics, reception, and aesthetics raised by global Shakespeare into standard undergraduate Shakespeare courses.

Teach the blessing and curse of globalization and localization in conjunction with Shakespeare. Teach familiar texts in strange settings. As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel reminds us, what is “well known” is never properly known simply because, well, they appear to be well known, which is why Folger Shakespeare Library research director David Schalkwyk once said that unless you have read Shakespeare in another language, you do not really understand Shakespeare.

Here are some possibilities.

(1) Reading Shakespeare in multilingual 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.

(2) Different cultural frameworks and translations slow us down and compel us to rethink what we assume to be familiar. Performances in world cultures can lead us back to Shakespeare’s plays with new insight and new paths for interpretation. Works such as Ong Keng Sen’s transnational and pan-Asian productions (Search: Hamlet, Lear, Desdemona, Lear Dreaming), Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It with a strong Japanese motif, and Tim Supple’s multilingual Midsummer Night’s Dream with an all-Indian and Shri Lankan cast, are generating extraordinary artistic and intellectual energy by recasting gender, racial and social identities. The racial issue disappears by being recast as uneasy familial relations in Japanese interpretations of Othello, and it is made hauntingly present through its absence from radically localized, colorblind, Korean performances that seek to redress the wound of Japanese colonization. In the Chinese tradition of performing The Merchant of Venice as romantic comedy, the play is often retooled as an adventure of an attractive woman lawyer or an outlandish tale involving a pound of human flesh.  This framework has activated elements of the play that, over several centuries of Anglo-European readings, have become obscure to communities that gravitate towards the ethics of conversion as a key site of tension in the narrative. Other examples of reconfigurations of the center and the periphery abound. These works have led to the transformation of traditions occurring in both directions at once.

(3) It is important to appreciate the historicity of global Shakespeare as a cultural phenomenon that is not exclusive to the modern era. Translation was an unalienable part of the cultural life in early modern England. Translation, or translatio, signifying “the figure of transport,” was a common rhetorical trope that referred to the conveyance of ideas from one geo-cultural location to another, from one historical period to another, and from one artistic form to another. London witnessed a steady stream of merchants and foreign emissaries from Europe, the Barbary coast, and the Mediterranean, and thousands of Dutch and Flemish Protestants fled to Kent in the late 1560s due to the Spanish persecution. Within Shakespeare’s plays, the figure of translation looms large.

Henry V contains several instances of literal translation, including the language lesson scene and the well-known wooing scene. Translation serves as a figure of transport, theft, transfer of property, and change across linguistic and national boundaries, as the characters and audience are ferried back and forth across the Channel. The “broken English” (5.2.228) in the light-hearted scene symbolises Henry V’s dominance over Catherine and France after the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. However, the Epilogue reminds us that the marriage is far from a closure (Epilogue 12), for it produces a son who is “half-French, half-English” (5.2.208). The English conqueror pretends to be a wooer to Catherine of France who cannot reject him freely. One is unsure whether Catherine is speaking the truth that she does not understand English well enough (“I cannot tell”) or just being coy—playing Harry’s game, though Catherine eventually yields to Henry V’s request: “Dat is as it shall please de roi mon père” (5.2.229). A play such as Henry V and its global afterlife (for example, Laurence Olivier’s film version during World War II as propaganda) provide rich material to be mined to teach various aspects of international relations and to further students’ understanding of Shakespearean aesthetics.

(4) If you have a diverse classroom, take advantage of students’ different backgrounds and experiences. Turn international students who are not native speakers of English into your asset. All too often they are seen as a liability, but their linguistic and cultural repertoire should be tapped to build a sustainable intellectual community. 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 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. Students can even try to translate a passage and share their rationale with the class. Caliban’s “language” is translated variously in different languages. In Mandarin Chinese it is rendered as “human language”, 語言, as opposed to languages of the animal or a different system of signification. Christoph Martin Wieland translates the word in German as redden, or “speech”. Caliban may know how to curse in his own language before Prospero takes over his island, but he now has one more language in his arsenal.

Take another word from The Tempest. Prospero announces in act 4 scene 1 that “our revels now are ended.” The word “revels” in the Elizabethan context refers to royal festivities and stage entertainments, but it carries different diagnostic significance in translation. Christoph Martin Wieland used Spiele (plays) and Schauspieler (performer) to refer to Prospero’s masque and actors (“Unsre Spiele sind nun zu Ende” in German). Sometimes translators working in the same language have different interpretations. Liang Shiqiu translated it as “games” in Mandarin Chinese in 1964, alluding to the manipulative Prospero’s “games” on the island, but Zhu Shenghao preferred “carnivals” (1954), highlighting the festive nature of the wedding celebration.

Act 1 Scene 3 of Othello offers another interesting instance (which is the focus of Tom Cheeseman’s Version Variation Visualization: Multi-Lingual Crowd Sourcing of Shakespeare’s Othello):

 If virtue no delighted beauty lack,

Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

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.

(5) Class units can be designed around watching videos on Global Shakespeares and discussing the English subtitles. It is eye opening for students to experience Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in languages other than English. 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 “to be or not to be” in several languages drawn from actual performances:

  • 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]

(6) One can also build into a Twelfth Night unit issues of gender, world cultures, and Shakespearean performance. Japanese is a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view. Performing the play in Japanese is therefore a challenge. One would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity and subtlety of gender identities. In addition to making the right choice of employing the familiar or polite style based on the relation between the speaker and the addressee, the male and female speakers of Japanese are each confined to gender-specific personal pronouns at their disposal. Before a translation can be undertaken, decisions will have to be made on the register and gendered expressions to convey Orsino’s comments about love from a male perspective and Viola’s apology for a woman’s love when in disguise as Cesario, or the exchange between Rosalind in disguise as Ganymede and Oliver on her “lacking a man’s heart” when she swoons, nearly giving herself away (4.3.164-176). But limitations create new linguistic and cultural opportunities. Translational moments like this can launch interesting discussions about visible and invisible gender identities in Twelfth Night.

(7) Interdisciplinarity. Global Shakespeare is a great topic for inquiry-driven learning. It is often assumed that materials to be presented in the undergraduate classroom have to be dumbed down, and that students will be overwhelmed by interdisciplinary approaches. The opposite is true. Students love a hands-on approach to create and share knowledge, to build on existing theories to explore new frontiers. As a broad field, global Shakespeare allows students to make fresh contributions. Beyond Global Shakespeares, many other archives can help students make transhistorical connections between issues and build cross-cultural understanding of arts. For example, Early English Books Online (EEBO), and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s LUNA.

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