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Ethics of Citing Shakespeare in a Global Context

By November 16, 2019 essay

Global Shakespeare can be studied through two interrelated concepts: performance as an act of citation and the ethics of citation. To translate, appropriate, and interpret drama and literature is an act of citation, and appropriating the classics carries strong ethical implications. These metaphorical citations create moments of self and mutual recognition. Seeing the others within is the first step toward seeing oneself in others’ eyes. The act of citation is founded upon the premise of one’s subjectivity, the subject who speaks, and the other’s voice that one is channeling, misrepresenting, or appropriating.

Here I speak of quotation in a metaphorical sense. Quotation in the most straightforward sense is an act of replicating someone else’s words, an act of deferring an idea through the reproduction of others’ words. Quoting or misquoting lines from Shakespeare carries with it the burden of previous uses of those lines, thus creating irony or solidarity as the case may be. Citation, by contrast, refers to the larger culture of quoting others, whether verbatim or in a metaphorical manner. A culture of citation would allude not only to Shakespeare but also to other widely circulated interpretations of Shakespeare. Along the way, local cultures that sustain a performance might also be quoted to create new contexts for a narrative.

We invoke Shakespeare or a particular cultural tradition for all sorts of reasons under many different guises. Global citations of Shakespeare – whether in performances or by politicians – demonstrate a spectral quality across cultures, media, and histories. These works are full of echoes and cross-references to other genres, events, and works. Our experience of the plays is ghosted by our prior investments in select aspects of the play and in previous performances.

Behind these acts of quoting others lie some questions about ethics. Often, when Shakespeare is cited, the passages are given an ethical burden and curative quality. A crucial, ethical component of appropriation is one’s willingness to listen to and be subjected to the demands of others. Ethics suggest mutually accepted guidelines on how human beings should act and treat one another and, in particular, what constitutes a good action. In our contemporary context, ethics are often interpreted specifically in terms of a responsibility to cultural otherness. We owe it to the people who make the culture, and we owe it to the artist who create the works that we study. We owe it to ourselves to listen intently for what they have to say.

What does it entail to quote someone or a work? In the age of global performance culture, quotation can be a gesture of deferral or a demarcated space for reflection. Evoking Shakespeare creates a visually and rhetorically marked space, a rupture between contemporary artists’ works and Shakespeare’s words. A quotation, whether in translation or in some other appropriated forms, is an attempt at reproducing a predecessor’s ideas.





Excerpted from Alexa Alice Joubin, “Others within: Ethics in the age of global Shakespeare.” Routledge Handbook of Shakespeare and Global Appropriation, ed. Christy Desmet, Sujata Iyengar, and Miriam Jacobson (London: Routledge, 2020), pp. 25-36

Full text freely available online.





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