Shakespeare in Borrowed Robes

By July 29, 2012 essay
[First published at]


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.

Shakespeare’s global career began in his lifetime. Performances in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a global flair. European visitors such as Thomas Platter left behind diary records of plays they saw at the Globe in London in 1599. Shortly after appearing on stage in London, Shakespeare’s plays traveled to Europe through polyglot performances mounted by touring English players, which helped to initiate translations of the plays into the vernaculars such as Dutch, German, and French, and to spread the plays to Russia and other parts of the world. Take Hamlet for example. The play was performed under varying conditions on board the Red Dragon, a vessel of the East India Company, near what is now Sierra Leone in 1607, on the island of Socotra in 1608, and possibly in a Dutch fortress in Jayakarta in colonial Indonesia in 1609. As the centuries wore on, Shakespeare was made to speak in a diverse range of tongues for and against the same political cause in Asia and beyond. As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, both Asian-centric and Asian-inspired performances of Shakespeare have taken center stage. There are traditional productions such as Oh’s Tempest that use Shakespeare to rethink Korean history. There are also performances that are inspired by Asian elements such as Kenneth Branagh’s film As You Like It which deal with values that are believed to transcend cultures.


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