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Shakespeare in Latin America

By July 25, 2012 essay

First broadcast as The Essay for BBC Radio 3.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus hoisted the Spanish flag on the island in the Atlantic Ocean which he called “San Salvador”. In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral landed at the bay he called “Bahia de Todos os Santos”, in an unknown country later named Brazil, where he placed the Portuguese flag. When these two seamen took possession of the new found lands, William Shakespeare had not yet been born. But years later the English playwright’s voice would resound in a prophetic speech: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in places unborn and accents yet unknown?”

After three hundred years Shakespeare’s work appeared for the first time in Latin America. In Argentina, between 1822 and 1830, the actor Francisco Cárceres played Othello. Between 1839 and 1852, other plays appeared in Buenos Aires, in modified translations.

In Brazil, the first translation of a whole play by Shakespeare appeared in 1842, from the  French adaptation by Jean-François Ducis. Othello seems to have been the play generally preferred in the translations and productions of that time. The Italian actors Ernesto Rossi and Tommaso Salvini, and a few other European companies touring in South America brought their romantically performed Shakespeare to upper class audiences.

Adaptations by native authors started being made then. In Brazil, the renowned romantic poet Gonçalves Dias wrote Leonor de Mendonça, published in 1868. In his play, Dias recreated Shakespeare’s Othello though saying it was based on a true story he had found in the Portuguese chronicles of 1512. Nevertheless, in the preface to the published text of Leonor de Mendonça, he says he was inspired by the English playwright. It is a play with liberating ideas about women’s freedom in a macho man society. As the Duke’s complexion is white, there is no concern for the Eurocentric view of the other found in Shakespeare. And Iago is omitted.

A few plays were then translated in other Latin American countries. Perhaps the most important work of translation, due to its comprehensiveness, was Dramas de Guillermo Shakspeare,  by the Peruvian  José Arnaldo Márquez , in two volumes, first  published in Barcelona, but later on in Argentina, Mexico and Peru.

At the end of the 19th century Shakespeare’s presence in Latin American arts began to find new paths, when the adapters were more aware of the differences and similarities in the cultures appropriating him, and of the possibilities to expand it. That seems to be what the Mexican Manuel Pérez Bibbins and Francisco López Carvajal did, in 1886, in their Hamlet, arreglo a la escena espanõla del célèbre drama tragico de William Shakespeare. It had cuts of scenes and characters – Fortinbras and the first scene in act 1, for instance, are omitted. The play ends with only Polonius, Hamlet and Claudius being killed. And it is Horatio who kills the king, not Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s influence reached other arts, especially prose works. The Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis started by quoting him in short essays on topical subjects published in newspapers, and in short-stories. He gradually increased his loans from Shakespeare, until he transmuted him in his major novels. Shakespeare’s presence in Quincas Borba, published in 1891, is unquestionable. But Machado’s  greatest “mirror up to the Bard” is  Dom Casmurro, published in 1899.

There was a shift of focus with the modernist ideals of national identity. At first, Caliban occupied the position of the voracious oppressor. The young Nicaraguan nationalist, poet and journalist Rubén Darío, after having visited New York in 1893, would equate Caliban with North Americans. To him, New York was the land where “Caliban soaks up whiskey as he soaked up wine in Shakespeare’s play”.

With The Tempest as source of inspiration for nationalistic ideals in Latin America, Caliban became the capitalist oppressor and Ariel the representative of the virtuous oppressed. This symbolic opposition had its impact in 1900 through Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó’s essay Ariel.

Rodó sees Prospero as a wise teacher surrounded by his young followers whom he guides in their intellectual search for elevated life; and Caliban, as a rude, destructive materialist embodying North American civilization. Rodó says: “Ariel is this sublime instinct of perfectibility through whose virtue he is converted into the centre of things. [….] Triumphant Ariel means idealism and order in life, noble inspiration in thinking, disinterested morals, refinement in art. […….] Subdued a thousand times by Caliban’s unconquerable rebelliousness, proscribed by conquering savagery, asphyxiated in the fumes of battles, his transparent wings being stained as he touches Job’s everlasting garbage, Ariel resurrects even more immortal, Ariel recovers his youth and his beauty and nimbly assists all those who really love and invoke him, as he used to do with Prospero.”[i]

Rodó’s symbolism pervaded  socio-political and literary thinking until the first half of the 20th century. When the United States endeavoured to impose their interests in Central and South America, new Latin American voices saw in Caliban the legitimate representative of the oppressed and exploited colonized people in their continent. And “Caliban, the Latin American,” was born. In 1969, on the Caribbean islands, there appeared three different reconstructions of that play: Martinican Aimé Césaire’s La Tempête; Barbadian Edward Braithwaite’s Islands, a collection of poems that has a poem entitled “Caliban”; and Cuban Roberto Fernández Retamar, whose book Caliban: Apuntes sobre la cultura en nuestra America was published in 1971.

Retamar’s Caliban became the symbol for the Latin American peoples oppressed by North American power. He was then transformed into the hybrid representative of Latin Americans, the “mestizo: “Our symbol”, Retamar said, “is not Ariel, as Rodó thought, but Caliban. This becomes particularly clear to us, mestizos who inhabit the same islands where Caliban lived: Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, turned Caliban into a slave and taught him his language so that he could communicate with him. What else can Caliban do but use this same language – as there is no other nowadays – to curse Prospero, to wish that the red plague devoured him? I do not know any better metaphor for our cultural situation, for our reality.”

In 1979, during the military dictatorship, the Brazilian thinker, actor and theatre director Augusto Boal, exiled in Lisbon, wrote A Tempestade (The Tempest). Boal conflated his theories on theatre and his view of the Latin American plight, and offered a new reading of Shakespeare’s text.  In it Prospero portrays North America; the other noblemen, Europe; Ariel, the submissive intellectual serving the oppressor; and Caliban, Latin America. Politically subversive, Boal also transgresses the canon, by means of a simple dramatic structure with his Manichean strategy of good/Caliban/oppressed versus evil/Prospero/oppressor. Such simplification, plus the use of fourteen songs that serve as a choric element explaining situations, characters’ behaviour, and ironically commenting upon the dialogue, subverts Shakespeare’s text. As he said in the epigraph to the play,”it must be made clear, very clear that we are beautiful because we are ourselves, and no imposed culture is more beautiful than ours. [….]It must be made clear that we are Caliban.”

In the forties, when Latin America was beginning to find its own image, the United States ruled over the contemporary mass media market and Hollywood was the centre of interest of actors, directors and audience. Shakespeare, the great icon of culture, became a target of capitalist cinematic productions. It was then that two appropriations of Romeo and Juliet appeared as parodies of the canon and of the Hollywood film enterprise: the Mexican 1943 Romeo y Julieta, and the 1949 Brazilian Carnaval no Fogo  with its anthological parody of the two balcony scenes in Shakespeare’s text.

Romeo y Julieta was written by Jaime Salvador and directed by Miguel M. Delgado for the comedian Mario Moreno, better known as Cantinflas. Cantinflas’s art developed in the tradition of a Mexican lively performance called carpa that did not work well on the screen. This Romeo and Juliet, a blatant parody of both Shakespeare’s play and George Cukor’s 1939 film, focuses more on the actor/carpero than on the appropriation of the canonical text.

The 1949 Brazilian parody, just a short intervention on the film directed by Watson Macedo, was played by two well known comic actors, Oscarito and Grande Otelo. With Grande Otelo, a male negro actor, playing Juliet, the scene was from the start based on the carnivalesque “world-upside-down” of parody in which travesty has a strong appeal. The dialogue between the two “lovers” transmutes Shakespeare’s language when it uses imagery from the source text simultaneous with verbal puns accessible to Brazilian audiences. This scene in a popular entertainment caters for the “mob” while subverting the ideals and presumptions of the upper class, and strongly ridiculing Holywood through its hints at American films then well known in Brazil.

From the four last decades of the 20th century onwards Shakespeare’s work has flourished in complete freedom in Latin America, now more than ever crossing boundaries, geographically, artistically, and in different media.

In literature, the 20th century saw Shakespeare mainly through the eyes of two renowned writers: Chilean Pablo Neruda, with his translation of Romeo and Juliet, in 1964. And the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges with various recreations of themes and ideas, such as his  tales Everything and Nothing and La Memoria de Shakespeare, and  his   poem The Thing I Am.   

Neruda’s translation, a beautiful poetical construct, is practically turned into another text, as political ideology and aesthetic constraints induced him to omit various passages and avoid puns and bawdy language. He conceded that he had been constrained by the need to render Shakespeare’s text into an understandable poetical drama in Spanish, when he said: “Preserving poetry was the hardest part. […] I had to tackle one all-encompassing, definitive problem: the poetry’s comprehension and survival. That was the major problem, and this is the question I essentially tried to resolve: how to preserve Shakespeare’s poetic expression while making the tragedy comprehensible for everyone.”[ii]

Borges used to liken himself to Shakespeare’s liar Parolles and Shakespeare to God, in creative power. He saw such real life in the playwright’s characters that to him Shakespeare the man becomes nothing. In Everything and Nothing, for instance, Shakespeare asks God to let him “be one and myself”, but is denied his request, as God defines his role as creator: “Like me, you are many and no one”[iii]

Among 20th century recreations some are noteworthy for their innovative assimilation of Shakespeare’s plays. In Argentina, Richard III has launched adaptations related to strong regimes. Some of these are Marcelo Arbach’s and Franco Cuello’s 2009 production that set the play in the 40’s, during the deposition of Peron’s government; Guillermo Asensio’s, 2007/2008 multimedia Richard III in which the tyrant  used a remote control to choose which scenes the audience would see on a big plasma screen. And Laura Silva, in 2006, adapted and directed a version of the same play with clowns as characters highlighting the evil inherent in tyranny.

In 2001, Rubén Pires directed El Romance del Romeo y la Julieta (The Romeo and Juliet Ballad). This new version had one hundred and fifty tango songs that told the story of Romeo and Juliet making practically no change in the source plot. Tango, then, with its rhythm representative of the country, creates a cultural bridge between two different places and long distanced times.

Before this production in Argentina, and also using regional music as a complementary device, in 1992 Gabriel Vilela directed Grupo Galpão, in Brazil, in their Romeo and Juliet, winner of some international awards. In this adaptation for street theatre, music accompanied Shakespeare’s words interspersed with speeches in the style of the Brazilian novelist Guimarães Rosa.

In Colombia, the Teatro Libre de Bogotá, founded in 1973 by a group of young actors and under the guidance of Ricardo Camacho, offered some rich productions based on Shakespeare. Politically oriented at first, in 1977 El Teatro Libre de Bogotá changed from politics to art for art’s sake. Ricardo Camacho said in an interview[iv]: “This decisive moment in the life of the group was marked by the life giving and critical presence of William Shakespeare’s theatre, with a sort of strength that has followed it throughout its story.”[v] It was then that the Teatro Libre performed King Lear. That production met with a huge success, providing the group with means to have their own theatre house and create the Escuela de Teatro Libre (Free Theatre School) that has already produced fifteen plays by Shakespeare.

In contemporary Latin America the influence of the screen has allowed Shakespeare to be acted over in even newer accents though the countries where they emerge are no longer unborn.So where are we now in your opinion? That is, for instance, the case with Lípkies’s 2003 Mexican film Huapango, and Grisolli’s 1980 and 1983 Brazilian recreations for Globo TV, Otelo de Oliveira and Romeu e Julieta.

So, in Latin America, the rest has not been silence.

[i] My translation into English from the Brazilian version of Ariel: Breviário da Juventude, adapted by Hermes da Fonseca Filho. Rio de Janeiro, 1926.

[ii] Quoted in Racz, 2005:79.

[iii] Translated from Borges’s Obras Completas. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974.  vol. 2:182.

[iv] Interview with Patricia Jamarillo.

[v] My translation into English.





Boal, Augusto. A Tempestade. Lisboa:

Borges, Jorge Luis. Obras Complets. 4 vols. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974.

Dias, Gonçalves. Leonor de Mendonça. Belo Horizonte: Vega, 1976.

Modenessi, Alfredo Michel. “The Rogue and Will”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:219-241.

Racz, Gregary J. “Strategies of Deletion in Pablo Neruda’s Romeo and Juliet”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:71-91.

Rodo, José Enrique. Ariel: breviario da Juventude. Hermes da Fonseca Ada. Rio de Janeiro, 1926.

Santos, Marlene Soares dos. “Theater for the Oppressed: Augusto Boal’s A Tempestade”. Aimara da Cunha Resende ed. Foreign Accents: Brazilian Appropriations of Shakespeare. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002:42-54.

Tiffany, Grace. “Borges and Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Borges”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:145-165.

Tronch-Pérez, Jésus. “The Unavenging Prince: A Nineteenth-Century Mexican Stage Adaptation of Hamlet”. Bernice W. Kliman; Rick Santos eds. Latin American Shakespeares. Madison & Teaneck: Fairleigh Univeristy Press, 2005:54-70.


Vaughan, Alden T. “Caliban in the ‘Third World’: Shakespeare’s Savage as Sociopolitical Symbol”. Critical Essays On Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST. Virginia Mason Vaughan; Alden T. Vaughan eds. New York: G.K. Hall, 1998:247-265.

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