About This Clip
“The dilemma of Hamlet is juxtaposed with the conflict of contemporary Manipuri youth.” (Kishworjit, director).
Translation by S. Manglem Singh
Hamlet – M.Brajabidhu Singh
Ophelia – Chatrabali Devi
Gertrude – S.Meenakumari Devi
Leartes – K.Priyobarta Singh
Video of performance took place on 1 March 2001 at the Nataka Bharathi 2001 Shakespeare on Indian Stage, national theatre festival and seminar at Kasargode, Kerala, India, 24 Feb – 2 March 2001, in association with the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi.
Performance is discussed in ‘“Play[ing’]s the thing”: Hamlet on the Indian Stage, Hamlet Studies Vol.24 (2002).
Shakespeare’s plays enjoy a great deal of popularity across the world, yet most of us study Shakespeare's local productions. Alexa Alice Joubin's Shakespeare and East Asia (Oxford 2021) addresses this gap through a wide-ranging analysis of stage and film adaptations related to Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The New Books Network interview about the book by MIT Global Shakespeares co-founder Alexa Alice Joubin is now live. The interview was hosted by Amanda Kennell (North Carolina State University).more
Shakespeare’s plays enjoy a great deal of popularity across the world, yet most of us study Shakespeare’s local productions. Alexa Alice Joubin‘s Shakespeare and East Asia (Oxford 2021) addresses this gap through a wide-ranging analysis of stage and film adaptations related to Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The book focuses on post-1950 adaptations that were distributed across or associated with the Sinophone world and East Asia. She identifies a quartet of characteristics that distinguish these adaptations: innovations in form, the use of Shakespeare for social critiques, the questioning of gender roles, and the development of multilingual patterns of circulation.
The adaptations are alternately funny, dramatic, and thought-provoking, but never boring.
Several of the works described in both the interview and the book are available online through the MIT Global Shakespeares Video and Performance Archive.
We are pleased to announce the publication of MIT Global Shakespeares co-founder Alexa Alice Joubin's Screening Shakespeare, a new, open-access, online textbook with interactive learning modules. You can learn about key concepts of film and adaptation studies. The openly-licensed book is free to all. You can learn about film theory, mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound and music, and adaptation strategies in the context of global Shakespeare.more
We are pleased to announce the publication of MIT Global Shakespeares co-founder Alexa Alice Joubin’s Screening Shakespeare, a new, open-access, online textbook with interactive learning modules. You can learn about key concepts of film and adaptation studies. The openly-licensed book is free to all. You can learn about film theory, mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound and music, and adaptation strategies in the context of global Shakespeare.
This online book is designed with the principle of multimodal access. There are multiple pathways to the contents with plenty of cross-references.
Click one of the thematic “tiles” on the homepage to access the contents in a non-linear fashion.
You can also navigate this site, in a more traditional manner, by way of drop-down menus that replicate the experience of leafing through a codex book with a table of contents.
The lesson units cross-reference one another. They do not have to be read in any particular order.
This online book is supported directly by the George Washington University Adapting Course Materials for Equity Faculty Grant and indirectly by the Online Course Development grant. less
Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear have inspired incredible work in the Sinophone theatres of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China for over two centuries as political theatre, comedic parody, Chinese opera, and avant-garde theatre. Gender roles in the plays take on new meanings when they are embodied by actors whose new accents expand the characters’ racial identities. A new, one-of-a-kind anthology, Sinophone Adaptations of Shakespeare, edited by Alexa Alice Joubin, honors this fact of diversity. English-subtitled videos of most of the plays in this anthology are available on MIT Global Shakespeares.more
Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear have inspired incredible work in the Sinophone theatres of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China for over two centuries as political theatre, comedic parody, Chinese opera, and avant-garde theatre. Gender roles in the plays take on new meanings when they are embodied by actors whose new accents expand the characters’ racial identities. A new, one-of-a-kind anthology, Sinophone Adaptations of Shakespeare, edited by Alexa Alice Joubin, honors this fact of diversity. English-subtitled videos of most of the plays in this anthology are available on MIT Global Shakespeares.
Between 1987, when Chairman Deng Xiaoping reaffirmed “socialist market economy” as the guiding principle of China’s development and when Taiwan’s martial law was lifted by President Chiang Ching-kuo, and 2007, when the first competitive Chief Executive election changed Hong Kong’s political culture (Donald Tsang was elected), these three tragedies were staged in multiple traditional and modern performance genres. They were informed by the anxieties and cultural dynamics in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan during this period. The year of 1987 was the beginning of the internationalization of Sinophone Shakespeare. The multinational technology company Huawei was founded in 1987, a landmark event in terms of China’s rise internationally.
Alexa Alice Joubin’s regional method of cultural studies features a built-in comparative perspective that amplifies what Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman calls “a relational mode of thinking.” This method transcends siloed, national perspectives on the development of performance cultures.
A regional methodology attends to intra-regional idiosyncrasies and connections by breaking down perceived, clear cultural boundaries between nation-states. In this model of regional studies, there are no singular, unitary centers and peripheries in the cultural exchange, because the diffuse nature of disseminating ideas on varied but connected cultural terrains enables us to have a more comprehensive vision of artists’ claimed affinity with, indifference to, and resistance of Shakespeare and the idea of Chineseness.
In fact, while the “Sinophone” may be a discrete aesthetic or linguistic unit, it has no official geographical borders. The Sinophone encompasses artistic creation in Mandarin and a wide range of Sinetic dialects and practices. Using the region as a unit of knowledge helps us transcend “local” exceptionalism.
The book showcases the directors’ methodic transformations of the three tragedies into various performance genres. Organized thematically to address the cultural exigencies between 1987 and 2007, this collection of translated plays showcases some gems of Sinophone cultures that stand at the intersection of East Asian and Anglophone dramas. Each section of this anthology focuses on a pair of striking adaptations of one of the tragedies.
This book shows that positivist and antithetical strands co-exist in the Sinophone reception of Shakespeare. Relational, cultural meanings emerge through negation of and negotiation with Shakespeare.
Here is a fascinating example of the plays that have been translated into English. King Lear has held a special place in Asia. In the Sinophone world, the tragedy has been adapted as a story of social reparation and of aging and dying with dignity.
Taiwanese Beijing opera (jingju) actor Wu Hsing-kuo staged a series of iconic scenes from King Lear to tell an autobiographical story in his solo production, Lear Is Here. Even though the story was performed in an operatic form, filial piety is not the central focus, as is the case in other Beijing opera adaptations.
Among the plays collected in this volume, Lear Is Here is unique in having originated outside of the Sinophone sphere. Ariane Mnouchkine invited Wu to lead a workshop for Théâtre du Soleil in Paris to address the limitations of European avant-garde acting methods. He created the solo adaptation of Lear as a means to introduce jingju techniques to non-specialists and to innovate jingju by fusing the operatic form with a Western high tragedy. Like Shamlet, Shakespeare’s work is merely a pretext for artistic innovation here. Having been invited to the Edinburgh Festival, New York’s Lincoln Center, and other prestigious venues, Lear Is Here is still touring internationally today.
Wu played ten characters: Li Er in the first act, the Fool, a Dog, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Earl of Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar in the second act, and himself (Wu Hsing-kuo the actor) in the third and final act. In taking on male and female roles of all ages and jingju role types outside of his specialization, Wu entered an experimental territory and accomplished what few jingju actors have attempted.
Wu also mapped his life story onto that of Lear’s. He used the idea of king’s two, spiritual and carnal, bodies and Lear’s monarchial and paternal identities to address his own divided identities as a Taiwanese jingju actor. Beijing opera is seen on the island as a decidedly, and problematically, Chinese art form. Taiwan has been constantly under threat of invasion from the People’s Republic of China, and Sinophobic sentiments have been growing stronger since the
Here is another example of Sinophone dramatic creativity. In Shamlet, whose title playfully evokes the Mandarin transliterations of Shakespeare’s name and “Hamlet,” for example, the Danish prince froze when the ghost of his father was stranded onstage after the scene on the castle ramparts (act 1, scenes 4 and 5) due to a scripted mechanical failure of the wires. After the father-son conversation about the most “foul and … unnatural” murder of Old Hamlet, the Ghost—had everything gone according to plan—would exit by ascending by wire. A witty metatheatrical comedy about a struggling theatre company, Shamlet depicts a group of bumbling Taiwanese actors’ endearing efforts to put on Hamlet to rescue their company from financial ruin.
Half way through the story, an actor-character made the astonishing discovery that their troupe got the play’s title wrong all along: it should have been Hamlet rather than Shamlet.
The actor-characters’ fate in the story mirrors the indeterminate state of being of the characters in Hamlet. In search of identities onstage and in their personal life, they explore such questions as “should the show go on?” and “to be or not to be” an actor? The show peels back the façade of stagecraft to reveal the contingency of theatre making. Its metatheatrical structure also defamiliarizes the tropes of a brooding prince and his revenge mission in Hamlet. This 1992 masterpiece by Taiwanese playwright Lee Kuo-hsiu features dramaturgical parallels to Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (Romaine Film Corp, 1942) and Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1995), both of which revolve around fictional theatre companies’ comical and, sometimes pitiable, efforts to stage Hamlet. With continuous revivals staged even after Lee’s death in 2013, Shamlet remains one of the most popular plays in the Sinophone world today.
Excerpted from Alexa Alice Joubin, ed., Sinophone Adaptations of Shakespeare: An Anthology, 1987-2007, New York: Palgrave, 2022; ISBN 978-3-030-92993-0; DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-92993-0
Open-access full-text Introduction in PDF form
Table of Contents
Sinophone Shakespeares: A Critical Introduction, Alexa Alice Joubin
Part 1. Existentialist Questions in Post-Socialist China and Post-Martial-Law Taiwan
Chapter 1. Hamlet as Political Theatre in Beijing, 1990, Steven L. Riep and Ronald Kimmons
Chapter 2. Hamlet as Parody in Taipei, 1992 / 2008, Christopher Rea and Alexa Alice Joubin
Part 2. Bewitched by Kunqu Opera and Avant-Garde Theatre
Chapter 3. An Operatic Macbeth in Shanghai, 1987 / 2008, Siyuan Liu and Alexa Alice Joubin
Chapter 4. A Feminist Macbeth in Tainan, 2007, Yilin Chen
Part 3. Self-Identities in Traditional and Experimental Jingju Opera
Chapter 5. A Confucian King Lear in Shanghai, 1995, Dongshin Chang and Alexa Alice Joubin
Chapter 6. A Buddhist King Lear in Taipei, 2001, Alexa Alice Joubin
Chapter 7. Theatrical Bricolage of Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello in Beijing, 1986, Lia Wen-ching Liang
What if some Shakespearean characters are transgender or played by trans actors? Examples include Viola as pageboy Cesario in Twelfth Night, Falstaff as the Witch of Brainford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It, and Imogen disguised as the boy Fidele in Cymbeline. Different kinds of trans practices elicit contrasting reactions. While trans masculine acts, such as those staged by Viola’s Cesario, are often performed in the vein of empowerment, trans feminine characters, such as Falstaff’s Witch of Brainford, are ridiculed by other characters and by the audiences.more
What if some Shakespearean characters are transgender or played by trans actors? Examples include Viola as pageboy Cesario in Twelfth Night, Falstaff as the Witch of Brainford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It, and Imogen disguised as the boy Fidele in Cymbeline. Different kinds of trans practices elicit contrasting reactions. While trans masculine acts, such as those staged by Viola’s Cesario, are often performed in the vein of empowerment, trans feminine characters, such as Falstaff’s Witch of Brainford, are ridiculed by other characters and by the audiences.
When actors embody a role, their own identities—perceived or self-claimed—enrich the meanings of the performance. One of the key aspects of identities on stage is gender as a social practice. In Shakespeare’s plays, gender variance is more than just a dramatic device derived from the early modern practice of cross-dressing.
What is “true” in a fictional character can be determined by the rhetoric in various dramatic conventions such as trial scenes and formal debates. By taking into consideration a character’s actions and choice of words we can deduce their personal truth in a performative context.
Gendered language plays an important role in the acclaimed South Korean period drama film The King and the Clown (dir. Lee Joon-ik, 2005). The tragicomic film chronicles the life of a masculine and a trans-feminine vagabond performers—Jang-saeng and Gong-gil—in the fifteenth-century Joseon Dynasty. The trans-feminine Gong-gil is played by a cisgender actor.
As a catalyst for the twists and turns of the plot, Gong-gil is an Ophelia figure. She is unable to express herself and lack inner direction. Like Ophelia, Gong-gil’s life is influenced by men around her. Like Ophelia, Gong-gil is objectified by the male gaze as a love interest. In one scene Gong-gil wears an opera headdress ornately decorated with flowers, similar to Ophelia’s garland. In another scene, Gong-gil is found lying in a pool of their blood after a suicide attempt.
Notably the trans protagonist is neither in flamboyant drag nor struggling with gender transition. She presents as female throughout the entire film. There is no gender crossing to speak of. She is not moving between different identities. The King and the Clown enables its central trans-feminine character to simply exist as themselves without justification.
Over time, the king, a composite of Hamlet and Claudius, becomes fond of Gong-gil. The king is clearly drawn to Gong-gil’s appearance as an exotic object, while Gong-gil seems to have sympathy for the unhappy king. This causes displeasure of Nok-su, once the king’s favorite consort.
In one scene, Nok-su storms in on the king and Gong-gil in an intimate scene and taunts Gong-gil about her “real” gender. She tries to undress Gong-gil in front of the king, creating a great deal of tension. Presumably Nok-su’s dramatic act of “gender reveal” is to expose Gong-gil’s as an abject subject with alleged physical deficiencies and thereby dissuade the king from bestowing further favors on Gong-gil.
Nok-su is as frustrated by Gong-gil’s version of femininity as she is jealous of the newcomer who is replacing her as the king’s favorite subject. The act of peeling the dress off Gong-gil is symbolic of her desire to authenticate embodied identities, as if to up the ante in the competition.
Such revelation scenes are a familiar trope in transgender narratives. These scenes are part of what is known as the reveal in trans cinema, a device of exposure and a shock device about a bodily truth. Such scenes subject trans characters to “the pressures of a pervasive gender/sex system that seeks to make public the ‘truth’ of the trans person’s gendered and sexed body.” Such revelation scenes reenact struggles over the body’s meanings.
Transgender theory enables us to reclaim gender variant performances and expand our collective archive of global Shakespeare. Multiple gendered crossings in The King and the Clown, among other works, disrupt cisgender assumptions. By reading Gong-gil as a transgender Ophelia we build a more capacious theoretical model to elucidate not only performance histories of sexual transformation.
Performance theories inflected by transgender studies destabilize the line between normalcy and the deviant in and beyond scripted performance.
Excerpted from Alexa Alice Joubin, “Transgender Theory and Global Shakespeare,” in Performing Shakespearean Appropriations: Essays in Honor of Christy Desmet, ed. Darlena Ciraulo, Matthew Kozusko, Robert Sawyer (Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2022), 161-176.
Even though Shakespeare’s plays were initially performed by all-male casts, they were designed to appeal to diverse audiences. Many modern adaptations reimagine those plays as expressions of gender nonconformity. Many...more
Even though Shakespeare’s plays were initially performed by all-male casts, they were designed to appeal to diverse audiences. Many modern adaptations reimagine those plays as expressions of gender nonconformity. Many modern adaptations reimagine those plays as expressions of gender nonconformity. Over the past decades, prominent films and theater works have fostered new public conversations about the politics of appropriating gender identities in Shakespeare’s plays around the world.
Gender variance is more than just a dramatic device derived from the early modern practice of cross-dressing. Our understanding of the comedies and romance plays would change dramatically if some characters are interpreted as transgender or played by transgender performers, such as Viola who presents as pageboy Cesario in Twelfth Night, Falstaff as the Witch of Brainford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It, and Imogen as Fidele in Cymbeline.
Viola as Cesario, for instance, is a trans masculine character, as they do not cross-dress for entertainment or mischief. Cesario never recovers his “maiden’s weeds” at the end of Twelfth Night. The assumed demise of their twin brother Sebastian is a pivotal moment for Viola not only to mourn him through impersonation but also to live an authentic life. This reading of Viola is inspired by the late Christy Desmet’s interrogation (or “prosecution”) of the motives of characters as they manifest themselves in the characters’ rhetoric. What is “true” in a fictional character can be determined by the rhetoric in various dramatic conventions such as trial scenes and formal debates. By taking into consideration a character’s actions and choice of words we can deduce their personal truth in a performative context.
Since gender variance is coded linguistically and culturally, performing Shakespeare in translation entails purposeful treatment of personal pronouns. Twelfth Night is a good example. When Cesario, pursued by the lovelorn Olivia, declares that “I am the man [of the hour] and a dream” in Twelfth Night (2.2.25–26), they traverse a transgender space. On the early modern English stage, Viola would speak with double irony as a doubly cross-dressed boy actor. In modern times, Viola would challenge audiences’ normative assumptions when the role is played by an adult male actor (Johnny Flynn) in Mark Rylance’s all-male production at the Globe Theatre in London in 2012 (dir. Tim Carroll).
Gender play in Twelfth Night acquires many more fascinating layers when performed in Japanese, a language that often elides the subject. As an otokoyaku (actress specializing in male roles) in the all-female Broadway-style Takarazuka musical production (dir. Kimura Shinji, 1999), Yamato Yuga’s Viola embodies enticing gender fluidity when speaking Japanese. In addition to making the right choice of employing the familiar or the polite register based on the relation between the speaker and the addressee, male and female speakers of Japanese have to choose from gender-specific first-person pronouns. This grammatical feature makes it difficult to create a queer space. However, it can be rewarding to work with semantic ambiguity within syntactical restrictions by eliding the subject.
By reading Viola/Cesario as trans, we build a more capacious theoretical model to elucidate not only performance histories of sexual transformation, such as Montaigne’s story of Marie Germain or Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, but also less explicit representations of trans identities such as double crossdressing.
We could deploy transgender theories to examine other cases as well, such as the practice of cross-gender casting (Julie Taymor’s 2010 film The Tempest), gender-bending performances (contemporary productions of Jacob Gordin’s 1898 play The Jewish Queen Lear), and postgender adaptations, in which gender is not treated as a meaningful denominator of characterization (Michelle Terry’s 2018 Globe productions).
Performance theories inflected by transgender studies destabilize the line between normalcy and the deviant in and beyond scripted performance. Transgender theory enables us to reclaim gender variant performances and expand our collective archive of global Shakespeare.
This blog post is an excerpt from Alexa Alice Joubin’s “Transgender Theory and Global Shakespeare,” Performing Shakespearean Appropriations: Essays in Honor of Christy Desmet, ed. Darlena Ciraulo, Matthew Kozusko, Robert Sawyer (Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2022), 161-176 [PDF]
The concept of "interface" is often overlooked in the study of performances. The screen interface immerses audiences in an alternate universe in such a way that audiences rarely question the screen’s aesthetic function. That interface often makes itself transparent even though it is generating the dramaturgical meanings central to the narratives. Performance, as a medium, interfaces with textual variants, different scripts, the stage or the film set, and audience expectations. Within some Shakespearean performances, screens are literal and metaphorical interfaces. The interface between humans (story-tellers) and machines (technologies of representation) governs the very logic of screened performance as a narrative medium. Let us take a look at a few examples.more
The concept of “interface” is often overlooked in the study of performances. The screen interface immerses audiences in an alternate universe in such a way that audiences rarely question the screen’s aesthetic function. That interface often makes itself transparent even though it is generating the dramaturgical meanings central to the narratives. Performance, as a medium, interfaces with textual variants, different scripts, the stage or the film set, and audience expectations. Within some Shakespearean performances, screens are literal and metaphorical interfaces. The interface between humans (story-tellers) and machines (technologies of representation) governs the very logic of screened performance as a narrative medium. Let us take a look at a few examples.
Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film Coriolanus uses the fictional Fidelis TV channel as an interface to connect three key time zones of (1) the 1990s setting of dramatic action that fuses (2) Elizabethan era ideologies that are (3) mapped onto a Roman history inspired by Thomas Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (1579).
Set “in a place calling itself Rome” in Serbia, a cinematic space created by the newsreels with references to the Yugoslav Wars, this film leans heavily on the screen-within-the-film as a framing device and interface. Protestors are shown filming, on their cell phones, Coriolanus’ (Ralph Fiennes) speech vilifying the plebeians during a conflict at the grain depot.
Jon Snow plays himself as a newscaster who interviews various characters while delivering breaking news in Shakespeare’s blank verse. Multiple scenes show characters, such as Aufidius (Gerard Butler) or Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), glued to a television set in tense, pivotal moments.
Appropriately enough, for a film bent on allegorizing the role of public media in modern political life, Coriolanus is banished during a live interview in a television studio. The co-presence of media coverage and on-screen action recasts the film viewers as consumers of the news. The television screen within the film reframes the movie screen in front of the film viewers. The interface of television news goes far beyond their typical function of silent exposition to become the message itself.
Famous lines from Shakespeare can themselves become a gateway to alternate realities. “To be or not to be,” for example, is used as an interface between film viewers and values traditionally associated with “Shakespeare.” John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993) depicts the adventure of Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), a schoolboy who is a fan of the action film hero Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
When Danny’s English teacher screens the scene of Hamlet’s soliloquy from Laurence Olivier’s film, a bored Danny envisions the scene as it should be played, starring a Terminator-esque Slater in Olivier’s costumes, who smashes his way through stalled moments in Hamlet without hesitation. Watch the Hamlet scene in Last Action Hero here.
Recast in the role of Hamlet, Slater asks himself, “to be or not to be?” Lighting up the cigar in his mouth, he declares “not to be” as he ignites explosives without hesitation, killing all the characters in Hamlet. The scene is an example of how films interface other modes of presentation. Olivier’s psychological realism and clichéd theatrical style of performance on screen are overwritten by the school boy’s imagination that draws on more contemporary cultural reference points. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day made Schwarzenggar a bankable global star in 1991, two years before the release of Last Action Hero.
These uses of screens-within-the-film or Shakespearean artifacts as an interface anticipate the Wooster Group’s meta-media and multi-media stage production of Hamlet (dir. Elizabeth LeCompte, 2007) in which the actors projected onstage a filmed version of Richard Burton’s performance in a 1964 Hamlet (dir. John Gielgud) on the Broadway. Burton’s onscreen Hamlet ghosts Scott Shepherd’s onstage Hamlet.
In addition to the 1964 Hamlet, which is playing on a big screen upstage as pre-recorded material, another smaller screen is present downstage. The smaller screen, standing behind the actors but in front of the large screen, shows a live video stream of their action primarily in the form of closeup shots of their faces. Actors speak the same lines synchronously with Burton’s performance. On some occasions, the soundtrack from Burton’s video contributed to uncanny dual soundtracks of live and pre-recorded speeches. On other occasions, the actors appeared to be ventriloquizing, or mouthing, lines from Burton’s video, because the louder soundtrack of the project drowned out the stage action.
Three observations can be made about these instances of interfacing Shakespeare onscreen. First, the screen as interface has created deep structural connections among even works that seem to be isolated instances of artistic creation. The connections extend through the cultural practice of interfacing different media, such as film, theatre, visual arts. The cases above relate more frequently to one another, through the screening interface, than to Shakespeare as sanctified source material.
Secondly, these works are products of meta-cinematic and meta-theatrical operations and contestations among genres for primacy. The meanings of these narratives are shaped by the interface between disparate genres.
Thirdly, this interface culture has given rise to digitally enhanced global Shakespeare performances. While in the 1990s audiences typically encountered Shakespeare for the first time through film or theatre, in our times the initial encounters occur predominantly on digital platforms in the form of video clips, memes or quotes. It has become more common for non-professional readers and audiences to encounter Shakespeares in fragmented forms. “To be or not to be,” even in fragmented forms and out-of-context quotations, carries weight and shifts the meanings of some characters’ action.
It is now commonplace to integrate Shakespeare in traditional film format on the big screen into personalized experiences on the small screen for personal entertainment or for education. The interface of the screen is now a portal through which audiences experience Shakespeare’s narratives with a range of associated artistic elements including costumes, sets, and music.
This is an excerpt from Alexa Alice Joubin’s “Interfacing Shakespeare Onscreen” in The Routledge Handbook of Shakespeare and Interface (2023), ed. Clifford Werier and Paul Budra, pp. 332-344 [PDF]
The screen as an interface immerses audiences in an alternate universe. As a result, that interface seems transparent. Through analyses of performances that call attention to filmic genres, such as Edgar Wright’s parody film, Hot Fuzz (2007), and the Wooster Group’s multimedia production, Hamlet (2007), as well as (meta)theatrical operations on small screens within cinematic and digital performances, such as Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011), the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Dream (2021), and Michael Almereyda’s film Hamlet (2000), this chapter argues that the screen is an interface that generates dramatic meanings and that promotes audiences’ self-reflexivity.
Performance, as a medium, interfaces with textual variants, audience expectations, and site-specific arts—artworks produced and consumed at specific physical sites and in designated social spaces. Performances with screens as interface, in particular, create celluloid and digital pathways to various ideologies. The interface between humans (story-tellers) and machines (technologies of representation) governs the very logic of screened performance as a narrative medium.
With case studies showing how screens big and small have become more than technologies of representation, this chapter reveals the central place of screen as interface between the different universes of the characters, the performers, and the audiences.
Read the full text here.
Recently, anti-feminist, white nationalist, (trans)misogynist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic movements have used “genderism” to evoke a range of disruptive identities and to attack legal and social human rights [watch the video recording]. On April 14, 2022, the George Washington University Humanities Center hosted an event entitled "Trans Studies and Why It Matters: A Conversation with Alexa Alice Joubin"; the event was chaired by Lynn Westwater. The conversation explored how transgender studies can combat intersectional forms of oppression and what the history of transgender studies can teach us about our current social crisis.more
Recently, anti-feminist, white nationalist, (trans)misogynist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic movements have used “genderism” to evoke a range of disruptive identities and to attack legal and social human rights [watch the video recording]. On April 14, 2022, the George Washington University Humanities Center hosted an event entitled “Trans Studies and Why It Matters: A Conversation with Alexa Alice Joubin“; the event was chaired by Lynn Westwater. The conversation explored how transgender studies can combat intersectional forms of oppression and what the history of transgender studies can teach us about our current social crisis.
Here is an excerpt from the conversation. For the video recording, please scroll down.
This is not a full transcript but a highlight of the event. Please note the following content warning: gender-based violence and discrimination, film clips and verbal discussion of rape and misgendering acts.
Lynn Westwater: Gender has emerged as the latest wedge issue. Vladimir Putin used scaremongering about gender and sexual orientation to support his authoritarian agenda. In the midst of Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin took time to complain about “cancel culture” in the West, claiming that Western elites had “canceled” J.K. Rowling because she “did not please fans of so-called gender freedoms.” Putin is referring to Rowling’s attacks of transgender rights. Why has gender become the latest battle ground for culture wars?
Alexa Alice Joubin: At first blush, it may seem odd that Putin should care about Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, when, in 2003, a group of Russian lawyers sued Warner Bros over similarities between Putin and the CGI character Dobby the elf.
Upon closer examination, Putin’s and Rowling’s obsession about gender purity is not odd at all. Right-wing politicians follow the same playbook. The pandemic of Covid-19 has fueled intersectional forms of hatred and fear that have coalesced around gender.
The presence of trans individuals creates a category crisis by challenging putative binary distinctiveness of gender. Further, it poses what is known in social identity theory as distinctiveness threat. When a group sees the boundaries defining their identity as indispensable, they feel threatened when these putatively definitional boundaries are blurred.
Gender identity is merely the latest scapegoat. There is a long history of associating trans bodies with illness, and inversion of trans individuals’ personal truths.
We should see gender as a set of evolving interpersonal relationships and social practices rather than immutable identities. Interpersonal relationships and gendered practices evolve in the presence of other people as well.
Trans theory puts into focus, and thereby expands, our collective understanding of human variations.
Westwater: It seems that, historically, various notions of purity, ranging from race to gender, have been used by haters to attack human rights.
Joubin: Yes, for example, there is a racialized dimension of anti-trans attitudes, and anti-trans discrimination was linked in the earlier period to anti-Semitism.
Take the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, for example. He is a pioneer in trans studies. He coined the word “transvestite,” which is no longer in use today, by combining the Latin words for crossing and clothing: trans and vestis. In 1910, he published a book entitled Transvestites, which regards gender nonconformity as an independent phenomenon from same-sex desires. He observed individuals who experienced a “feeling of peace, security and exaltation, happiness and well-being . . . when in the clothing of the other sex” (125). He found that “transvestites” could be asexual, bisexual, or have any given sexual orientation.
Hirschfeld’s conception of the transvestite overlaps in part with the modern-day practice of drag and gender non-conforming sartorial choices. Hirschfeld’s contribution lies in his distinction between transvestism and the misconception of homosexuality.
In his times, homosexuality, a pathologized concept, was a conflation of sexuality and gender expressions in which homosexual individuals were thought to be gender inverted.
As a pioneer in gender and sexuality studies, Hirschfeld unfortunately was persecuted by Nazis for his Jewish and gay identities. His Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was shut down in 1933, with its books burned.
It is important to note that there is a racialized dismissal of transness. At the core of anti-Semitism and anti-trans discourses are the ideas of racial and gender “purity,” which leads to harmful biopolitics.
Westwater: Can you give us some examples of cis-centric assumptions from your field of study?
Joubin: Yes. Shakespeare’s plays often feature cross-gender roles, and professional performances in Shakespeare’s times featured only male actors. Boy actors performed female roles on stage.
While much ink has been spilt over the theatrical gender of the boy actors and Shakespeare’s female characters, the boy actors have been regarded as “transvestite actors” (Orgel 106) who engage in the cisgender practices of “cross-dressing” or drag. Peter Stallybrass pits “the staged body of a boy actor” against “the imagined body of a woman [through] the material presence of clothes” in early modern “production of contrary fixations” (79).
More recent scholarship has focused on the stage enactment of femininity and female characters’ masculine guises within the context of (queer) desire, such as sodomy (Goldberg 19; 143) and lesbian undertones in relations between trans-feminine and cisgender female characters (Traub 2015).
There are now new questions to be asked of these dramatic situations and theatre practices. How might the narratives change if we consider them as transgender performances rather than cis-centric “cross-dressing” stories requiring suspension of disbelief?
What if the final scene of As You Like It is a “charade” by Rosaland’s male alter ego Ganymede? Can we abandon our literal-mindedness about dramatic fiction and consider every character’s practice in fluid terms? It is time that we recognize transgender performances “as resisting precisely the binaries usually understood to structure modern gender” rather than simply “enacting binary male/female or homo/hetero desires” (Sanchez 88).
Instead of asking: “why did the English stage take boys for women?” we should interrogate the cis-centric formulation of that question itself.
What if the body of the female character and the actor’s somatic presence exist on a continuum rather than in contrary fixations? The enactment of gender practices is not predicated upon “substitutions” (as in substituting the boy actor for Desdemona) or entail diagnostic recognition (as in being reminded of the “real” body beneath the illusion of Desdemona). Many plays lend themselves to transgender interpretations. Twelfth Night, a “happy wrack,” is energized by Cesario’s presence, with only cursory references to Viola. Even though Cesario alludes to Viola’s “maiden weeds” (to be fetched by Antonio) in the final scene of “grand reveal,” he never changes into them and Orsino continues to call him “boy” and by the name Cesario. Orsino uses fluid language to cast Cesario as both “a man” and his “fancy queen … when in other habits” in a future that is never solidified before the play closes.
Transgender theory can advance feminist and performance scholarship by posing new questions and offering new methodologies for Shakespeare studies.
Westwater: You mentioned earlier that narrativizing trans life is the key to countering oppression. Can you elaborate?
Joubin: The performing arts are an important tool for tackling cis-sexism, given their power of embodied representation. Both cis and trans practices can be performative in this context, which puts dominant and minoritized social groups on equal footing.
There is some risk, of course, to bring the concept of performativity to trans-ness. Detractors often accuse trans people of “performing” to “pass” as someone else to deceive the society and to gain access to the “wrong” restroom. In fact, if trans individuals are performing roles at all, it is either a cis-gender conforming role enforced by the society or some form of trans narrative deemed acceptable by medical gatekeepers. Trans individuals have to perform in this sense and in these contexts in order to survive or to obtain medical care (Seelman and Poteat).
On one hand, the notion of performative gender expressions has been misappropriated by anti-trans groups to invalidate trans life, and, as a result, rejected by some trans activists as harmful to trans self-realization. On the other hand, as articles in this issue show, transgender performances can serve socially reparative purposes through characterization and representation. Reparative performances—in which characters see their conditions improve—offer optimism and model best practices.
Trans people and characters are often accused of fabricating an identity to deceive those around them for sinister purposes, such as the murderer in Dressed to Kill (1980). If they deviate from binary expectations, they are disavowed as a pretender, such as the titular Albert Nobbs (2011) and Suzanne in Nos années folles (2017). If they present as heterosexual men or women, they risk forced disclosure, as is the case of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie (1982).
Focusing on trans women, performer and activist Julia Serano, who coins the term transmisogyny, observes that the media often present trans women as either cunning sexual predators or laughable fakes (2007: 36). Serano theorizes that this pattern of representation in fact harms cis women as well as trans women, because it results from the tendency to regard femininity as artificial (44 and 340). It is a form of “traditional sexism” in which masculinity is deemed superior by default. It is also a symptom of what Serano calls “oppositional sexism,” the belief that masculinity and femininity are mutually exclusive categories (13). Accusations of fake identities are a tactic of social control. As Toby Beauchamp’s study reveals, gender nonconformity only comes to be associated with “fraud” through “demands for disclosure” and through “claims that certain bodies or identities do not match as they ought to” (9).
Here is a video recording of the event:
The world needs good question askers as much as it needs good problem solvers. Before solving problems, we need to first identify the problems. Great stories are often strangers at home. The best of them defamiliarize banal experiences and everyday utterances while offering something recognizable through a new language and form.more
An op-ed by Alexa Alice Joubin, originally published in Signal House.
Great stories are often strangers at home. The best of them defamiliarize banal experiences and everyday utterances while offering something recognizable through a new language and form.
And stories, like people, travel far and wide. They can connect us to other times and places. When Shakespeare’s plays move through different cultures, they reveal unexamined assumptions about human nature and tell surprising stories about globalization. Take, for example, a slice from Hamlet’s inquisitive mind: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The versatile verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. It has been translated into Russian, German, and Arabic as “to do,” “to die,” and “to have” (but to have, or not to have, what!?). Translating this speech into Japanese will require substantial rewriting, because Japanese does not have the verb “to be” without semantic contexts. Working with Japanese, a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view, a translator would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity.
Literary ambiguity is our friend. The ambiguity is a welcome gift for the uninhibited mind, for it has been an ally of oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, Tibet, South Africa, Poland, and elsewhere. Literary ambiguity allowed theatre makers and audiences to express themselves under censorship. When ambiguity is deliberately eradicated, when only one version of a story is permissible, when things are painted black and white, it is usually during a dark moment of history: the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, lynching, the Scottsboro boys incident in the post-Reconstruction South of the Unites States. When history is held hostage by politics, when human rights are violated, the humanities help restore dignity to what it means to be human.
Works translated into foreign languages, such as the case of Hamlet, compel us to rethink what we assume to be familiar about our own culture. The humanities in a global context enrich our mind as we pause to ask some fundamental questions. To be whom? To do what?
As my students at George Washington University tell me, the humanities and especially imaginary literature helps them put human faces on globalization. There are social implications of the fact that today’s college students improve their understanding of globalization through the humanities. There are clear benefits to being able to relate to international trade partners and strategic allies on a human level with compassion and not treat them as statistics. Knowledge of cultural globalization can help us avoid cultural imposition and move towards cultural sharing and building common ground. Story-telling helps us understand the human condition in different contexts.
Recent history has shown that the humanities are greater than the sum of its parts. An eccentric topic for an obsessed researcher may not seem to matter in light of national security or to the general public until we are caught off guard in a crisis when, as in the wake of the Tian’anmen Square Massacre, the global pandemic of COVID-19, and the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot, we are pressed to learn about who we are, how to come to terms with atrocities, where we as a nation are headed, and why. There will be no national security without an in-depth understanding of our own culture and the cultures of others. In this context, the humanities are not a luxury; they are the very foundation on which meaningful lives are built. Skills in critical thinking, civil debate, and understanding narratives are vital to the values of liberty and social equality, and a democratic society founded upon the government’s accountability and rational citizen participation. This is why public support for the humanities should be crucial.
Over the past few years, it has been both challenging and rewarding to teach Shakespeare and globalization in downtown Washington, D.C., three blocks from the White House. The nation’s capital attracts international and local students alike. The American nation was founded upon basic principles of humanistic thought, including the concepts of justice and universal humanity. Capitol Hill is a proud host to institutions that foster these ideas, including the Supreme Court, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Library of Congress, the oldest federal cultural institution. America clearly values humanities thought: its Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Today its collection includes over 155 million books and a vast collection of photographs, sheet music, sound recordings, and films on over 838 miles of shelves. The library provides a record of how people lived and expressed themselves in daily life and through the arts.
Shakespeare has helped shape powerful thinkers around the world, including the founding fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson kept a commonplace book that featured Shakespearean passages. Abraham Lincoln could recite soliloquies from Richard III. Imaginative literature, in this context, has the power to move the world.
In our age of globalization, understanding other peoples’ stories means the difference between being a window shopper and being an informed decision maker in international arenas. Here are two inspiring stories of Shakespeare in South Africa and in China.
A smuggled copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare inspired Nelson Mandela while he was in the Robben Island jail. The South African prisoners there signed their names next to passages that were important to them. The passage Mandela chose on December 16, 1977, was from Julius Caesar, just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of March in act 2, scene 2:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
These lines taught Mandela how to dream and how to rise from the ashes. Through imaginative literature, we, like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Mandela, are able to rehearse multiple scenarios and histories without having to endure the costly consequences of going to war or taking one’s own life in a political prison. The humanities can show us the future of the history we are making.
We are defined by stories we tell. At the same time, stories liberate us from the prison house of a relatively short life span in the infinite universe. Great stories can also give us courage, insight, and vision. In one of my classes, I discuss with my students the impact of the joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense to tour the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Macbeth to thirteen U.S. military bases in 2004. What does it mean to read Shakespeare through peace and war?
Wu Ningkun has a moving story to tell. The mainland Chinese intellectual returned from the University of Chicago to join Mao Zedong’s New China in 1951. A decade later, he was sent to reform himself in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution because of his alleged association with the capitalist West. Although he was under close surveillance, he still managed to smuggle a copy of Hamlet into the camp to read whenever “the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia” in northeastern China. Of this experience, he later wrote in his memoir A Single Tear: A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China:
Hamlet was my favorite Shakespeare play. Read in a Chinese labor camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. . . . The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship. The real question I came to see was neither “to be, or not to be,” nor whether “in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but how to be worthy of one’s suffering.
It is interesting to note what Wu elides from the Hamlet quote: “or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” On the one hand, it could mean that he wishes to counter the unfortunate condition of Cultural Revolution by not taking on a Hamlet-like passivity. On the other hand, it could imply that Wu seeks justice on a more transcendent level and is not seeking revenge upon those who unjustly imprisoned him. Shakespeare helped Wu survive in the labor camp, and reading Wu’s story helps us understand a crucial moment in the making of post-Mao China as the nation emerged from the Cultural Revolution.
Thinkers and leaders such as Lincoln, Mandela, and Wu have drawn inspiration from their reading and built stronger, interconnected communities through the humanities.
The world needs good question askers as much as it needs good problem solvers. Before solving problems, we need to first identify the problems. Thoughtful and engaged citizens are the foundation of a democratic, civil society. The humanities enrich the creativity of the business world, enhance the adaptability of workforces, and promote crucial cross-cultural understanding.
Alexa Alice Joubin, “Familiar Ambiguity: The Value of the Humanities in a Globalized World,” Signal House 10 (March 2021): https://www.signalhouseedition.org/issue-10-essay
The King's Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010) portrays a figure that suffers from speech impairment. Lines from Shakespeare play an important role in scenes about speech therapy in The King's Speech. more
The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010) portrays a figure that suffers from speech impairment. Lines from Shakespeare play an important role in scenes about speech therapy in The King’s Speech.
Having worked with multiple therapists without any result, Bertie (Prince Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI), a stutterer, is reluctant to receive treatment from Lionel Logue. In their first session, Logue bets Bertie a shilling that he can in fact read without stammer right away, and he would record his speech as evidence. Logue puts headphones on Bertie and asks him to read Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech into a Silvertone Home Voice Recorder. However, music is blaring through the headphones. Not only is Bertie not able to hear himself, the film’s audience too can only hear the Overture from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro with increasing volume on the soundtrack. From Bertie’s point of view, the music is only blaring through the headphones he is wearing. He cannot hear himself, but Logue can. The film recreates the discrepancy between seeing and hearing, which Bertie is experiencing, by placing us the audience in the visual perspective of Logue who is present in the room but gives us Bertie’s aural perspective where the music drowns out his recitation. Believing that he has failed again and humiliated himself, Bertie stops half way and decides to leave without listening to the recording, only to be persuaded by Logue to take the record home as a souvenir.
Logue does not choose Shakespeare out of the blue. The Australian speech therapist is an amateur Shakespearean actor while in Australia. Logue plays educational games with his children reguarly. The kids have to guess the Shakespearean character and play he is portraying.
Two observations can be made of the particular speech’s function in the cinematic narrative about disability. First, the scene signals that Hamlet is part of the collective memory of the British and Commonwealth cultural realm—an Australian speech therapist working with a British monarch with dwindling significance in the modern world. As Terence Hawkes argues, phrases and ideas from Hamlet have been so deeply embedded in everyday speech that it operates simply as “a web of quotations.” As a “universal cultural reference point,” speeches from Hamlet function as “a piece of social shorthand.
Secondly, this scene is part of an emerging cinematic tradition of tapping into a perceived curative quality of Shakespearean texts. The “to be or not to be” speech is familiar enough to most audiences to have an impact. It serves as an index of intelligence despite Bertie’s speech impediments. It is part of what Geoffrey Ridden calls a process of “Shakespearization” in fragmentary uses of Shakespeare as social shorthand in recent films. The same speech features prominently in My Left Foot (dir. Jim Sheridan, Ferndale Films, 1989). The doctor brought the speech to the protagonist Christy Brown and asks him to learn it. Born with cerebral palsy, Brown struggles with the daily speech and particularly the passage from Hamlet. The theme here, similar to The King’s Speech, is a philosophical investment in Shakespeare’s therapeutic value and a demonstration that even patients with voice disorder can recite the lines from Shakespeare.
Through Shakespeare’s curative power and Logue’s therapy, it seems that Bertie can be enabled by radio technology like his father, paralleling Hamlet’s journey, and, more importantly, consolidate and sustain the image of the Empire and British identity.
While Logue’s experiment might work even if the text is not Shakespearean (since the key is isolation of the potentially stuttering subject from any disturbing feedback), Shakespeare here has important symbolic value. The King’s Speech appropriates Shakespeare’s cultural capital in this therapy scene. There are other cinematic instances where Shakespearean texts are bestowed curative power, such as the stuttering Chorus in Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998) who, as he moves along in delivering the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet his stammer gradually disappears. Eventually he is able to finish reciting the speech in front of the live audience.
King George VI reads the most iconic passage from Shakespeare, “to be or not to be.” At the end of the day, the English canon does not matter when self identitie is always already artificially constructed. It is a prosthetic device.
Excerpted from: Alexa Alice Joubin, “Can the Biopic Subjects Speak? Disembodied Voices in The King’s Speech and The Theory of Everything.” A Companion to the Biopic, ed. Deborah Cartmell and Ashley D. Polasek (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), 269-282. Full text.