Shakespeare is over 450 years old and yet we are still turning to him to help us make sense of ourselves and the world. There is something about his plays that manages to speak complicated truths to all types of readers and spectators. Is it Shakespeare’s inexhaustible repertoire of human experience that makes him so relevant today? Shakespeare seems to serve as a timeless and ever shifting oracle from which we draw our truths. A new publication in Brazil vigorously concentrates on the Bard during the trying times of the pandemic.
O que você precisa saber sobre Shakespeare antes que o mundo acabe (What You Need to Know about Shakespeare Before the World Ends), published in March 2021, in Brazilian Portuguese, offers a compelling collection of 57 contributions (mostly in the form of essays but also actors testimonials) that explore what really matters in Shakespeare.
The provocative title was an invitation for contributors “to access their internal libraries and write about their own Shakespeare.” Written in the throes of the pandemic, under the urgencies and emergencies of the moment, the volume uniquely brings together Shakespearian scholars, teachers, theatre directors, actors, playwrights, historians, writers, translators and law practitioners. Most authors are of Brazilian origin, but a significant number of international contributors came on board, among them Shakespearian scholars Michael Dobson, James Shapiro, Emma Smith, Alexa Alice Joubin, Marvin Carlson, director Richard Eyre, and novelist Jean Hegland.
The authors took the invitation to heart: the volume reveals their lived experience of Shakespeare. A wide range of ideas, inescapably contradictory (and salutary) when read side by side, emerges. The essays display multiple views and voices that include insightful criticism, personal reminiscences, and philosophical reflections. Local, universal, political, creative, and feminist interpretations of the Bard converge. Some essays turned to a specific character or play, while others focused on the potential therapeutic values inherent to the genres of tragedy and comedy. Particularly (and unsurprisingly) Hamlet and King Lear feature as the go-to dramas that help us confront the ambiguities of human existence.
How can Shakespeare help during the coronavirus pandemic? Theater director Amir Haddad reminds us that Shakespeare himself is a survivor. Not only did he survive the many outbreaks of the bubonic plague, but he has also survived all these centuries as a cultural icon. Haddad also encourages us to consult “Old Bill Shakespeare” pretty much like we would go the I Ching: “if you know how to ask the right question, you will find the answer.” How to manage lockdown isolation? Emma Smith steps in to suggest that we concentrate on the restorative world of the comedies, of dialogue and sociability rather than the somber tragedies and the loneliness of soliloquies. Comedies are more comforting, more entertaining than tragedy.
Taking into account that the volume was published in Brazilian Portuguese, of particular relevance is Michael Dobson’s essay “The World’s National Poet” which erects a spirited defense of Shakespeare as everyone’s national poet. Dobson argues that, although Shakespeare wrote in English and in England, he has always been miscast in the role of England’s national poet. To Dobson, Shakespeare was neither a nationalist nor a purist – his subject matter as well as his linguistic preferences were not patriotic. His historical plays set in England usually depict the country as a place of civil wars and crises.
The strength of the book lies in its plurality. Novelist Jean Hegland, author of Still Time (a novel loosely inspired by King Lear), writes touchingly of her late parents’ connection with Shakespeare. Judge Andréa Pachá recounts how the plight of the star-crossed lovers and their feuding families allowed her to gain a more compassionate apprehension of cases at the Family Court. Anna Stegh Camati reminds us how the plague as metaphor has marked a host of different playwrights and theatre practitioners from the Greeks to our time. Marta de Sena writes on Shakespeare’s influence on Machado de Assis, Brazil’s literary giant. Inspired by the vulnerability of the moment, I draw a parallel between the Bard and the Buddha. Alexa Alice Joubin reveals to the reader three things she should know about Global Shakespeares before the world ends.
The book is worth its weight in gold: the result is a layered, illuminating and inspirational exploration of Shakespeare. It is a joyful celebration of Shakespeare as a meeting point where plural voices collide, dialogue, contradict and complement each other.
The volume will certainly appeal to new readers of Shakespeare, as a vibrant introduction to the playwright’s themes and characters. Newcomers will also be drawn to the personal and immediate tone of the book. It will no doubt also be of interest to seasoned readers as it presents insightful perspectives about Shakespeare and our historical moment. It is particularly delightful to read Shakespeare through the eyes of stage directors and actors, who display a visceral connection to the here and now of the Bard on the stage rather than a more philosophical, distant iconic figure. The volume showcases how Shakespeare dialogues at ease with contemporary playwrights, writers and forms.
A testament to what Shakespeare means to Brazilian culture, the volume reaffirms Shakespeare’s amazing translatability and his potential to travel across the globe and generate new creative and political affinities. It is a valuable contribution to the field of Global Shakespeares and Non-Anglophone Shakespeares. Were the book to be published in English, it would attract a wide readership.
As for our personal investments with the Bard, before the world ends, theater director Sergio Módena reminds us of the inevitable: “indeed, Shakespeare’s works are so multi layered that even if we dedicate a lifetime to studying them, we will always feel like we are just beginning the journey. Which is, in itself, a meaningful ending.”
Of particular interest are the following essays from editors of MIT Global Shakespeares:
“Three Things to Know about Global Shakespeare”, Alexa Alice Joubin (Co-founder)
Joubin writes about Global Shakespeare as a body of travelling cultural texts and a space where people and ideas meet. In a culture of citation and political uses of Shakespeare as an other within, global performances of Shakespeare inspire English-language performances.
“Mythical Paradigms in Hamlet – The Plague as Metaphorical Focus”, Anna Stegh Camati (Brazil Editor).
The essay shows that, in Hamlet, Shakespeare draws a parallel with Sophocles’ mythical structure in Oedipus Rex. In both plays, references to the plague indicate that violation of cultural taboos has disturbed the natural rhythms of life. Both title characters are cast into the role of the scapegoat in charge of restoring order in a time out of joint.
“Time is Out of Joint: Reflections During the 2021 Quarantine“, Cristiane Busato Smith (Brazil Lead Editor)
The essay captures the restlessness of the moment and draws a parallel between the Bard and the Buddha, arguing that Shakespeare will never be a self-help writer because he never tutors anyone. On the contrary, Shakespeare forces us to confront our own contradictions and ambiguities.
“Readiness to Take the Stage, Patience to Exit”, Liana de Camargo Leão (Brazil Editor)
Leão argues that Hamlet and King Lear help us look directly at the abyss of human existence. Vicariously, we are invited to immerse ourselves in the grief and pain of the tragic protagonists to emerge stronger and better prepared to live and die.
 Introduction, p. (my translation)