A Problem with Shakespeare

As I prepare to sit down and watch Cheek by Jowl’s well publicized show of Measure for Measure (in Russian) which will be streamed online for the world to watch, I find myself unable to set my reviewing mind at ease without drawing upon some past arguments I have had in regard to Shakespeare’s work.

Said arguments have lasted a time, and at its peak cumulated into a 3-hour passionate discussion whilst sitting in Hollywood’s famed Greenblatt’s Deli on Sunset Boulevard.  So passionate was the dialogue that it seemed the whole restaurant had ears for our words thrown about, and by the end we were approached by a British journalist just to thank us for an interesting evening.

The train of thought went as thus: Shakespeare, essentially, is not necessarily the stories that he wrote (it is much known that he used many sources for his plays, and often rewrote famous stories—thank you University education that allowed me to explore three different texts of The Taming of the Shrew) but the LANGUAGE that he constructed into shaping these stories.  We agreed so much on this point. Where it diverged is when the perspective was put forward that Shakespeare, therefore, if done in any language OTHER than Shakespearian English, was not Shakespeare.  (I’m not even going to go into the debate of whether Shakespeare was written by Shakespeare…)

I myself, as a fan of the RSC, know that they welcome different directorial approaches; the one that comes to mind here is Ninagawa’s Titus Andronicus which was performed in Japanese with a Japanese cast, with some wonderful use of symbolic cloth (pictured).  More often than not, we see local theatre productions translated into the local language; who hasn’t heard of Romeo and Juliet, even if they don’t speak a word of English?

Ninagawa’s Titus Andronicus

If the performance is based on Shakespeare’s text, then obviously it makes sense to attribute it to him: By William Shakespeare.  But if the argument is correct, and that Shakespeare is a LANGUAGE and not a story, then what would we do?  Who does the story belong to?  Can cultures assimilate a ‘universal’ story and make it their own, without offending the ‘original’ owners?  And more importantly, perhaps the whole point of using Shakespeare’s name has an additional ulterior motive of selling tickets?

The argument then led onto the issue of global education—why, it was argued, should teenagers of other countries study Shakespeare?  Is there not a monopolization going on, culturally speaking?  Of course the British colonized the world physically at a time in history, but is it still happening through education?  What use does a Northern Chinese student have in studying King Lear when they have a wealth of similar historical figures to draw upon, lessons of the same ilk in different forms?  Why should a student in Ghana learn about The Tempest with all its inherent colonial implications, when they have their own rich stories of the land and the people, their own oral traditions from their storytelling grandmothers?

This was an interesting point. As a student of literature, I am happy to have been introduced to Shakespeare (yes, yes, and his language), but it was a point to mull over. From an international schooler’s perspective, the one thing that I did resent was that my education was skewed from the start.  I had no idea why we were learning about England in geography class, and had no concept of why it was important to learn what areas had ‘hard water’, much less KNOW what hard water was (it was until many years later when I lived in England that all this information clicked together—goddamn scummy calcium that clings to our kettles!).  Who really cares about the Battle of Hastings in 1066? (Check out the global perspective here—thank you BBC who also recognised this.)

In hindsight, I wish I knew more about my own history and had more opportunities to learn my own language. It is sad to me that a Chinese person, limited by international schooling, would only be able to figure out the words on a menu for practical use.  (My language skills do extend outside the menu, but that is only due to extra curricular learning that wasn’t available at school.)

Back to our point on Shakespeare.  On one hand, yes—let’s share the beautiful language of the Bard with the world.  On the other hand—Shakey wasn’t the only good writer in the history of mankind, so why him?  Really, why does everyone insist on teaching Shakespeare (the be-all end-all)?  Has it really become a kind of monopoly created by the ‘standards’ of the educational world?

There is an issue that I have been addressing in the past decade (through my particular interest in post-colonial works and inter-cultural spaces) of cultural appropriation. Most non-white cultures, in some form or other, somewhere in the world, become appropriated, whether by themselves or others. But here we have a dominant Western-culture text being appropriated by OTHER cultures—here is where I suppose I can draw a line:
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If Shakespeare is a LANGUAGE, then any translation loses an essence of what is ‘Shakespeare’.  Similarly, any text that goes through a translated process does lose something of what its original language contained—whether untranslatable words, or concepts that don’t exist outside of that culture, or social/cultural implications that are inherent in semantics.

If Shakespeare is translated (as any text, when translated), it is debatable whether or not it is Shakespeare.  We are not yet reconciled on this point.  Perhaps it would be acceptable if a production said “as based on Shakespeare’s play”, as opposed to directly attributing a Cantonese production to be “By William Shakespeare”.  Shakespeare didn’t speak Cantonese, that much I know.

However, if there is a POINT in translating it—perhaps cultural appropriation to put forth a different point to suit a new context—then by all means go ahead. (We literary types like to see meaning layered over meaning to create new meaning.) Of course, when this happens, it becomes the new writer’s text and no longer Shakespeare’s, such as Aime Cesaire’s wonderful rewriting in ‘A Tempest’.  Similarly, Ninagawa’s ‘Titus’ is more Ninagawa’s than Shakespeare’s, I think.

Should Shakespeare be taught in every school system in the world?  I don’t know. Maybe yes at higher levels, when they really make the choice to study literature for its language.  If they want stories, the world is full of stories; it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare.

Finally, getting back to the issue at hand:

Time to watch Cheek by Jowl’s Russian performance of Measure for Measure (based on Shakespeare’s play).  I’ll attribute it to Cheek by Jowl, since through their artistic vision and change of context they can claim it as theirs.  I think Shakey would be okay with that. He would’ve had to read the subtitles too.

2 thoughts on “A Problem with Shakespeare

  1. rutendochabikwa says:

    This is something that has never crossed my mind… and now that I have read this article, I can never look at Shakespeare or any story the same.

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