It’s hard to have a conversation about Shakespeare’s enduring and widespread popularity without bumping into one of these three terms: “global,” “difficult,” “deep.” On the morning of the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, the programme writers had already smashed through the first hurdle by titling a panel on the subject: “The Global Shakespeare.”
Luckily, though, the prominent Shakespeare scholar Christopher Ricks, alerted his audience to the problem almost immediately. “The word ‘global’ is large,” he began, prompting a few nervous titters. “Some people now want to use ‘universal’ because ‘global’ doesn’t seem big enough.”
It is true that Shakespeare is read and performed all over the world hundreds of years after he wrote, but does that really make him “global” and what is meant by that accolade?
India and Great Britain share an unusual affinity with and loyalty to Shakespeare – our curricula still place him at centre stage and our idioms are saturated with his phrases. But the argument that is commonly made for Shakespeare’s ‘universality’ is that his plays resonate in almost any culture at almost any time – hence the tendency in theatre to transpose their settings into wildly contrasting eras and places, morphing them from their Elizabethan setting into a bewildering sequence of new looks like aging pop stars.
Tim Supple, who directed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in India from 2006-8 spoke about the connections he found between rural Indian dramatic groups, stories of god-like creatures intervening in human lives and men being turned into wild beasts, as elements of Shakespeare that resonate better here than they do in contemporary Britain: “There’s something deep inside that play… there’s something almost transparent about Shakespeare.”
The novelist Anjum Hasan described how the characters in her novels relate to, or grapple with, Shakespeare’s texts from afar. The difficult passages, she said, that often started as a mystery, were later understood by her characters through developments in their own lives.
Elif Batuman, an American author, who followed and wrote about an all-female Turkish production of Hamlet, told the audience that “the story is so huge and so global that it can be more present and more real in a village in Turkey,” where women are weeding a garden.
The problem with these comparisons, valid though they are, is that they leave out his linguistic prowess.
Each of those terms – deep, difficult, global -- addresses itself to a different part of Shakespeare’s writing and to his career. Shakespeare wore many hats – as a dramatist, a director, an actor, a playwright, a poet. As Ricks made clear, his prose is as great as his poetry, but the greatness of his language relies on more than just a set of ideas that strike deep in the heart of cultures everywhere. The shift from image to image and thought to thought is re-creatable in other languages, but the cadence and the assonance of their articulation cannot be. This poses a problem for translators and a challenge to those who say his plays are universal.
While Supple pointed out that, “he wasn’t first and foremost a writer of great prose, he was a practical playwright,” (with the addendum “but then I’m a director, so I would say that”) he admitted that his production struggled to find “fidelity to the text” even with a nearly literal translation to various Indian languages. Hasan, in explaining her adoration of Shakespeare, said, “Shakespeare moves behind my English… you hear it, I don’t remember where they came from but I remember the lines.”
The “quotable quotes” and the epic, myth-based stories that Shakespeare inherited and developed are part of his popularity but not, I guess, the reason he earned a place among the literary greats.
Ricks’ conclusion that although we might not agree with the beliefs that Shakespeare presents through his characters, we “thrill to the intelligence and dignity” behind them, owes more to Shakespeare’s deft manipulation of thought into the spoken word than to the imaginative worlds he created and the emotional truths behind them. And because those words are limited to readers of English, the notion of an unambiguously “global” Shakespeare is as difficult to swallow as the idea, much derided by the panel, that a man from Stratford upon Avon could not have been the author of plays that ranged so widely across geographical landscapes.