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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book review: Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe

Book review: Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe

Why Shakespeare is a hardy survivor, and in unlikely parts of the world

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.Premium
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In early 2013, just as the first shoots of spring had uncurled themselves from the hard earth of the cold season in Delhi, I found myself at a lively production of The Winter’s Tale, a late Shakespeare play. This is a “problem play", one of the handful in the Shakespeare oeuvre whose overall darkness and ambiguity complicate their comic passages and traditional happy endings. This production, by the Tadpole Repertory and Wide Aisle, chose to cast the intrigue of jealousy, betrayal and dishonour that unfolds in a Sicilian court in Shakespeare’s English, almost like a ritually glum Greek tragedy. For the big change of pace, when it becomes a pastoral comedy about young lovers whose identity is fatefully connected with those of the tragic king and queen, the players spoke their lines in Hindustani—a tripping, mellifluous translation.

It was an emphatic artistic success, and as I went home, I couldn’t help but think of how malleable this play was to popular Indian culture. It could be a novel about an old-fashioned Indian family (Hermione: Tell me what blessings I have here alive/that I should fear to die?). It was almost certainly already present in the bare bones of several Indian films, some made by people with more than a passing knowledge of Shakespeare.

Thanks to his new book, Worlds Elsewhere, we now know that the writer Andrew Dickson was also in the audience for this show, energetically thinking about Shakespeare and adaptation, and specifically the mark England’s best-known playwright made in cultures outside his own. His book is a thoughtful attempt to tell an experiential, journalistic story about something that obsesses modern Shakespeare scholarship: why does the world outside England like him so much?

The straightforward answers are empire, which brutally exported Shakespeare around the world; and capital, readily available to literature departments and art groups working on Shakespeare, thanks to his self-sustaining cultural cachet (400 years after his death, the canniest manager of money in the Jacobean theatre is still raking it in).

Dickson sets out to discover the nuances of this situation. In India, he meets Vishal Bhardwaj, director of three films adapted from the tragedies, who claims that his financiers beg him to leave Shakespeare’s name out of the marketing, lest it lose money. In South Africa, a country whose modern history is marked by the contradictory uses of Shakespeare—an enforcer of colonial power, but also a playwright of radical possibilities—he finds high school students who believe Shakespeare belongs to them as much as to anyone else.

Shakespeare the poet, Shakespeare the storyteller, Shakespeare the representative of his time and place: our reactions to the work depend on which of these he is to us. Dickson unearths histories and sub-cultures that answer to all of these. The first and greatest foreign fans of Shakespeare, as he shows us in a beautifully assured essay, were 19th century Germans, deep in the clutches of a romanticism that might seem diametrically opposed to these robust, cheeky English plays. It seems difficult to believe that the Nazis loved him. As the frontiersmen in the US once hungered for him, so did Maoists in China, who made much of Timon Of Athens at a time when it was obscure to most other cultures.

When we watch Bhardwaj’s films or the fine, multi-lingual plays India has produced in the last few years—The Winter’s Tale, as well as Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupiya (Twelfth Night) and Sunil Shanbag’s Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon (All’s Well That Ends Well)—it is indeed striking that Shakespeare is, in some ways, as instrumental as the English language itself. He is useful as well as entertaining. He is familiar.

He is aspirational: Rangoon and Behrupiya went to the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival at London’s Globe theatre, where 37 plays were performed in a different language, produced by companies from all over the world. And he is flexible: The energy and curiosity of the mind that made these plays cannot be diminished even by those who, for a long time, wanted to treat him as a sainted observer of the human condition. No doubt I, too, am subscribing to the timid pieties of my time when I think of him primarily as an entrepreneur of unusual gifts, out to impress his audiences and say largely hopeful things about his uncertain world, even while getting his money’s worth.

Dickson has the marvellous ability to keep from superimposing his own ideas about Shakespeare on the stories he unravels. This leads to some great stories, including, astonishingly, an interview with Ahmed Kathrada, a hero of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, about how or whether Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners read Shakespeare. But I wonder if this book might not have been better served had Dickson the scholar and thinker imposed a little more on the findings of Dickson the journalist.

For many readers outside the UK, the argument that Dickson attempts, and wins—that Shakespeare is much more than the jealously guarded son of the soil revered and little read by middle Englanders—might seem too obvious to require book-length persuasion.

What he succeeds in establishing is that Shakespeare is a hardy survivor. In a repressive, war-stressed monarchy, he wrote subtle, morally dexterous plays that any sensible dictator would have executed him for. Even today, through his words, the powerless find ways to send smoke signals while the powerful lull themselves in the balcony seats. His naysayers have long seen him as a kind of virus. But so are we, and perhaps we’ll take Shakespeare with us when we make a run for the space stations, another 400 years from now.

Supriya Nair is an editor at The Caravan.

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Updated: 05 Dec 2015, 12:45 AM IST
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