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The Least British Shakespeare

A new book argues that every other country is better at bringing his plays to life.

Denis Sinyakov / Getty Images

In the summer of 2012, the English journalist Andrew Dickson sat down to watch the Olympic opening ceremony on TV from his London apartment. The Danny Boyle-helmed spectacle, titled “Isles of Wonder,” was supposed to be Shakespeare-themed, yet it opened with a rural panorama of Brit kitsch: maypoles, cricket, rugby, “Danny Boy.” Then, just a few minutes in, the veteran actor Kenneth Branagh appeared amid a phalanx of iconic London stagecoaches dressed as the nineteenth-century civil engineer Isambard Brunel. To the music of Edward Elgar, Branagh recited Caliban’s famous “Be not afeard” speech from The Tempest. Dickson dryly remarks: 

Words spoken by an oppressed and imprisoned slave, Caliban, in a play, The Tempest, that dwells at length on the costs and consequences of colonialism, were being repurposed as a eulogy for the British Empire, placed above music by Edwardian England’s most patriotic composer and replayed for the watching world.

Dickson wonders how on earth the British acquired such a “curious, conflicted attitude” to their National Poet—how they became so uncritical that the irony of choosing Caliban’s speech to celebrate the British Empire was apparently lost on the organizers.

Henry Holt and Co., 512 pp., $35.00

Earlier that summer, Dickson says, he’d seen The Comedy of Errors performed by the Afghan theatre company Rah-e-Sabz, whose space at the British Council in Kabul had been destroyed a year earlier in a suicide bombing. It was an eye-opener for Dickson: An itinerant group of Afghans transformed Shakespeare’s “creaky and mechanistic farce” into a rueful meditation on exile and separation. And then here come the British, quoting The Tempest in imperialist regalia, broadcasting their National Bard to millions of viewers across the globe. Where the Afghan interpretation revealed the urgency and universality of Shakespeare, the British wielded him like some cultural prop, designed to reflect what is significant about Great Britain. Of the many things wrong with this spectacle, Dickson writes, the most obvious one is that “there was never anything especially British about William Shakespeare.”

Dickson’s remark comes just a few pages into Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, his globe-trotting cultural history, and it sets the tone for what is an exhaustive, and often exhausting, exploration of how “Shakespeare went global.” In a series of spirited accounts, Dickson traces the transmutations of Shakespeare’s plays across national and cultural borders. He journeys to Gdańsk to witness the unveiling of a new Shakespeare theatre; through centuries of German history, where Shakespeare has repeatedly been claimed as an essentially German writer; to the American frontier, where Richard III and Julius Caesar were staples among gold-mining pioneers; to the spangled film industry of Mumbai, where Shakespearean dramas are disassembled and raided for their plot; to apartheid-era South Africa, where Shakespeare passed like samizdat between political prisoners on Robben Island (including Nelson Mandela); and finally to Maoist China, where “Shashibiya” (the Chinese name for Shakespeare) was condemned as an anti-revolutionary influence. Dickson shows us the many ways in which Shakespeare repeatedly thwarts geographical, linguistic, and political barriers—how little, in historical terms, he belongs to any single culture or nation.

Dickson, a broadcaster and features journalist, charges fearlessly through centuries of scholarship and history. He meets and interviews a who’s-who of international academics and experts, as well as accomplished filmmakers and fledgling dance troupes. At times, it must be said, the search for Shakespeare seems indistinguishable from the lifestyle of a peripatetic fine art dealer. Dickson pops up at various private receptions, museums and arts festivals, enjoys a post-flight drink on a hotel roof bar in Mumbai, and mingles with a group of festivalgoers at a throbbing nightclub in central Taipei. There is frequent talk of being jetlagged.

Worlds Elsewhere is cheerily lighthearted in tone, and part of its pleasure lies in its commitment to stories of wide-eyed eccentrics and enthusiasts. Along the way, we encounter Henry Clay Folger, the first president of Standard Oil New York, who along with his wife Emily became a compulsive collector of Shakespeareana, accumulating the world’s largest collection of First Folios (“Perhaps needless to say, they remained childless,” Dickson dryly remarks). We meet Delia Bacon, author of The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857), one of the founders of the Shakespearean authorship conspiracy—a phenomenon Dickson provocatively argues was “largely an American invention,” foolishly encouraged by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman.

In many of these instances Dickson is unexpectedly reminded of what attracts people to Shakespeare—the way in which he becomes a writer of urgency to American pioneers or postcolonial Indian filmmakers. His dramas of exile and loss, power and ambition, prove especially popular in these former colonies, where national and cultural identity is still mutable. What was a lump of idolatry in the hands of the British suddenly quickens with fluid relevance.

But it’s also true that a revitalized, reinterpreted Shakespeare is not always a force for good. Shakespeare seems to “creep up in German history whenever there is a change,” the scholar Ruth von Ledebur tells Dickson during a visit in Munich. The most ominous of those changes is the rise of the National Socialist Party, and the subsequent “grim proximity” of culture and barbarism in the Third Reich—a proximity pointedly encapsulated by the phrase Buchenwald liegt bei Weimar (“Buchenwald lies near Weimar”). Even the Nazis, it seems, wanted to claim Shakespeare for themselves: In the 1930s they gradually subsumed the venerable German Shakespeare Society, turning its yearbook into a venue for crackpot theories about Shakespeare’s commitment to racial purity and eugenics. Gradually, the society’s remaining Jewish members were forced to resign. Among them was the playwright Ludwig Fulda, who in 1939 was denied a visa to the United States. He killed himself not long thereafter.

Russian actors Nikolay Lazarev and Andrey Danilyuk perform Hamlet in the Theatre of Russian Army in Moscow.
Denis Sinyakov / Getty Images

But, for all the wealth of historical anecdote it gathers, Worlds Elsewhere is an unwieldy, infuriating thing. With a look, perhaps, to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Dickson figures too fully in his own narrative, and wants to discharge his discoveries on a jet stream of rambling, discursive comedy. Dickson reveals a disconcerting appetite for hyperbole and Martin Amisisms. The Washington Monument is “cool white against a bouillabaisse-coloured sky”; San Francisco is “pimpled with theatres,” while the Library of Congress is “crowned with a squat pimple of a dome.” When he isn’t straining for high literary effect (his prose bristles with a thousand unnecessary adjectives), Dickson unleashes a heap of noir-like clichés: “Before I lit out for the Nevada foothills in pursuit of the actors, I had a date”; “It wasn’t until I stumbled across a slim pamphlet that the pieces began to slot into place”;  “Something told me he would make it to the White House.” Is Philip Marlowe doing the audiobook?

At some point I began to wonder how Shakespeare fits into all this, except as a kind of ghost on the periphery. The most affecting parts of the book certainly have little to do with him. There’s a very moving and informative account of the life of Solomon Plaatje, the South African linguist and civil rights activist, who undertook to translate The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar into Tswana, and who quotes (once) from King Lear in his book Native Life in South Africa (1916). Eventually even Dickson concedes that Shakespeare is, at best, only marginally relevant to Plaatje’s story: “Plaatje’s Shakespeare translations weren’t really about Shakespeare at all. Shakespeare was being hitched to a much braver ideal: saving an entire culture.”

Shakespeare’s influence becomes more and more intangible as the book goes on, leading Dickson to extend, or modify, the notion of Shakespeare’s “benign universality”—his appeal to our “common humanity”—that he began with. It might be more accurate, he decides, to “describe him as a Rorschach blot that never looked the same twice,” or possibly even as a “multinational brand, a free-floating symbol that transcended national borders and could attach itself to many different kinds of cultural artifacts.” A little while later, sitting at a French wine bar in Hong Kong, he muses on themes of travel and migration—applauding Shakespeare for his receptiveness and curiosity, his flexibility and porousness. Then, exhausted, he flicks “a wad of Hong Kong dollars on to the counter and slid, somewhat unsteadily, off my stool. Time to think about going home.” The gesture is woefully blasé. And yet it seems appropriate to the spirit of Worlds Elsewhere that Dickson, by way of the Third Reich, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Apartheid South Africa, should finally arrive at a Shakespeare as smoothly global, as complacently universal, as an airport bar. Benign universality indeed.

Dickson’s Shakespeare is indeed a writer of benign universality, but only if by universality you mean appeal. Dickson imagines he can explain Shakespeare by identifying this appeal, the infinite mutations and interpretations. In order to avoid conflating this with greatness (because greatness implies a value judgment) Shakespeare is praised for his mutability, the ease with which he can be reconfigured to accommodate the needs of different countries, languages, and historical circumstances. Additionally, it absolves Shakespeare from being “a reliable piece of colonial equipment.”    

Such an argument, if you can call it that, has the luxury of being untethered to the knotty intricacies of text. Dickson, as he jets around the world, never pauses to do any close reading—Shakespeare’s texts, in Worlds Elsewhere, are not really important at all. Thus Hamlet “works equally well” as “a Goethean Bildungsroman, as a Parsi-influenced Hindi movie, a Wild West swashbuckler as well as a deconstructed piece of Regietheater.” But surely it is possible to guard oneself against the notion of an “essential” Shakespeare, rigid with interpretational fixity, without thereby accepting the idea that the value of Shakespeare’s plays are merely the sum of their various interpretations, transformations, and performances. If they can mean everything they mean nothing.

There is an irony here: Worlds Elsewhere ends up inadvertently legitimizing the imperialist Shakespeare it set out to dissolve. For if Shakespeare is both anti-apartheid activist and American pioneer, then why not also the bard of British colonialism?—or, for that matter, a Nazi eugenicist? And if all these interpretations are representative of Shakespeare’s global appeal—if he is merely an instrument we use to create cultural meaning, as the literary theorist Terence Hawkes argued—then why do we keep returning to him and not, say, Dante or Cervantes or Scheherazade?

Answering these questions would mean treating Shakespeare as a writer, and not merely a global brand. It would mean identifying literary qualities, not just cultural mileage. It would mean accepting that although Shakespeare is “one storyteller among many,” his popularity and appeal cannot be explained by culture, politics, or geography alone.