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Four centuries of culture bear stamp of Shakespeare’s legacy

By Wang Shuo | 2016-04-12 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Michael Dobson is the director of the Shakespeare Institute, a professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham and a prolific writer of commentary on the plays and poems of England’s premier literary icon.


2016 is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. In January, the British Council and the GREAT British Campaign launched the Shakespeare Lives program to celebrate the legacy of this world-famous playwright. This series of commemorative activities aims to revive global interest in the works of Shakespeare. How are Shakespeare’s works able to still resonate with readers after four centuries? Recently, a CCST reporter sat down with Professor Michael Dobson to talk about these issues.


CSST: It has been more than 400 years since William Shakespeare wrote his plays. What are the fundamental differences between how these plays were performed in their own time and how they are done today? 


Dobson: To me, one of the most important differences is the mismatch between the conventions of Elizabethan theatre and those of present-day realism. Shakespeare wrote his plays for an all-male performance on open platforms, and much of their content and meaning is conveyed in richly metaphoric language. His audiences saw stories, contemporary costumes as well as dialogue-based representations of places, people and situations—whether the plays were about England’s medieval past, ancient Rome or modern Italy—but they didn’t necessarily expect what they saw to look exactly like men and women in the medieval past, or Rome or modern Italy. With the advent of perspective scenery and period costume in the theatre—and especially since the rise of mainstream realist cinema—audiences have become more literal-minded. They expect minute quasi-documentary representations of the surfaces of reality and human character, rather than the poetic evocations of their depths, which Shakespeare’s language supplies too. So there’s a mismatch between how most audiences now expect the relationship between the visual and linguistic elements to work, and how it worked for Shakespeare. It is a mismatch that stimulates and provokes the imaginations of theatre directors and readers alike.

It’s worth saying, too, that Shakespeare wrote for an all-male adult theatre company that only had perhaps four good boy actors available to play female roles at any given time, so the percentage of female roles that he wrote and the size of those roles was smaller relative to some other playwrights of his time who were writing for all-boy companies in which any performer might play a woman. So when women were first allowed to act in Britain in the 1660s, some of Shakespeare’s plays were performed in rewritten versions with extra female characters. For example, in The Tempest, Caliban and Miranda were both provided with sisters, and nowadays we are seeing more all-female productions and more productions in which some male roles are played by women.


CSST: People say Shakespeare is for all times. What roles do you think Shakespeare’s works play in modern literature and performances on stage? 


Dobson: Shakespeare is certainly for all times—not because his work is “timeless”—but because it is at once timely, relevant to present-day realities and continually being reexamined within new contexts. Nearly all subsequent Anglophone writers and nearly all other national literatures have done important things with Shakespeare, and he has been central to the evolution of Anglophone literary criticism. If it weren’t for Shakespeare’s artistic achievements, universities might never have admitted that it was worth studying any literature other than that written in Latin and Greek. His plays were already being taken on tour around the Baltic in the early 17th century, and his adoption as the “third German classic” alongside Goethe and Schiller during the formative years of German literature and his subsequent naturalization into almost every other theatre culture on the planet have made him the foremost figure in world literature. He has been a formative influence on writers from Dryden to Dickens to Beckett—he is part of the air the arts breathe.

From a practical point of view, he shapes the performing arts too. In Britain, most serious actors will perform Shakespeare at some stage in their careers—probably at a formative stage—and this exerts a huge influence on the theatre industry and indeed on cinema. Judi Dench’s M in her James Bond films, and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, are first cousins to the roles of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth they played together at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s. Shakespearean drama is the lingua franca of world theatre, partly because its plurality invites so many approaches and because he is not dictatorial about how his scenes should be staged and how his characters are to be understood. His characters may try to judge each other, but Shakespeare himself seems never to do so, instead leaving them free to become themselves, and to negotiate their own relationships with one another before our eyes. As a result, his plays give more scope to actors, directors, translators and critics than do any others.


CSST: Some scholars would argue that translating Shakespeare’s plays into modern English, analyzing his works with modern literary theories, or using them as the basis for modernized adaptations diminish their greatness. What do you think of these arguments? 


Dobson: “Translating” Shakespeare into modern English seems weirdly pointless to me: Even after four centuries of linguistic change, less than 14% of Shakespeare’s vocabulary is actually archaic or unfamiliar to a speaker of modern English, and any competent actor can convey the meaning of his sentences even if they do contain the odd obsolete word or phrase. I don’t believe in the educational theory that suggests that we should only ever use words our students already know for fear of damaging their confidence—if we did that in the nursery, nobody would ever learn to speak at all. It may be necessary to provide footnotes to explain some of Shakespeare’s expressions, expanding his modern readers’ expressive resources in the process, but in English it would be silly and needless to replace parts of the original with the explanatory paraphrase, and it would invariably damage the sound and rhythm of the language. His plays can be acted in a modern idiom without the words needing to change. In other languages, it’s a different matter—a non-English-speaking director might well prefer a translation that makes his words sound as up-to-the-minute now as they did in the 1590s rather than one which chooses an artificially old-fashioned tone.

As for scholars who think we shouldn’t think about Shakespeare’s works in terms of modern theories, I don’t think I’ve ever met any. We can only read, perform, experience and interpret Shakespeare in our own present day and in our own present tense, and we can only bring his works with our own questions. Even if we do happen to be interested in what they meant in his initial historical context as well as in what they mean to us, our views about the Elizabethan age are in constant flux, as well as our views about how literary texts work and what makes them significant. Shakespeare is an endlessly generous, plural and rich writer. The more intellectual perspectives we can bring to bear on his writings, the more they will respond and give back.

I don’t object to modernized adaptations either, however trivial some of them may be. When they were composed, most of Shakespeare’s works were modernized adaptations themselves, as far as fans of the old King Leir play or of Plautus’ Menaechmi or whatever were concerned. Shakespeare doesn’t own the last word on any of the material he reworked himself, even if his version of the Romeo and Juliet story is likely to go on being a lot more famous than any other: His plays are fair game, just as Arthur Brooke’s 1562 narrative poem Romeus and Juliet was fair game when Shakespeare transformed it into a play in 1595. That was one of the exciting things about Shakespeare’s moment in theatre history: Permanent, purpose-built playhouses were still a new phenomenon when Shakespeare arrived in London, and, as new media will, the theatre companies that performed them were busily engaged in reprocessing all the previous bits of culture they could get hold of classical mythology and history, literary classics, folk tales, medieval romances, histories of dynastic intrigue, recent news stories to make them into this new kind of entertainment. Since then, Shakespeare’s plays have been endlessly reprocessed in their turn, into novels, operas, films, television shows, graphic novels, video games. I much prefer them as live theatre myself, but if it was acceptable for Shakespeare to turn Chaucer’s narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde and Homer’s epic The Iliad into his Troilus and Cressida, I don’t see why today’s writers shouldn’t carry on where he left off, in whatever medium they prefer. Modern versions of Shakespeare don’t erase the originals; after all, they exist alongside them: They may constitute interesting comments on them for good measure.


Wang Shuo is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.