Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Bard with a Thousand Faces

My dad did not understand why I had to read William Shakespeare. I was fourteen and reading Julius Caesar for English class. I was lucky; my teacher had a Master's degree in English and explained all the jokes and helped us understand what we were reading. Four years later he taught King Lear in World Literature class. I liked Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's words pervade our conversations and his stories are adapted into modern retellings. Consider King Lear, the inspiration for Akira Krosawa's film Ran and the novel A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Or The Taming of the Shrew, the basis for the musical Kiss Me Kate and the movies Ten Things I Hate About You and John Wayne's McLintock! Bernstein's musical West Side Story is an updated Romeo and Juliet. The Forbidden Planet sci-fi classic movie is based on The Tempest.

It is more amazing to know that Shakespeare has crossed bigger language barriers than archaic to modern English. World's Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe follows Andrew Dickson on five trips across world cultures to explore the legacy and reinvention of Shakespeare across cultures.

Dickson went to Danzig, where actors performed Shakespeare in the 16th c. We learn how German Romantic culture--and the Nazis-- claimed the Bard as their own, and how today German professional troupes perform more Shakespeare plays than in the UK.

Shakespeare's plays and the Bible were often the only books found in American pioneer homesteads. Traveling actors performed his plays in mining camps. Henry Folger amassed the largest collection of Shakespeare Folios and manuscripts in the world, more than in England.

Where ever Britain had colonies, they brought Shakespeare. His stories have been reinvented for 150 films in India!

My favorite journeys to read about were to South Africa and to China.

Dickson goes on a quest to learn about the Robben Island Bible, a cheap complete works that was passed among the prisoners of the island penal colony. Thirty-six inmates inscribed their signatures in the book, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela signed his name to the highlighted text from Julius Caesar "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once..." Dickson also searches for Solomon Tshekisho Plaatj, a journalist and political activist who was the first to translate Shakespeare into a African language. Dickson's journey into contemporary South Africa while researching translators from the Boer War and Apartheid eras is a fascinating read.

Shakespeare in China may seem strange and doubtful. Translation issues alone are horrendous, plus the plays were repressed during the Cultural Revolution. Amazingly China is experiencing a surge of interest in the Bard, with so many traveling to Stratford-in-Avon in homage that the nearby airport has set up direct flights from Beijing. I was very taken by the story of Zhu Shiqiu whose life work was translating the plays. He lost his manuscripts three times, starting over until he had finished 31 at the time of his death.  Dickson discovers how the Cultural Revolution shut down Much Ado About Nothing; twenty years later the original actors brought back the play, same scripts, same costumes, same choreography.

Dickson struggles with questions of what Shakespeare means: a bridge of shared humanity, or a free-floating symbol whose ownership could be claimed?

Read Dickson's blog here: http://worldselsewhere.com

I received a free ARC through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

World's Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe
by Andrew Dickson
Henry Holt
$35 hard cover
Publication date: April 5, 2016

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