Shakespeare on Stages Elsewhere

By Cris Busato Smith

MIT Global Shakespeares Regional Editor
ACMRS Adjunct Researcher

There has been a Shakespeare beyond England and English since Shakespeare existed. Travelling troupes known as “English comedians” toured Germany in the late 16th century and into the first decades of the 17th century. Scholars believe that plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet were part of their repertoire, albeit greatly adapted to local audiences. Plotlines and characters were simplified and sometimes only key scenes from Shakespeare’s texts were preserved. Hamlet is thought to have a German counterpart in Der bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged), a radical comedic reconfiguration where Hamlet is turned into a clown.

The appropriation and adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany is one example of the earlier stages of Shakespeare’s globalization. The phenomenon that later became known in Germany as “unser” Shakespeare (“our” Shakespeare) went global: many other countries are prepared to offer Shakespeare citizenship. Over the past two centuries this process has intensified: Shakespeare has been appropriated and reinvented according to multiple perspectives, purposes and ideologies, in different languages, histories and geographies. Reimagined in Bollywood, transformed into opera in Italy, musicals in Brazil, films in Japan, refashioned by political regimes such as Mao’s China, Shakespeare is all over the globe in different shapes and forms. While it is true that the English Bard cannot be entirely severed from his language or cultural context, the proliferation of his works worldwide demonstrates that he cannot be reduced to a single domain.

As scholarly interest in this line of inquiry expands, the global history of performance is being established as a fundamental part of Shakespeare Studies in the field known as Global Shakespeare. Indeed, since Dennis Kennedy reminded readers that Shakespeare was the most performed playwright in the world in Foreign Shakespeare (1993), the first consistent account of Shakespeare in performance outside the English speaking world, there has been a growing interest in the field. Publications, conferences, courses, research centers and theatre festivals such as the 2012 Globe to Globe (where 37 plays in nearly 50 languages were performed in London) show how the concept of Global Shakespeare has caught on in different parts of the globe. But what is Global Shakespeare? Simply put, it is an inclusive conversation which crosses cultures, languages, media through the medium of Shakespeare. Global Shakespeare reflects on how intercultural performances operate and examines the tensions between the “old” and the “new” Shakespeare. Frequently referred to in the plural, Shakespeares signals to the fact that Shakespeare cannot be defined by one single cultural identity.

Digital archives play an instrumental role in the study of Global Shakespeare since they enable the access to video recordings of global performances of Shakespeare. This is the case of the MIT Global Shakespeares project, a pioneer open-access digital environment founded in 2010 by MIT Professor Peter Donaldson and GWU Professor Alexa Huang. The project serves as a core resource for students, teachers, artists and researchers offering free access to an extensive collection of vetted videos that are thoroughly researched and annotated. Users can work in conjunction with text and video or with video alone. For instance, one can focus on key scenes and view videos comparatively to see how different cultures reinterpret that scene. What new inflexions are produced? How can these new, local, perceptions contribute/influence/amplify the global debate of Shakespeare and our own individual readings of his works? What modes of cultural exchange are engendered through the dialogue between foreign and English speaking productions of Shakespeare? The possibilities are fascinating. As Huang argues “digital videos can never replace live performance, but they can, especially in a globally interconnected online environment, do many things that the performances it records cannot do.”1 (46)

As programs such as British Council’s Shakespeare Lives celebrates the Bard’s 400th death anniversary in 140 countries across the world, Shakespeare is being translated, read, watched, debated and performed like never before. The study of Shakespeare as a global phenomenon is more pertinent than ever.


1. [Huang, Alexa. “Global Shakespeare 2.0. and the Task of the Performance Archive” in: Shakespeare Survey 64. ]