The Stage is the World

Generations of school children saddled with his plays in quaint English are unlikely to view him with much appreciation or affection but no other writer, or any cultural figure, can beat William Shakespeare for inspiration, influence and impact upon people as disparate in time and space as American frontiersmen, German Romanticists, jailed South African revolutionaries, Pashtun artistes and Bollywood

Who else can be credited with having the likes of Voltaire, Goethe, Rabindranath Tagore, Karl Marx, Josef Goebbels, and P.G. Wodehouse seeking to understand his craft or being  inspired by him? Why do his stories of young, innocent lovers from families that are implacable enemies, of ceaseless ambition advanced by evil counsel, of fatal jealousy that ruins several lives, of twins mistaken for each other, shrewish wives, and so on inspire purveyors of entertainment ranging from Broadway producers, creators of India’s Parsi theatre and Bengal’s jatra, and film-makers, not only in Hollywood and Bollywood, but elsewhere too?

How did a late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century playwright, parts of whose life are still shrouded in mystery and who is thought never to have set foot outside his island homeland, wield such widespread and abiding influence? And in what state is his legacy now? These are the issues that theatre critic, Shakespeare scholar and writer Andrew Dickson painstakingly deals with in this book, the outcome of travel to six countries on four continents -- and spanning 400 years.

His quest was inspired by a global Shakespeare festival in London in 2012 (coinciding with the Olympic Games) that attracted no less than 50 entries -- from Brazil, Iraq, Tunisia, Turkey, China and Zimbabwe ... -- and where he happened to see an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors in Dari by a theatre troupe from Afghanistan. But Dickson remarks that soon the novelty wore off, as far as media coverage was concerned, and “although audiences attended in their thousands, some of the other shows that came -- The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili, The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba (a language of Nigeria) -- had barely any reviewers at all”.

Though it could have been too many things in too little time, he says he “detected something revealing in the world-weary shrug that greeted much of the World Shakespeare Festival: a very British reluctance to acknowledge that Shakespeare really belongs to anyone else”. This, he contends, is a spurious belief given that the plays of Shakespeare, a most prolific and wide-ranging reader, “bestride the world”, and though helped by the globalisation trends slowly emerging, also reflect globalisation with their characters, settings and references.

As Dickson saw how some different cultures had not only “adapted but adopted” Shakespeare, he was motivated to see why and how. But some promising destinations had to be forgone due to lack of funds and/or security situations, and he finally plumped for Germany and Poland, the US, South Africa, India and China. He begins with the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1864 and the celebrations in Britain where the largest and most enthusiastic delegation was from a non-English speaking nation, and outside -- parts of the US forgot the ongoing Civil War to observe it.

Each of these destinations reveals the Bard in a new light -- but it is the Indian leg of the author’s adventures that proves to be the most interesting -- and shows the popularity and wide reach of the playwright, which cannot be simply ascribed to colonialism and the introduction of an alien system of education. The trips through Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi provide an enchanting and insightful view of Indian culture, both high and low, from the eighteenth century onwards and how deep Shakespeare rests in its psyche.

We also come to know how Vishal Bhardwaj decided on the third instalment of his Shakespeare trilogy, the strange relation the bard had with Utpal Dutt, how one of his plays offended Mamata Banerjee and which famous actress started her career with a performance as Hamlet’s doomed love. A rousing and insightful tour through the global manifestations of Shakespeare’s works with plenty of information that will even stun even those who thought they knew it all, this book is also an eloquent testimony of how cultural motifs get transmitted, changed to alien climes and still flourish.