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Fun international facts about Shakespeare

By Laura Estill, Eric Johnson

19 March 2015 - 09:19

Which Shakespeare play has been translated into 75 languages? How many times does the word 'love' appear in the complete works? As we celebrate Shakespeare Week, Professor Laura Estill of the World Shakespeare Bibliography (WBS) and Eric Johnson of the Folger Shakespeare Library unearth some unusual facts about the great English writer.

Shakespeare’s plays are set in many locations, some of them fictional

Europe, Africa and the Middle East are all settings for Shakespeare's plays, as you can see on this interactive map. His plays are set in 12 countries, with cities in what is now Italy being Shakespeare’s favourite backdrop. Some plays, such as The Tempest, take place in entirely fictional worlds. The only comedy to be set in the UK is The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Shakespeare took phrases from other languages

For instance, 'fat paunches make lean pates' was originally a Greek and Latin proverb by St Jerome. Shakespeare's 'Greek to me' could also be from a similar phrase in Latin, a language which Shakespeare could read.

The word ‘love’ appears 2,191 times in the complete works

The number is based on the 1864 Globe Edition – the amount could vary slightly from edition to edition. Altogether, there are 28,829 unique word forms in all of Shakespeare's works, and 12,493 occur only once. You can find more text statistics as Open Source Shakespeare.

Since 1960, there have been publications and productions of Hamlet in more than 75 languages

These languages even include KlingonEsperanto, and Interlingua. Other popular plays in translation include MacbethRomeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare's works overall have been translated into more than 100 languages.

From 2005 to 2014, there have been seven professional productions of Shakespeare and Shakespearean adaptations in Arabic.

Romeo and Juliet has been performed in 24 countries in the last ten years

The WSB lists the following countries across five continents: US, UK, Germany, Korea, France, Canada, Italy, Japan, Australia, Austria, Poland, Finland, Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Belgium, Estonia, Czech Republic, Israel, Spain, Ukraine, Cuba, Mexico, and Romania.

The play has been performed in multiple languages, including English, German, Spanish, Korean, French, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Finnish, Russian, Dutch, Estonian, Czech, Hebrew, Ukrainian, and Romanian.

These performances include musicals, ballets and puppet shows.

Shakespeare has inspired lots of films in Hollywood, Bollywood, and beyond

Western films:

  • West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) – Romeo and Juliet
  • Kiss Me, Kate (George Sidney) – The Taming of the Shrew
  • Forbidden Planet (Nicholas Nayfack) – The Tempest
  • My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant) – Henry IV parts 1 and 2
  • Gnomeo and Juliet (Kelly Asbury) – Romeo and Juliet
  • Looking for Richard (Al Pacino) – Richard III

Bollywood:

  • Omkara, Maqbool, Haider (all by Bhardwaj) – OthelloMacbethHamlet
  • Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela (Sanjay Leela Bhansali) – Romeo and Juliet

Japan:

  • Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa) – Macbeth
  • Ran (Akira Kurosawa) – King Lear

Since 2000, there have been Shakespeare movies or TV shows made in...

...Japan, India, France, Argentina, Germany, Thailand, Italy, China, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Tibet, The Netherlands, Japan, Vietnam, Israel, Chile, Estonia, and Brazil. To these, we can add English-speaking countries Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and the UK.

The first performances of Shakespeare in the Middle East were in the late 19th century

According to Graham Holderness: 'Shakespeare entered the Arab world in the late 19th century as theatre; that is, the plays were translated and adapted specifically to form the repertoire of dramatic companies in Egypt and other Arab countries. Hamlet was first performed in Egypt around 1893.'

Shakespeare invented lots of expressions that we still use today

Here’s a selection of popular expressions; you can find lots more at BBC America.

  • 'Heart of gold' (Henry V)
  • 'Wild-goose chase' (Romeo and Juliet)
  • 'Faint-hearted' (Henry IV part I)
  • 'Brave new world' (The Tempest)
  • 'Break the ice' (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • 'For goodness’ sake' (Henry VIII)
  • 'Foregone conclusion' (Othello)
  • 'Love is blind' (The Merchant of Venice)

The most popular name from a Shakespeare play used today is Olivia

That's according to the list of most popular US and British baby names in 2014. Olivia is the name of a character in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare was the first person to use the name with this spelling.

Oliver (As You Like It), Harry (HotspurHenry IV, and characters in other plays), Isabella (Measure for Measure) and William (As You Like It) are also popular today. Shakespeare didn’t invent these names but they are enduringly popular.

The stories told in most of Shakespeare’s plays are not original 

Shakespeare's primary source materials were English and Latin works: histories, plays, and poems.

For the histories (and King Lear and Cymbeline), Shakespeare relied heavily on Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He also used Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and other books by historians (called 'chronicle histories'). For the Roman history, he relied on Plutarch's Lives.

Romeo and Juliet is based on an Italian folktale, which Shakespeare read in translation.

Some plays he took directly from classical sources, like The Comedy of Errors, which he took from Plautus's The Brothers Menaechmus and simply added an extra set of twins (the servants, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse). He took many plot elements from Ovid's Metamorphosis, which can be found in Titus AndronicusMidsummer Night's Dream and other plays.

For other plays, we conjecture there are lost sources, such as an earlier version of Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. Sometimes, he rewrote earlier plays, as we think was the case with Hamlet (the missing play is called the Ur-Hamlet) and as he did with King John, which he reworked from an anonymous play called The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of EnglandKing Lear is based on The Chronicle History of King Leir.

The British Council has supported the production of a film version of Sarah Frankcom’s critically acclaimed stage production of Hamlet, which recently enjoyed a sell-out run at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2014 and stars Maxine Peake as Hamlet (pictured above). The film will be shown in nearly 300 UK cinemas on 23 March 2015, with some encore screenings to follow. 

The British Council will screen this film internationally in non-English speaking countries in 2016 as part of its Shakespeare on Film touring collection.

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