Voices

What makes Shakespeare endlessly adaptable?

By Professor Michael Dobson

16 September 2015 - 04:47

Professor Michael Dobson explains how Shakespeare manages to be simultaneously historical and contemporary, ahead of his Smart Talks on this subject in China on 21-24 September.

What accounts for China’s fascination with Shakespeare?

There are two dimensions to this, one internal and one external. Shakespeare’s texts have intrigued readers, theatregoers and theatre-makers within China for the last century or more partly because of a deep curiosity about Western culture. (A Chinese book which translated the plots of ten Shakespeare plays in 1903, for instance, was just called ‘Strange Tales from Overseas’).

The fascination with Shakespeare also reflects a growing appreciation of the literary richness, narrative power and philosophical depth of his writing, which can resonate powerfully with the traditions of Chinese thought and literature. (When Wen Jiabao visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2011, for instance, he wrote a beautiful couplet in Mandarin in the visitors’ book: ‘He brings sunshine to your life, / Gives your dreams wings to fly’).

The recent surge in China’s interest in Shakespeare also reflects China’s increasing sense of itself as a country firmly on the world stage and in dialogue with others. Shakespeare’s plays long ago became an important part of the lingua franca of world drama: once any country with a great theatre tradition of its own becomes interested in reaching audiences beyond its own borders, its directors, translators and actors are likely to start investigating what they can bring to, and take from, the endlessly adaptable and generous plays of Shakespeare.

Why would a 400-year-old play about an English king (Henry V, for example) appeal to an audience in Shanghai today?

Part of the secret of Shakespeare’s enduring international popularity lies in his interest in dramatising family relationships: underneath his writings on political strife and historical transformation are perennial fairytale-like plots about sibling rivalry, marital choice and generational conflict.

Take the four history plays which the Royal Shakespeare Company is bringing to China in the spring – Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. They may offer a great panoramic vision of a particular country moving from the Middle Ages towards modernity, but at their core, they are the saga of a family, and especially the story of how one young man, Prince Hal, grows up to become Henry V.

Shakespeare’s history plays are immensely popular in Britain, but it isn’t mainly because British people still care about what happened to particular warlords. If people still remember Henry IV, I suspect it is mainly because Shakespeare wrote two endlessly entertaining plays about what a hard time he had being a father.

If you can imagine what it is like to be a leader under pressure or a child with high expectations to meet, you will see the point of Henry V. People in Shanghai who value great storytelling don't need to know about the Battle of Agincourt to enjoy the play and be affected by it.

How important is the setting of Shakespeare’s plays to their success with audiences?

All producers of Shakespeare’s plays have to be adaptors; to some extent they have been since the beginning. Shakespeare’s scripts always had to be shortened for performance, even in his own time. 50 years after his death, theatres with perspective scenery replaced the open innyard-style playhouses for which he wrote, so that scenes had to be transposed and designs added. Fashions were updated too.

As with translation, there is a choice: directors might present a Shakespeare play as if it were a vivid and exotic souvenir from the time and place where it was first performed; or they might prefer to naturalise it, to make it look as though it is a brand-new play in a modern idiom; or they might prefer to set it somewhere else entirely. Each has its potential disadvantages, but the plays will lend themselves successfully to each.

Whether a production is popular with particular sections of the audience often has more to do with tastes in actors and in acting than with the time it is set in and the clothes the actors wear. Benedict Cumberbatch’s current production of Hamlet in London had completely sold out before anyone knew whether his Prince would be wearing modern clothes or Renaissance ones, for instance.

After translation into other languages, what remains especially original and creative in Shakespeare’s works? What gets lost in translation? What is gained?

One thing that is pretty much indestructible in Shakespeare is his sense of how to tell and angle a story by the way in which he shapes it into successive scenes. In the terms used by cinema scriptwriters now, he was very skilled at making ‘treatments’ as well as at writing dialogue. (Some other Elizabethan playwrights specialised in one or the other: Shakespeare did both). So you can make Romeo and Juliet into a ballet, taking out all the dialogue, but leaving the scenic structure intact – and it still works.

Whatever may get lost in translation – in many languages, that’s mainly density and rhythm – what is gained is the choice of overall idiom. English-language performers of Shakespeare are stuck with scripts which, in some details of vocabulary and syntax, always sound 400 years old. Directors working in other languages, who get to choose or even commission new translations specifically for their own productions, can decide whether their version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or whatever, is going to sound poetic, colloquial, old-fashioned, ritualistic, or everyday.

I doubt whether any single translation will be able to reach as many registers as Shakespeare’s scripts do in English, since Shakespeare loves to move very fluently between all the different tones I just mentioned. But many English-speaking directors still envy their overseas colleagues for their ability to choose in what sort of voices – old or new, formal or casual – their Shakespeare will speak.

How does Shakespeare inspire originality and creativity in others?

As my previous answer may suggest, the very difficulty of translating Shakespeare forces writers in other languages to be inventive when trying to produce equivalent senses and effects for their local readers and performers. Chinese translators such as the heroic Zhu Shengao, and more recently, Zhang Chong, have been particularly ingenious in coining new terms, and especially in finding melodic, tonal equivalents in Mandarin for effects which Shakespeare produces in English through rhythm and alliteration.

Directors and actors have to be inventive too if they are to render the newness and freshness these plays had in open-air amphitheatres in London in the 1590s, for audiences in present-day indoor theatres elsewhere. When the Beijing People’s Arts Theatre brought their production of Coriolanus to the Edinburgh Festival in 2013, for instance, I was invited to write a programme note, so I watched it with real fascination. I was absolutely delighted by the ways in which the director, Lin Zhaohua, had produced a vibrantly contemporary production which still did justice to both the political urgency and the classical resonances of Shakespeare’s last play about Roman public life.

The translation was clearly a faithful, terse and very 'Beijing' rendering of some of Shakespeare’s harshest lines. The design translated ancient Rome into a look of early imperial China, but the tough military music and hard soundscape of Shakespeare’s play were rendered by the participation of two heavy metal bands, Miserable Faith and Suffocated. It was modern and ancient at once, a battle between the one and the many, which was happening very loudly in our present tense.

I think that sort of dialogue between past and present is one of the things Shakespeare always provokes and enables. On one level he is the first modern playwright, writing rationalist, secular plays based on psychology and set in very concrete, real-life situations such as in the history plays. But he is also the last of the ancients, drawing on older traditions of communal, non-commercial theatre, and on folklore, to produce plays in which we find ourselves on the threshold of the spirit world and in the presence of fairies, gods or ghosts.

That has made his plays equally attractive to theatrical stylists invested in realism and rational debate, and to those interested in reviving more temple-based performance traditions involving ritual and transformation. He is the great playwright of change – personal and collective – and he goes on changing with his interpreters and his audiences, in China and throughout the world.

Read interviews with our Smart Talk speakers in China and find out about more events during the 2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange. The next event is the 'Pillars of the Economy' forum in London on 17-18 September 2015, which is for arts organisations from China and the UK.

The British Council is planning a year-long global programme celebrating Shakespeare’s works in 2016. Find out more about the Shakespeare Lives programme of activities.

You might also be interested in: