International Shakespeare

The past week has given me several occasions to consider Shakespeare in an international context. On Friday, we had visitors from the International Leaders in Education Program, who are currently spending a semester at James Madison University, come down to the playhouse for a tour, a couple of workshops, and a production of The Comedy of Errors. The group was wonderfully diverse — Morocco, Kenya, Senegal, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Brazil, that I can remember. Most were teachers of English in their home countries, and most had been introduced to Shakespeare at the university level. What surprised me, though, was the selection of plays that foreign students receive the most exposure to: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and… The Merchant of Venice, of all things. Those were, far and away, the three that most of our visitors had had experience with, regardless of which country they came from. The choice surprises me because The Merchant of Venice tends to be a play, because of the culturally prejudicial difficulties presented by the text, that American schools don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. You’ll get the occasional brave teacher, of course, but on the whole, we shy away from it here. It made me curious as to why that play has so much appeal in other countries.

More broadly, however, talking with these teachers piqued my curiosity about teaching Shakespeare outside of the US, the UK, and other English-speaking nations. What is Shakespeare like when taught to those learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language? What is a production of a Shakespeare play like when presented in a country where English isn’t the primary language? I wonder if foreign students approach Shakespeare with more or less trepidation than American students often do. Are the “thee”s and “thou”s that so intimidate modern students more or less of a problem? I suspect the concept might come easier in those countries whose languages still retain the formal and informal pronouns. I’m curious what challenges might arise as well — would they be the same as we face in American classrooms, or entirely different?

Then, over the weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Globe Education’s Ryan Nelson, who is their digital media guru. He told me about the Globe’s 2012 project, which will be presenting all 38 plays in the Shakespeare canon in different languages, by companies from around the world . The project is part of the Cultural Olympiad leading up to London’s hosting of the Olympic Games (see the Globe’s press release or Twitter hashtag #Globe2012 for their updates). I’ll be so interested to hear how this project goes. Will curiosity drive audiences in to see a familiar play in an unfamiliar language? How easy would it be to follow along? I have to confess my own deficiencies here — I never learned a spoken foreign language. One year of French did me in, but I wonder if my many years of Latin would help me understand an Italian Julius Caesar or a Spanish Henry VIII. Knowing the source, and having that background to the Romance languages, would I be able to keep up in some fashion? It would be fascinating to find out — and if I somehow end up in London in the spring of 2012, I’ll certainly try to find out.

The idea of performing Shakespeare in languages other than English brings up its own interesting point. At the ASC, we believe that the heart of Shakespeare’s works lives in his text in performance, and we talk so frequently about his mastery with the English language — how many words he added to it, how freely he played with grammatical expectations, how deft a wordsmith he was. What is it about his mastery that can transcend that language, to continue to have appeal in Italian or Portuguese, in Urdu or Maori? And do other cultures perceive different messages from his plays than those of us in an English, Western background do? As Sarah discussed back in October, there’s a lot to consider when translating Shakespeare into another language.

I’d be interested to hear if any of our readers have had experience with Shakespeare in a foreign language, or have seen a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays presented in English in a country where English isn’t the dominant language. How is it different from Shakespeare in the US or the UK?