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Politics of reimagination: Shakespeare now

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Dhaka Theatre transforms Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a narrative that mingles with traditional Manipuri Natpala and stages the production at the Global Shakespeare Festival in London in 2012.  —The Guardian/Donald Cooper

Michael Dobson, a professor of Shakespeare studies, speaks with Shahman Moishan about the meaning of global Shakespearean appropriation through the performance, literature and other cultural productions

Shahman Moishan: ST Coleridge, as an ideal audience of Shakespeare and one of the greatest Shakespearean critics, said that no day of his life had passed without opening one or another of Shakespeare’s volumes. On the contrary, Leo Tolstoy, a great Russian writer, said that he felt ‘repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’ when he read Shakespeare. Also, a critic Logan Pearsall Smith argues that ‘the truth is that the world’s great writers are apt to become the world’s great bores.’ However, the crowned Shakespearean critics say, ‘one must not say so.’ Then for you, what does reading Shakespeare mean in this neoliberal/neo-colonial world order, as reading is considered a political category or a critical notion?

Michael Dobson: I think the important thing here is not to make the mistake of believing that Shakespeare’s works can ever be wholly assimilated to any single (imagined) world-order or historical moment. His plays, with their multiple viewpoints and metamorphic narratives and endlessly mutating metaphors and kinds of theatrical appeal, far exceeded the official agendas of his patrons and audiences in his own times, and what they perpetually offer to their readers is glimpses of other ways in which the world might make sense. No matter how many corporate sponsors may advertise in theatre programmes in Stratford-upon-Avon, and no matter how many obedience-testing exercises different educational regimes may devise using the plays as raw material, experiencing the plays in performance and reading them as texts is always going to raise questions rather than endorsing a particular safe position of doctrinal certainty. So yes, reading is always political, since Shakespeare was unable to write drama about the different social and political set-ups his plays envisage without at the same time exposing those set-ups as provisional and riddled with contradictions and potentially disruptive uncontained energies. And, despite the presence of a luxury cruise line’s logo all over the programme of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw recently, the play — in which only the resisted testimony of women and low-ranking men averts disaster to the aristocrats in the cast — is hardly an advertisement for elitism, any more than it is an advertisement for patriarchy.

If the plays won’t stay still, lie down and serve the propaganda needs of the status quo, though, they won’t necessarily underwrite our own perspectives either. I think Tolstoy’s problems with Shakespearean drama (despite the deep kinship between War and Peace and Shakespeare’s histories, perhaps mediated for Tolstoy via the work of Walter Scott) stem from his sense that literature always ought to be definitely useful and demonstrably right. Like Dr Johnson a century and a half earlier, he was concerned that Shakespeare seemed to have written without a moral purpose, producing plays in which undeserving people may succeed and some innocents may die shockingly early. Johnson recognised that this was lifelike, but for Tolstoy it was just chaotic, especially since Shakespeare’s plays don’t assume any sort of religious certainty underpinning the secular disasters and muddling that they depict. And I can quite see why he might have found other people’s adulatory comments about Shakespeare wearisome, quite apart from his baffled experience, as a politically committed reader, of wandering without signposts or guarantees of transcendence through Shakespearean tragicomedy. He isn’t the only one to have found Shakespeare’s plurality of mind frustrating rather than enabling.

 

Shahman Moishan: You have authored a seminal book titled The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660–1769 that came out in the early 1990s, which was methodologically informed by an inter-disciplinary approach to Shakespeare Studies focusing the stage adaptations with the usage of the critical methods of cultural studies, literary studies, theatre studies and historiography. In this thesis, you demonstrate how Shakespeare became the cultural idolatry of the British national identity from the mid-seventeen century to the eighteenth century, which was also the rise of British imperialism. Could you briefly tell us the complex process of making Shakespeare the crucial symbol of British nationalism that had also been adopted as a prime cultural instrument of British imperialism across the globe?

Michael Dobson: I started working towards that book nearly 40 years ago now, and it was published in 1992 in another world — there is much that I would now change about it. It seems to me now rather diffuse and dilettante, insufficiently punchy, but that’s partly because back in the late 1980s, especially if one wasn’t living in the UK, British nationalism and imperialism might look like quaint, even comical throwbacks to a mercifully-ended era. We were Europeans now, a culturally rich, diverse but politically quite insignificant corner of the EU and of NATO. Enoch Powell’s brand of born-again imperialist racism, after its horrible flare-up in 1968, and the brief successes of the extreme right-wing National Front party in the mid-1970s appeared to have dwindled and been confined to a tiny lunatic fringe; and the future was one day going to be flag-free. So to describe how elaborate the process had been by which the Shakespeare canon — to me so obviously bigger and more spacious and more hospitable than any version of cultural nationalism — had been temporarily and anachronistically co-opted to serve as a mascot for the nascent British empire seemed, if anything, quite funny.

The point was and is how much work had to be put in for Shakespeare to be endowed with that sort of spurious nationalist authority. It often involved actually rewriting the plays — which when the London theatres reopened in 1660 looked puzzlingly archaic, to some merely obsolete — and it certainly involved a lot of standing in front of a mute statue of Shakespeare putting words into this long-dead author’s mouth, as David Garrick did when he recited his Ode during the 1769 Jubilee fan-festival in Stratford which cemented the now-popular playwright’s status as the prime cultural figurehead for a nation on the make. One key symptom is that ghastly word ‘bard’: it was only in the mid-eighteenth century that what were emerging as nation-states began to identify themselves not by which international dynasty happened to be providing their kings and queens, but in terms of their supposedly indigenous (and supposedly homogenous) languages and cultures. As the first still-popular writer who had written in English (and who had usefully written plays about English kings for good measure), Shakespeare was the only available candidate to be retrospectively reinvented as a ‘Bard’ — as though, rather than having enjoyed a European humanist education and written multi-vocal plays about all sorts of imaginary realms, Shakespeare, sprung from the soil, had learned only native folklore and legends and had recited epics around firesides about our ancestral British warrior superiority. If it weren’t so tainted with everything that has since been done in the name of ethnic purity and national pre-eminence, the misfit between that post-Enlightenment notion of what a national poet ought to do, and what Shakespeare’s writings actually do, would still be quite amusing. As I’ve said elsewhere:

Where are Shakespeare’s hymns to the expressive power of his unfairly scorned native tongue, his inspiring depictions of his country’s legendary heroes and soul-stirring landscapes, his adaptations of its folk songs and ballads, his affectionate curatorship of the peasant customs and superstitions of his home region, his rants against a foreign or would-be foreign ruling class? He does not even seem to think in terms of ‘foreign’ and ‘native’, using the word ‘foreigner’ only once in his work, when the swaggering delinquent Pistol in The Merry Wives of Windsor deploys the insult ‘mountain-foreigner’. It is used, pointedly, against a Welshman, the town’s pastor, a member of one of the ethnic groups with the strongest claim to be regarded as indigenous to these islands. Elsewhere, Shakespeare much prefers the term ‘stranger’, a category to which anyone, regardless of origins, might belong or come to belong at any time.

Even so, his writings became tools of the imperial education system in the nineteenth century (put on examination syllabi in order to select natives worthy to serve the colonial administration in India, taught to women and the lower orders across the UK as a substitute for proper ruling-class Latin). But they are unstable, plural, and volatile: they haven’t necessarily taught the obedience or assimilation the educational administrators had in mind.

 

Shahman Moishan: The mutual interaction and creative negotiations among Shakespeare and other cultures became a vital exponent of Shakespeare studies. Many phenomena have emerged in studying how Shakespeare travelled across the globe. One predominant phenomenon is the advocacy for Shakespeare as a universal literary genius in the world, regardless of race, region, culture, history and politics. For instance, in his Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Jan Kott argues about the idea of ‘the timeless greatness’ of Shakespeare’s plays and how they reflect their formidable potential to draw the similarities of the current human condition with the Shakespearean. Such concepts legitimise the causes for the anglicised globalisation of Shakespeare. In addition to this, there is a keen understanding of colonial history and the politics of knowledge and how it played a vital role in shaping a postcolonial critical approach that considers practising Shakespeare as a vital component of colonial legacies. This critical approach creates a set of counter-discourses containing a power relationship between coloniser-elite-ruling class and colonised subordinate-natives. Post colonialists set the playwright Shakespeare in a multitude of subjective perspectives and politics of location against the axiom of his universality. So, how do you judge the conflicting conditions within the field of Shakespeare Studies? What new critical ideas have emerged in recent times that can inform contemporary Shakespeare Studies to create an equilibrium of the opposites?

Michael Dobson: I quite agree with some of the critics you cite that positing Shakespeare as the universal timeless genius who has already got everything right about everything for everybody just carries straight on from the old imperialist claim that Britain deserves to rule the world because our greatest writer is better than anybody else’s. That isn’t how his plays travel, though, either in space or time. As Marjorie Garber puts it, Shakespeare isn’t timeless, he multiplies timely — the Shakespeare canon contains such a wealth of different narrative materials and unresolved conflicts that different bits of it continue to wake up and attach themselves to different successive crises and ideological faultlines in different eras and different places. As your question implies, various critics have taken this on board to different extents in recent writings. And as you know, what interests me most about Shakespeare is the range of responses and performances and debates which his writings have made possible across time and space, so I am very much in sympathy with the idea of local, embedded histories, knowledges and perspectives embraced by post-colonial scholars.

As for the current state of things in professional scholarship, the field of Shakespeare studies seems to me very disparate at the moment, and rather jittery. In the Anglophone world, there is a lot of very energised and topical work going on around early modern representations of race, particularly in North America; but meanwhile some other sub-fields of Shakespearean study, after the excitements of structuralism, cultural anthropology, cultural materialism, second-wave feminism and the new historicism, have settled back into business as usual as if nothing had happened, turning out editions and looking through the archives and trying to reconstruct Elizabethan theatre history in as much manic antiquarian detail as possible. And there is a still-flourishing interest in the history of commemoration and canonisation. Meanwhile scholars based in continental Europe, and often based in English-language-and-culture focused departments rather than literature departments, are doing fine work on the politics of translation and especially the international politics of present-day Shakespearean performance; and on the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in Asia there is terrific work being done on how the hybridisation between Shakespeare and local theatre forms reactivates and complicates, among other things, Shakespeare’s representations of religion and the afterlife. And everything is finding ways to go digital, in so far as it can. The useful thing is that Shakespeare studies, like the canon itself, is pretty capacious: theatre festivals and symposia and academic conferences about Shakespeare are still able to bring together many different schools of thought and areas of practice and people from many different places, and people from the theatre and film as well as schoolteachers and university academics, and at such gatherings a shared knowledge of Shakespeare’s texts can provide sufficient common language for the resulting debates to be both nuanced and productive.

 

Shahman Moishan: Postcolonial theorists and critics argue that ‘the Shakespeare industry’ has a profound effect on systems of education, theatrical and critical cultures, and has frequently influenced the value systems and knowledge of the colonised people to sustain the imperialist fortune in the past. Situating ‘the Shakespeare Industry’ in Asian theatre necessitates a critical understanding of cultural histories in the imperialist milieu. So, by borrowing a term from Gayatri Spivak, they assert that ‘this shaping of the theatre practices of colonised countries according to an imposed foreign standard can be seen as one manifestation of […] “epistemic violence” of imperialism’. Furthermore, they argue that the ‘postcolonial performance texts often violate the canon, setting up an agonistic encounter between local and received traditions.’ What do you think about how the Shakespeare industry functions in Great Britain, the US, and Asia in relation to ‘timeless greatness’, ‘epistemic violence’ and ‘agonistic encounter’?

Michael Dobson: I think the term ‘Shakespeare industry’ is a bit problematic — it implies something seamless, well-organised and profitable, and if Stratford is anything to go by those variously involved in staging, publishing, teaching and generally selling Shakespeare are a very disparate and internally factious crew, with very low profit margins, if any. Plenty of institutions around the world, whether film companies, colleges or the manufacturers of souvenir products, occasionally find a local reason for doing something with some bit of the Shakespeare canon or another without having any permanent commitment or vested interest in Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn’t a franchise the way Disney is — for one thing, his works are gloriously out of copyright, a free cultural resource, the original creative commons of Weltliteratur. I am glad to say that the phenomenon to which Gayatri Spivak was objecting — a sense that theatres in former colonies were perpetually having their performances judged by imperial standards, and by implication their translations and adaptations of Shakespeare evaluated solely as necessarily imperfect and unfaithful copies of a true English original — has pretty much disappeared, at least in my experience of talking about Shakespeare and seeing performances in something over 30 different countries over the last three decades or so. A play can have as large an official reputation for timelessness or greatness elsewhere as you like, but what matters is what it is managing to mean in this performance, here, now. Productions and adaptations in which theatre-makers and writers posit Shakespeare as a burdensome, imposed legacy — and there are plenty in the UK and the US, quite apart from elsewhere — tend to be quite dull, in my experience. Some of the best Shakespearean theatregoing experiences I have had have been in countries in which it has long ceased to matter that Shakespeare was once British, if it ever did, or in countries where Britishness has been remembered mainly as a nineteenth-century rumour about an alternative, more liberal world order: the Ukraine, Romania, Armenia, Russia, Brazil.

 

Shahman Moishan: Some critics also problematise the postcolonial binarism in Shakespeare studies. However, a wide range of scholarship on the appropriation of Shakespeare in Asia, concerning postcolonial theory, brings the idea of multiplicity, which reveals the diverse forms of expression based on the works of the ‘bard’. For example, Fakir Lalon and the Nadiya School of Bengali philosophy considers the ‘ethical-political’ duty of human beings is to create transcendence from the biological sphere that reflects the necessity to unite diverse humankind. Have you seen such examples from which you can reassert that Asian Shakespeare is such a complex creative site where ethical-political theatre artists celebrate diversity as the world’s infinite variety? Moreover, what will be your take on the possibilities of reading Shakespearean practices and theories with ‘creativity and ethics’ that goes beyond the adjectivising Shakespeare as the ‘greatest poet and playwright’, ‘cultural hero’, ‘symbol of liquid modernity’, ‘rhizomatic’ and ‘disturbingly relevant’ and so on?

Michael Dobson: Yes. It’s hard to make a critique of binarism without falling into another binarism, that of the non-binary (good) versus the binary (bad), and the category of ‘Asian’ is itself problematic — was Ninagawa, for instance, an Asian director who often used Western scripts or a director of Western plays who borrowed from Asian theatre forms? It is certainly the case that I came out of some of Ninagawa’s productions moved as much by the power of the Japanese theatrical materials and genres he had harnessed as by any sense that the evening had merely proved Shakespeare’s greatness once again. It wasn’t Shakespeare who had brilliantly articulated the intergenerational crisis of 21st century Japan by choosing to cast Richard II solely with actors either 25 or under or actors 65 or older, for instance. The scripts Shakespeare left are a set of opportunities, in Asia as elsewhere: provocations to thought and ingenuity, means to produce pathos and laughter and spectacle and critique, whether they are framed as exotic archaic texts from elsewhere, or naturalised as if they were always about the local situation in which they are being staged (as is achieved so beautifully, for instance, by the Jamals’ 2016 film Rahm, a barely-adapted version of Measure for Measure which might have been written about Pakistan in the year it was shot). The key thing — and it has been very much to the fore in Asia — is their generic plurality: because Shakespearean drama is an impure blend which may at any moment draw on the literary, the popular, commedia dell’arte, medieval mystery plays, classical tragedy, the interlude, the pageant or the improvised, it often provokes new blendings and collisions between different theatrical languages and modes. These new compounds and incongruities in turn demand new critical languages. The sheer hospitality of the canon is itself an ethical achievement and an ethical challenge.

 

Michael Dobson is director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and Shahman Moishan is a Bangladeshi playwright, director, writer and academic, who is pursuing his PhD under the supervision of professor Michael Dobson.



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