Is all the world still his stage?

September 11, 1998

In the days of the British Empire, colonial students were forced to read Shakespeare. Why should they bother now? Jennifer Wallace reports

Afternoon tea on the middle Tuesday of the biannual international Shakespeare conference in Stratford is a time-honoured event. The Lord Mayor presides, the guests nibble sandwiches and drink tea dispensed from huge gleaming tea urns. It is a typically English scene, the sun filtering through cloud, the clipped hedges, the polite chat.

Nothing could be more traditional and nothing, usually, more appropriate for a gathering of Shakespeareans than this setting. It is all in keeping with the presentation of Shakespeare in Stratford, the English poet in the traditional English town. It is in keeping, too, with the conventional teaching of Shakespeare in schools and contemporary culture's veneration of Shakespeare as a national asset and the notion that producing his plays is a patriotic duty.

But at this year's Shakespeare conference, the regular garden party seems a little less appropriate. For the world of Shakespeareans is at last beginning to acknowledge that Shakespeare is performed and studied across the world and that the internationalism of the Bard raises issues about national identity, race and politics in the plays, which the emphasis upon his Englishness has hidden. To reflect this trend, the 1998 conference has been given the cleverly-punning title "Shakespeare and the Globe". The conference has also been chosen as the place to launch this year's major Shakespeare publication, Post-Colonial Shakespeares, edited by Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin.

"There was nothing in Western criticism which answered my questions about the way I made sense of Shakespeare's plays," says Ania Loomba, who grew up in India and who now, after a doctorate at the University of Sussex, is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "I was aware of a disjunction there, but I never thought of it in terms of race." It was only after she came to Sussex that she became aware of her own colour and her thoughts about the plays became focused upon the race issue. She argues that Shakespeare's own time was "profoundly shaped" by the recognition of different national and racial identities.

The genesis for Loomba's book was the conference, entitled "Shakespeare - Post-coloniality - Johannesburg, 1996", held in South Africa two years ago to mark the passing of apartheid and to address the question of the relevance of Shakespeare to Third World countries that were emerging from oppressive or colonial regimes. Shakespeare was, in many cases, associated with the education system of the foreign colonial power, with the whites in South Africa or with the British in India. Once these powers had been thrown off, why should their texts, particularly Shakespeare, continue to be read?

The number of those who think that Shakespeare should be abandoned in favour of native writers is growing across the globe. Some of the most vociferous are Hindu fundamentalists, who campaign for a return to India's cultural roots and to her vernacular writers. Ania Loomba is fearful of their influence, considering them conservative and "highly patriarchal". "They just want to replace Shakespeare by creating an alternative Indian canon," she says. They know nothing about the latest thinking in the West, the new vocabulary of literary theory which engages with questions of politics, gender difference or ethnicity.

Rather than repeating, parrot-like, an English Shakespeare or, alternatively, rejecting him altogether, Post-Colonial Shakespeares explores a third way, the fashionable notion of the hybrid performance. The hybrid Shakespeare contains elements of both cultures, British and the host culture, in ways which should, through the collision, shed light on both. While some post-colonial critics, like Homi Bhabha, have argued that this mingling of cultures is always enlightening and subversive of cultural stereotyping, Ania Loomba prefers to examine each case of cultural collision on its own merits. "There is a great difference between an upper class Indian man, schooled in Western literature, paroting Shakespeare, and the kind of hybridity which might be unleashed when groups of players perform Shakespeare and none of the audience knows it's Shakespeare yet highly enjoy it," she says. Loomba cites a Kathakali version of Othello from India as an example of post-colonial hybrid Shakespeare. Another example might be the African Julius Caesar, performed at the Edinburgh Festival this year (see box left).

A post-colonial reading or staging of Shakespeare involves recognising both the differences and the similarities between the English renaissance and the local present. Post-colonial critics reject the old idea of Shakespeare as a universal author, speaking timeless truths to audiences through the ages. They argue that such a stance simply masks the fact that Shakespeare is dead, white, English and male. Instead, they repeatedly point out ways of making him relevant to their particular situation. Ania Loomba sees many similarities between Shakespeare's time and present-day India - the need for dowries, the enforced marriages, the violence. "Renaissance drama is so violent and Indian society is always teetering on the edge of complete and absolute violence," she says. "Shakespeare's plays have a huge resonance in people's lives."

The ideal strategy for Shakespeare's continued survival in the third world, according to Loomba, is, as she puts it, drawing upon Dipesh Chakrabarty's phrase, to "provincialise Shakespeare". Rather than always looking at other cultures through western categories, the act of "provincialising" involves becoming so immersed in another culture that one can re-examine Western preconceptions from a foreign perspective. The staging of Shakespeare across the globe should be interesting not only for what it can tell us about Shakespeare but for what it can tell us about the cultures in which it is performed. "The centre of your gaze must shift," says Loomba. But she feels that the task of provincialising Shakespeare completely is impossible. "In order really to provincialise Shakespeare, you have to stop doing Shakespeare."

Terence Hawkes, professor of English at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and a contributor to Post-Colonial Shakespeares, has another suggestion. He gloats over the break-up of Britain following the endorsement of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly and gleefully prophesies a period for England, and the English Shakespeare, in the wilderness. The Welsh and Scottish will have a strong sense of identity, he feels, and he points out the Welsh elements in Shakespeare's plays like Henry IV. But the English have lost their sense of identity, their raison d'etre, with the emancipation of their first colony, Wales, and this loss could affect the whole current Shakespeare hegemony. This is Shakespeare provincialised from within.

"Colonization has its imperatives and it has been rightly observed that, halfway down the cat's throat, any self-respecting mouse ought at least to consider beginning to talk about 'us cats'," writes Hawkes at the start of his post-colonial essay. But in the post-colonial age, when we are compelled to recognise the differences between nations, to ensure that we neither forcibly assimilate those from a different country or race, nor are assimilated by them, and when the most vibrant performances and studies seem to occur in the encounter between cultures, it appears the cats have had their day.

* Post-Colonial Shakespeares, edited by Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin, Routledge, Pounds 12.99.

Jennifer Wallace is lecturer in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Shakespeare's Storytellers, page 24

AFRICAN JULIUS CAESAR

As Brutus and Cassius wash their hands in the murdered Caesar's blood, Cassius reflects: "How many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accents yet unknown." This, thinks Toby Gough, director of the African Julius Caesar at this year's Edinburgh Festival, is prophetic of Shakespeare and shows that "the plays are timeless and can be imposed on any state in any part of the world".

Gough's show is a British/Malawian hybrid. Julius Caesar is the set text in Malawi's schools, but the only available performance of the play was an old 1950s film on video. So James Kennedy, director of the British Council in Malawi, invited Gough over to produce something more up-to-date. Gough went on to produce hybrid Julius Caesars in five other African countries, performing open-air to schools and universities and attempting to "affiliate the play with modern African culture and politics".

The result in Edinburgh was a vibrant show in which a traditional story teller opens the play with contemporary political comment, where Dr Hastings Banda's songs are sung when Caesar seizes power, where an African doctor dances around Caesar to cure him of his epilepsy, and where Caesar and Brutus have inter-racial marriages (often taboo in Africa).

IS SHAKESPEARE A USELESS VESTIGE OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE OR STILL RELEVANT ACROSS THE GLOBE TODAY? WE ASKED VISITORS TO THE SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE CENTRE IN STRATFORD:

Japan: Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the world. In Japan, a great Shakespeare scholar called Shoyo Sbogi lived about 100 years ago and he translated Shakespeare into Japanese first. We know his name and also Shakespeare's name itself.

France: I translate Shakespeare. I try to keep the rhythm of the English language in French which is very difficult. If you get somebody in France who is interested in the Romantics, then Shakespeare is the greatest. But if you come across someone who is a classicist, then there can be nobody else but Racine and Moliere.

Iran: I was very familiar with Shakespeare when I was a child. I think it was right to know about writers from all over the world, not just the local ones. I think he is one of the greatest writers in the world. It never crossed my mind that he had anything to do with the British empire.

Kirby, near Nottingham: Shakespeare's definitely relevant. It's universal, I think. I'm into it, but my friend can't stand it. I'm just dragging him round.

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