Workshops and research

March, 2018

Symposium: “‘Let me play lion too’: Casting diversity in Shakespeare”,

Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames, London. 

July 2018

Symposium: “Much Ado about Italy: Shakespeare and the Italian Gaze”,

Ca’ Foscari University, Venice.

February 2019

Workshop: Antony and Cleopatra, Verona. 


July 2019

“’This is my space’: Geographies of the self in Antony and Cleopatra’,

Silvia Bigliazzi, Elena Pellone and David Schalkwyk,

ESRA Conference, Rome.

March 2020

Directorless Macbeth, The Shakespeare Institue, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Dr. Martin Wiggins: "The Three Worlds of Macbeth" and "Who Was You".

Open rehearsal and forum with the Anərkē Shakespeare ensemble.

Shakespeare as Language,

Or, How global is Shakespeare really?

David Schalkwyk

Queen Mary University of London

The provocation implicit in my title is offered in the context a wave of interest, of which this panel is an example, of Shakespeare as a world phenomenon.  That Shakespeare enjoys and has for some time enjoyed an unprecedented afterlife beyond what would in the past have been called his “home”—in England, Europe, or the English-speaking world—is now beyond doubt.  What is new is the growing interest in that afterlife by those who might in the past have wanted to confine him to his home ground.  That interest was given special impetus by the two leading Shakespeare companies in the UK (some would say, in the world): Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, who presented the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012 to coincide with the London Olympic Games. 

Shakespeare´s Globe. Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia [CC BY 2.0 (]

The Globe’s Globe-to-Globe event, which included 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages (this is not quite accurate, since South Africa presented a stage adaptation of the narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in six languages),[1] has received most attention and commentary.  There are many things to say about it, but I want to focus on two: first, its advertising slogan, “Shakespeare’s Coming Home”, which may have had a local resonance for English theatre-goers with the 1996 European Football championship theme song, but for others, in Paul Prescott’s words, it “positioned Shakespeare as an English invention whose popularity had since spread across the world but whose ultimate expression could only be realised on home soil”.[2]  If this point indicates a certain ideological limitation of at least the Globe’s marketing department regarding the idea of global Shakespeare, the second is the very opposite: by ranging across the entire Shakespeare canon, the Globe-to-Globe festival extended the reach of Shakespeare in other languages and performance traditions beyond the “usual suspects”: that handful of the 37 plays that are regularly thought of as being properly global. 

[1] See Colette Gordon, “Shakespeare’s African Nostos: Township nostalgia & performance at sea,” in Jane Plaistow (ed.), African Theatre 12: Shakespeare in & out of Africa (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2012), 28-47.

[2] Anthony Sher and Gregory Doran, Woza Shakespeare: “Titus Andronicus” in South Africa, New edition (London: Methuen Drama, 2007), 238.

I have tried to investigate the popularity of individual Shakespeare plays across the world, and after a brief foray have decided that there is too little readily available data to come up with any properly scientific findings.  The problem is further complicated by the difficulty of distinguishing among translations, adaptations, appropriations, invocations, and mere allusions, and the fact that different Shakespeare plays appeal differently to different cultures, nations, or in different languages, and that Shakespeare was not adopted to the same extent, at the same rate or at the same time in, say, Germany, where he has been considered properly German since at least the eighteenth century, and in Brazil, for example, where Shakespeare was mediated in the nineteenth century by French adaptations, and translations of the complete works from English were completed as late as 1950. 

Taking into account the variation of cultural interest and impact of Shakespeare in different languages and countries, it nonetheless seems that few plays are regularly performed for their global impact or, to use a terrible word, relevance.  It is no coincidence that the Globe’s current touring production to every country on the planet is Hamlet and not The Two Gentlemen of Verona or King John.  An impressionistic look at plays to which directors, translators, actors, and film-makers return to again and again suggest the following “global Shakespeare” canon, heavy with tragedy and very light in history: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Richard III and Henry V.  That’s less than a third of Shakespeare’s texts.  We need a world-wide research project to record the frequency of production, translation and adaptation for all plays across the globe.  For the moment, however, let us ask why “global” Shakespeare seems to be confined to a dozen plays and the sonnets.  A number of possible answers present themselves: that Shakespeare is in fact not that global—that only some of his plays have the appeal that people who fall outside the academic study of Shakespeare or the professional curatorship of him as a national playwright, come up with when they are asked “why Shakespeare?”—that he is “timeless”, “universal”, “transcendent”, “endlessly relevant”, “quintessentially human”. 

So some plays seem to have the qualities that move across borders, whereas others don’t.  Hamlet falls into the first category; The Comedy of Errors into the second.  And yet one could argue that The Comedy of Errors deals more profoundly with the constitution of human identity and its movement across boundaries than Hamlet does.  Is there anything more moving or profound in Hamlet on the question of personal identity than the following lines, spoken by Antipholus of Syracuse?

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.


Or on marital betrayal than Adriana’s words to the man she thinks is her husband but who is in fact a complete stranger:

How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it
That thou art then estrangèd from thyself?
“Thyself” I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.


I am deliberately focussing on the language of the play—take that away and one merely has one more variant on Plautus’s Menaechmi—because of the developing interest, following a seminal essay of that title by Dennis Kennedy, in what is now known as “Shakespeare without his language”.  Kennedy’s essay is an early reminder that, as he puts it, “in the end Shakespeare doesn’t belong to any nation or anybody. Shakespeare is foreign to all of us”.[1]  The question is whether Shakespeare without his language includes translations of the texts, as, for example, the classic German Schlegel-Tieck version, or free adaptations, like the so-called “Zulu-Macbeth”, Umabatha, which contained none of Shakespeare’s language and followed the plot of Macbeth only very loosely. The present artistic director of the RSC, Gregory Doran, has declared that Umabatha is “the best production of the play [he] has ever seen”.[2]  My theoretical question, then, is: in what sense can Umabatha be regarded as “the play” (to use Doran’s words) Macbeth? 


[1] Dennis Kennedy, Foreign Shakespeare (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 1-19 (16).

[2] Anthony Sher and Gregory Doran, Woza Shakespeare: “Titus Andronicus” in South Africa, New edition edition (London: Methuen Drama, 2007), 238.

South African actors from the 'Umabatha: the Zulu Macbeth' production perform a mock fight in a rehearsal at Shakespeare's Globe.

On one interpretation of Kennedy’s phrase, I would argue that translated Shakespeare is not Shakespeare without his language —it’s simply Shakespeare without English. I have argued elsewhere not only that a translation of a Shakespeare might be considered better than the English original (as I believe is the case with the Afrikaans translation of Twelfth Night—Uys Krige’s Twaalfde Nag),[1] but also that few English-speakers who do not have access to Shakespeare translated into a different language can claim to understand him fully. 

Such a view may be controversial, but it is plain enough: it holds that as much may be gained through translation as is commonly thought to be lost, but it is also informed by an assumption that translation maintains some kind of fidelity to the Shakespeare text (however that is finally determined or conceived). The very idea of fidelity or faithfulness to the Shakespeare text is currently anathema to those interested in Shakespeare’s global afterlives.  Douglas Lanier states that “we are now in an age of post-fidelity”, and he offers a rhizomatic model of Shakespearean adaptation in contrast to the traditional root and branch model: “within the Shakespearean rhizome, the Shakespearean text is an important element but not a determining one; it becomes less a root than a node that might be situated in relation to other adaptational rhizomes”.[2]  Lanier’s chapter is the first in a recent book, edited by Alexa Huang and Elizabeth Rivlin, called Shakespeare and the Ethics of Appropriation, and it offers some powerful thoughts on the relation among fidelity, cultural authority and ethics in the translation, appropriation and adaptation of Shakespeare.  Indeed, the book as a whole is concerned with ethics—the ethics, as it declares, of appropriation.  So let’s ask: in an age of post-fidelity, in which faithfulness to the Shakespeare text is not an ethical value but rather a conservative, reactionary imposition, how do we give content to the concept of ethics?  Especially, how does one formulate an ethics of appropriation, with its powerful sense of violent grasping, taking over, making one’s own, obliterating otherness, and its specifically colonialist history?  A Marxist should have no difficulty with the politics of appropriation, as Lanier concedes, but an ethics of appropriation is much more difficult to conceive.  Huang and Rivlin defend their choice of appropriation (rather than the more neutral “adaptation”) by arguing, through Martin Buber and Immanuel Levinas, that appropriation need not be one-sided: that it may involve a dialogical or mutually respectful or engaged encounter between text and reader and that the roles of appropriator and appropriated may switch.  I’m not sure that this deals with the problem of ethics as it has traditionally been understood in either deontological (post-Kantian) or consequentialist (Utilitarian) terms, in part because the projection of a relationship in which two people encounter each other is not transferable without difference to a relationship in which a person confronts a string of marks on a page.  What is at stake here is different from a traditional literary ethics in which the question is about how literary texts may or may not make their readers better people, or engage them imaginatively in ethical thought.  When Huang and Rivlin refer to ethics as a practice in this context, then, the question is whether there is or is not an ethical imperative for someone who encounters a text to treat it in a particular way.  If Kant offers a categorical imperative for me to treat another person as an end and not a means, or to treat them as I would want them to treat me, then what can we say about my duty towards the Shakespeare text, which I always treat in a fundamental sense as a means?  Does this transfer of the imperative from person to text make sense?


[1] “Untranslatable Shakespeare”, Shakespeare in Southern Africa 18 (2006): 37-48.

[2] Alexa Huang and Elizabeth Rivlin, eds., Shakespeare and the Ethics of Appropriation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 21-40 (22 and 29).

I would argue that if I claim to translate it, however complex I make the notion of my fidelity to that text, I must in some way be faithful to it.  I cannot write just anything.  Even Derrida goes along with that. But with adaptation and especially appropriation, matters are much more complicated.

Let me illustrate this via a panel discussion at the 2015 Jaipur Literary Festival (available on YouTube)[1] among the director, Vishal Bhardwaj, the screenwriter, Basharat Peer, Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary University of London, and Tim Supple of the London-based theatre company, DASH-Arts, about Bhardwaj’s latest Hamlet film, Haider.  Asked why they adapted Shakespeare’s play, over and above the now conventional remarks about the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare, Peer indicated a fundamental congruence of Hamlet and the situation in Kashmir, remarking that Kashmir has been marked by the violent turning of brother against brother: “The moment I looked at the play”, he remarks, “I knew that Claudius came from that world”.  Peer offers no further instances of Hamlet’s applicability to the Kashmiri conflict, although some are indeed evident in a film that follows Shakespeare’s Hamlet only very loosely.


Supple, who has directed acclaimed multi-cultural and multi-lingual productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and 1001 Nights,[2] stated that he prefers to work from “the text as written by Shakespeare” with his actors, without attempting to contextualize or concretize it.  My summary of the current move away from notions like the Shakespeare text and fidelity should have forewarned my reader that Supple’s approach did not go down well: he was accused of trying to preserve Shakespeare’s Englishness and of maintaining a narrow colonial hegemony over the Bard; at one point the film’s director, Bhardwaj, seems to declare with some pride that he has not even read Hamlet.  Never other than complimentary about the Indian film-makers’ achievement and right to adopt their, dare we say it, appropriating approach, Supple insists on his desire to discover, communally with his actors from different cultural, linguistic and theatrical traditions, the strangeness of Shakespeare from within.  In response to the chair, Subal Seth’s, comment that “you have to contemporize the text to make it relevant”, he responds: “That’s fine; but it becomes their Hamlet.  It’s a film about Kashmir… If you want to give people an experience of Hamlet you won’t start with Kashmir.  Then Hamlet would be much stranger.  Somewhere deep in the human story you will find relevance”.



[2] See

2015 Jaipur Literary Festival.png

The ethics here are complex and uncertain: Peer and Bhardwaj surely have a right to use Shakespeare in whatever way they wish, especially when it results in as powerful a film as Haider.  Supple harks back to a particular view of the responsibility of reading that has its roots in a deontological ethics that, despite their differences, unites post-structuralists like Paul de Man and J Hillis Miller and humanist critics like Wayne Booth and George Steiner. Both sets of critics desire, Buber and Levinas-like, to remain open to the imponderable, uncontrollable, and unpredictable call of the text as something other and strange—not readily assimilable to an appropriating desire. 

I must declare that personally, I have much sympathy with Supple’s position.  But more importantly, I’m not sure that talking about an ethics of appropriation is any more useful than insisting on faithfulness in a world of globalized promiscuity.  Do Bhardwaj and Peer need Shakespeare’s Hamlet to make a compelling film about Kashmir?  I suspect not.  But who are we to tell them they can’t or shouldn’t.  Shakespeare is not a person, whose rights may be violated or whose body or soul may be subjected to torture, theft or repression and exploitation.  And we have no business setting ourselves up as his guardians and protectors.

He is—I want to argue—a grammar or a language.  If we treat what Derrida has called this “thing” Shakespeare—as ghost or revenant—as a kind of language instead of an author or a text whose meaning defines its use, a number of the problems regarding authority, originality, faithfulness, or ethics disappear or at least are changed.  Shakespeare is now a world-wide resource to be used—by anyone—just as English or Mandarin or Gujarati are available to anyone who knows how to speak them. Such a language is an enabling, constitutive system—it can be mobilized by anyone anywhere in more or less rich, more or less recognizable, more or less creative and more or less resonant, and more or less ethical ways.  Using Ferdinand de Saussure, we might say that Shakespeare is a general langue or language system that enables individual acts of communication as parole or individual speech.  Saussure distinguishes between the differential semantics of the system and the combinational syntax of its use, but conceiving Shakespeare as a system considerably enriches Saussure’s congruent notion that there are some set, habitual syntactic patterns—like “how do you do?”—that are part of the system rather than instances of individual expression.  Following this analogy, “To be or not to be, that is the question”, is a syntactical pattern fixed within the Shakespearean language system, instantly recognizable but also available for repeated and different uses in new contexts by anyone who knows how to use the system. 

M.M. Bakhtin offers an account of the utterance in use that best clarifies my analogy between Shakespeare and language. Bakhtin’s heteroglossic and dialogical view of language as utterance holds that all utterances—instances of language in use—are already always filled with their previous overtones: they resonate with the contexts, meanings, speakers, and intonations of all previous users and contexts.  He writes: “Any utterance … reveals to us many half-concealed or completely concealed words of others with varying degrees of foreignness … The utterance appears to be furrowed with distant and barely audible echoes of changes of speech subjects and dialogic overtones … Each utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances”.[1]  If these resonances are available in ordinary languages, then they resound in multiple ways in the Shakespeare language (which is not the same as the language of Shakespeare, and certainly not “his” language). The Shakespeare language comes to new users filled with the meanings, intonations, resonances and evaluations of four centuries and multiple cultural contexts, and it picks up new resonances every time it is used, in whatever way, medium, place, natural language, or time.  Not all those resonances will be released or recognized on every occasion, but they are always there, in potentiam.  This language brings us together, but like all languages it can also drive us apart. 

The question of ethics, value and authority remain; but they are displaced onto the ways in which the Shakespeare language is employed on each occasion of its use. The problematic notions of faithfulness, adaptation, and appropriation are, however, left behind.  We may use the language poorly or well, creatively or unimaginatively, beautifully or in ugly ways, to ethical purposes or for the sake of evil, just as we may use Shakespeare.  But judgments about these uses will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis; they cannot be determined in advance by appeals to fidelity to a pre-existing text or set of meanings.

From this perspective, Shakespeare is less a black hole that swallows everything, as Gary Taylor has remarked, but rather an enormous, creative resource available to everyone who wants to use it.[2]  Nor does it matter that Hamlet seems at the moment to speak more powerfully and frequently than The Comedy of Errors.  The latter may well have its day, as Shakespeare is renewed in what Bakhtin calls great time:

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future).  Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogues of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all)—they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future developments of the dialogue.  At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed forms (in a new context).  Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.  The problem of great time.


Bakhtin’s concept of great time frees us form obsessing about whether Shakespeare’s meaning is preserved or released in any single performance, translation, adaptation, appropriation, or allusive reference, at any one moment or place.   It shows that Shakespeare is not a singular case in the general movement and renewal of texts over time.  But his works have become, for whatever reasons, the most universally recognized and mobilized repository of meaning across the globe.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “universal” in the usual sense of the word.  It means that they carry an enormous resonance, which grows with each new sounding, and which may be variously heard and re-released by anyone on the planet. That resonance will sound in different ways in different places and contexts: the homecoming festival of any single resonance, as Bakhtin puts it, is always waiting in the wings—but it will always in some sense be strange, uncanny, and since we are in Berlin, we might say, Unheimlich—which, as both Freud and Antipholus of Syracuse teaches us, is, of course, also Heimlich.  Shakespeare is always equally at home and far away—for everyone.


[1] M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 93 and 91.

[2] Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present Day (New York: Vintage, 1991).


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