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Shakespeare: World writer

Shakespeare gave his travel-obsessed Elizabethan audience a chance to enjoy the representation of new places.

Last updated: 27 Apr 2014 06:52
Kate Williams

Kate Williams is an author, historian and broadcaster on history, culture and the arts. She has written four history books and one novel. Her second novel, Storms of War, the first of a trilogy about a family from 1914 to 1939, will be out in July.
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Schoolchildren from Latvia to Chile to Chad learn the cadences of Shakespeare, writes Williams [Getty Image]

On April 26, 1564, William Shakespeare was baptised at the Stratford-upon-Avon church. The son of a prosperous local glover and his landowner wife, young Will was the third child of eight and, as the eldest surviving son, much cherished. He was destined for a comfortable local life: Taking over his father's trade, an important burgher in the flourishing, but small, town of Stratford.

And yet William became the most celebrated English-language writer in world history. Born far from London and the sparkling Elizabethan Court, he became the man of his time who had the greatest influence on politics, the court and the arts of 17th-century England. He may be the most famous writer in the world; certainly he is responsible for the play being seen as the great form of drama - and English as a language of beauty, richness and subtlety.

Schoolchildren from Latvia to Chile to Chad learn the cadences of Shakespeare - "Wherefore art thou, Romeo" resounds as both romantic line and joke throughout the world. His works have been staged in conflict zones from the West Bank to Kosovo.

At any moment, at any time, someone, somewhere is putting on a Shakespeare play. In 2012, a group of Afghan actors came to stage The Comedy of Errors in London - opening in Kabul airport as a father searches for his sons who've been lost in a sandstorm (not a shipwreck as in the original play). Iran is about to hold its first International Shakespeare Conference. Next year, the Globe theatre will take Hamlet to every country across the world - including North Korea. As we know, Hamlet, the young Crown Prince of Denmark, murders his uncle Claudius in a quest for revenge and it seems very likely that the regime of Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, last year. It will be a brave performance.

The genius

Shakespeare is a genius of invention, imagination and verbal composition. He left behind little other than his brilliant plays - and they show characters full of rich, human contradictions. Readers across the world can make him fit their own interests, fulfilling the demands of democracies, autocracies and every form of government in between.

Shakespeare is a genius of invention, imagination and verbal composition. He left behind little other than his brilliant plays - and they show characters full of rich, human contradictions. Readers across the world can make him fit their own interests, fulfilling the demands of democracies, autocracies and every form of government in between.

In modern Britain, we see him as supporting democracy and the liberal arts. In China, however, under Chairman Mao and the cultural revolution, King Lear was presented as a revelation of the failed economic foundations of feudal society; Romeo and Juliet as the desire of a new generation to create a more equal society, outside of feudal privilege.

Shakespeare can be seen as upholding the rule of law (men are punished for trying to undermine the ruler, as in Macbeth) and as promoting patriotic support for the monarchy (Henry V). Or, you could say, he is a rebel who shows the rot in courts (Othello, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure). He argues against racial prejudice (Othello, Merchant of Venice); he might support more freedoms for women or he might not; he is a Catholic, he is a Protestant - or, as the American scholar Stephen Greenblatt suggested, he didn't believe in religion at all.

In our complex, ever-changing world, a Shakespeare play can be played to support every belief and zeitgeist. Thus, after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, China rejected his notions of Shakespeare as showing little more than feudal corruption and staged countless festivals in his honour - in 1986, one festival featured A Midsummer Night's Dream performed by the China Coal Miner’s Drama Troupe and the China Railways Drama Group acted out Othello.

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo visited the UK in 2011, he asked personally to visit Stratford-on-Avon - for he had loved Shakespeare as a schoolboy. And Shakespeare engages right to the heart of the key moral dilemma of modern entrepreneurial China: Can money, power and profit be pursued while at the same time maintaining the old values of culture, manners and intellectual refinement?

Shakespeare's influence on world literature is huge. Few of the children who learn him know of his predecessors and contemporaries: Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and John Webster (who features in the Hollywood film, Shakespeare in Love, as a young man tormenting mice). In the popular imagination, Shakespeare is Elizabethan (and Jacobean) literature.

Poet of the world

But Shakespeare has had a great impact on the world partly because he is a poet of the world. Unlike so many of his contemporaries and successors who focus on Britain and its history, he ranges from Africa to Egypt to Denmark to Italy and to fairyland countries, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that could be anywhere.

In creating international settings, Shakespeare was giving his enthusiastically travel-obsessed Elizabethan audience a chance to enjoy the representation of new places. But his sources were from all over Europe and indeed the world. Romeo and Juliet reworked various Italian and French tales in English translations, while Othello borrowed from a tale by Italian author, Cinthio - as well as the translation of Moorish diplomat Leo Africanus' 1550 Historie of Africa, in which the reader is told that the inhabitants of Barbary are "greatly addicted unto the studies of good arts and sciences", yet "no nation in this world is so subject unto jealousy".

Shakespeare shows the complexity and ambivalence at the heart of every man. His characters are truly human - even comic buffoons like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream - rather than ciphers for certain human traits. Above all, he shows us people gripped by desire: for power, money, love, revenge, respect and beauty. And, despite differences of religion, politics, culture and economic systems, those desires remain integral to human life. The man baptised 450 years ago in Stratford-upon-Avon, who seems to have travelled little and passed his adult life in the same few buildings in London, has become truly a citizen of the world. If humanity ever manages to populate another planet, one of the first things we'll do is put on a Shakespeare play - I guarantee it.

Kate Williams is an author, historian and broadcaster on history, culture and the arts. She has written four history books and one novel. Her second novel, Storms of War, the first of a trilogy about a family from 1914 to 1939, will be out in July.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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