Update on the Shakespeare Industry

(January 2005)

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

In the wake of the series of film versions of Shakespeare plays of the last two decades or so, another one has just come out: The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, Jeremy Irons as Antonio, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, and Lynn Collins as Portia. According to Philip French, reviewing the film in The Observer of 4 December, the emphasis is, predictably, on Shylock, the film's tragic hero. The Antonio / Bassanio plot focuses on homosexual attraction. The film is set in early modern Venice, and apparently contains a number of additional scenes intended to bring out the period's rampant "anti-semitism." It very fittingly premiered during the Venice film festival in September; the London premiere was attended by Prince Charles. So far, no news has reached us of plans to release it in Dutch or Flemish cinemas. Reuters reports that Pacino, who some 10 years ago made the semi-documentary Looking for Richard around the Third of that name, has now set his sights on Lear and Macbeth as well, perhaps hoping to dethrone Kenneth Branagh as the chief cinematic Shakespearean of the time. Meanwhile, the major Shakespearean film maker of the previous generation, Franco Zeffirelli, has been made a Knight of the Order of the British Empire for his "valuable services to British performing arts."

The German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann has published a volume of translations of 40 Shakespeare sonnets, entitled Das ist die feinste Liebeskunst (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2004), ISBN 3-462-03443-x, with Shakespeare's original on the facing page. The book also contains musical settings of a few of the translated sonnets with guitar accompaniment. It is probably no coincidence that the insides of the front and back cover contain versions of sonnet 66, a facsimile of the Shakespearean original and Biermann's handwritten translation respectively: as Manfred Pfister has argued in a series of publications, as far as the European continent is concerned, this is the most political Shakespeare sonnet which has therefore been endlessly translated and adapted to local circumstances. Biermann's past as a protest singer in the former GDR may well have led him to that choice, which is reflected, one supposes, in the exactly "66 Notate" which accompany the translations. As one expects, Biermann's style is colloquial, and heavily influenced by his Berlin dialect. The couplet of sonnet 12:

And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence

Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence


Wenn er dich eines Tages holt, dann denk daran:

Dein Same, Mensch! Nur er besiegt den Sensenmann.


With 24 productions, Shakespeare remained the most frequently performed playwright in the Netherlands in the 2003-2004 season, as NRC / Handelsblad reported on 2 November 2004. Ibsen, Brecht, Molière, and the contemporary Dutch playwright and director Don Duyns shared second place, with six productions each. Shakespeare productions were also the most versatile, the paper reports, ranging from dance theatre to adaptations for children. That the young also take a vivid interest in Shakespeare, at least in some aspects of his work, also emerges from a column in NRC of 24 July, in which 15-year-old Hannah Moore compares the works of rapper Eminem with those of the Bard, with special attention to the art of cursing. Both are great poets, Moore argues, who find the right words to express emotions we all feel from time to time, whether they be of love or of aggression; but whereas a pupil may count on her teachers' approval when she is reading Shakespeare, an interest in rap music is frowned upon. "In two-hundred years' time, will today's rappers be regarded as sages, too?", she wonders.

In NRC / Handelsblad of 6 August, Kester Freriks traced the history of Shakespeare productions in Diever, a village of 2,000 inhabitants in the province of Drente, which has gained national fame for its annual open-air amateur performances of Shakespeare's plays. On average, some 200 of the villagers take part in the production in some capacity or other. The history of Shakespeare at Diever dates back to 1946, when the local GP, L.D. Broekema, who had been a stage extra in Amsterdam's City Theatre, took the initiative of directing A Midsummer Night's Dream. In loving detail, Freriks records how at first the artificial lighting was provided by the headlight of Broekema's motorcycle, and how Mendelssohn's music resounded from a hand-operated grammophone player. Yet even then the village was also emulating the culture of the metropolis, for the acting style was clearly derived from the leading actor in Amsterdam, Albert van Dalsum. Whole generations of village children have grown up with Shakespeare, who has been played every year since, with the exception of an excursion to Ibsen's Peer Gynt in 1949. Freriks also notes that the Diever productions have always mirrored changing tastes in the Dutch professional theatre, from the original uncut Burgersdijk texts to specially commissioned modern translations, and from realism to abstraction in the sets, particularly under the innovative current director Jack Nieborg. This year's production of Timon of Athens was played by men only, as in Shakespeare's time, and in their grey business suits with red ties, Timon's friends were symbolic of modern capitalism. Freriks' article gives the impression that the history of Shakespeare at Diever might be a wonderful topic for a full-length study.

In a broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Michael Boyd, the new artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, announced some of the company's plans for the future. These include producing the complete works of Shakespeare, and not in the "reduced version," during the 2006-07 season.

It almost seems as if the Shakespearean printing presses have been operating at maximum capacity these last few months, both in the Low Countries and worldwide. Just before the end of 2004, Uitgeverij Arbeiderspers (Amsterdam and Antwerp) published Richard III / Macbeth, translated and annotated by H. J. de Roy van Zuydewijn (ISBN 90-295-3824-4). We shall be devoting more attention to this collection (which nicely complements H. J. de Roy van Zuydewijn's earlier translations of Julius Caesar and Hamlet, published in 2003) in the next issue of Folio

Stephen Greenblatt's William in de wereld: Hoe Shakespeare Shakespeare werd (ISBN 90-234-1307-5), the Dutch translation of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Greenblatt's much discussed and highly imaginative life of the poet and playwright, appeared in the course of 2004. Those who were present at Greenblatt's presentation of the book (introduced by David Rijser) in Amsterdam on 23 November 2004, will remember that this distinguished scholar can be eloquent both on paper and live, even with his voice nearly gone due to a cold.

Greenblatt's visit to the Netherlands was also marked by an interview with Michaël Zeeman in De Volkskrant of 26 November. Perhaps it was his being in the Low Countries that led Greenblatt to a comparison of Shakespeare to Brueghel, who was not himself a peasant but nevertheless portrayed them lovingly, while Marlowe is more like Bosch, whose work is characterized by aggression and hatred. As for his decision to write a literary biography, in an age in which the author is supposed to be dead, Greenblatt notes that this is the only genre in which a literary scholar can still reach a broad readership, and put the art of bygone ages on the agenda once again. Erasmus, he adds, had also expressed the hope that his works would fire the imagination of the common man and woman. As for relevance, Greenblatt argues that a literary work is not like a machine or a pudding, where the only criterion is whether it works or how it tastes, and one does not ask after the cook's wife's health. An author's life is worth researching, however, for it will inevitably colour his work, though not in a direct and predictable manner.

Greenblatt's biography of the "Man from Stratford" has not laid the ghost of the other authorship claimants. As William in de wereld appeared in the bookshops, so did P. N. Helsloot's Edward de Vere: Onvermijdelijk Shakespeare, published by the Zaltbommel-based Uitgeverij Aprilis (ISBN 90-5994-035-0). Like earlier approaches to the authorship problem, Helsloot begins by focusing on the apparent mysteries surrounding Shakespeare (including his remarkable erudition and the paucity of information about him), and continues to argue that the real person to watch is his contemporary, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who was forced to be a "hidden author" because he belonged to the highest aristocracy in England, and was highly sensitive to any political repercussions his plays might occasion if they were connected with him. The aristocratic mind with which the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga metaphorically credited Shakespeare, Helsloot argues, actually belonged to a real nobleman, De Vere. This is delightful reading for anyone who finds that there is a case against the Man from Stratford, particularly because Helsloot, like a true detective, takes the reader through the early modern history of the Low Countries with painstaking care and with a clear eye for the martial achievements of the Veres on this side of the Channel. The Dutch Oxfordians have clearly been growing in strength in recent years. One wonders what their response would be to Rodney Bolt's novel entitled History Play, which appeared in the autumn of 2004 (Harper Collins), and which sets out to argue that Shakespeare was really Christopher Marlowe. The chapters which are set on the European continent, including the Low Countries, are certainly not without interest, and the tone of the narrator, who makes the most of the few facts that we know about Shakespeare, and of his own imagination, is pleasant. The author's reinterpretation of historical fact, however, is not likely to be to everyone's taste. Marlowe's final days were the subject of another novel that made the headlines this year, Louise Welsh's Tamburlaine Must Die (Canongate).

Recent publications also include books and collections that approach Shakespeare in regional terms. Noteworthy is Antonella Piazza's collection of essays in English and Italian entitled Shakespeare in Europa (Naples: Cuen, 2004), ISBN 88-7146-668-3. This collection brings together the papers delivered at a conference held in Naples on 20 May 2002, and it devotes attention to Shakespeare on the stage (Anna Maria Palombi Cataldi), in painting (Maria Rosaria Cocco), music (Elio Matassi), film (Mariangela Tempera), popular culture (Manfred Pfister), and in the literary canon (Vita Fortunati). Topics cover a variety of countries, with a strong German and Italian presence.

Also out now are the proceedings of the 2001 conference of the International Shakespeare Association, held in Valencia, and devoted to the theme which is also the collection's title, Shakespeare and the Mediterranean. This substantial volume, carefully planned and edited by Tom Clayton, Susan Brock and Vicente Forés, has come out with the University of Delaware Press (ISBN 0-87413-816-7). This collection prints a number of impressive papers that people in the field had been looking forward to for some time, like Stephen Orgel's "Shylock's Tribe" (on the English roots of Shakespeare's "Jewish" moneylender), "Shakespeare's Outsiders" by Charles Marowitz, Gary Taylor's long and detailed "Shakespeare's Mediterranean Measure for Measure," Jonathan Bate's "Shakespeare's Islands" and Jean Howard's "Gender on the Periphery." This is a collection that no library collection can do without.

Also devoted to the international theme are four books which are all of a hugely different nature, capturing the different types of approach that are being explored in this expanding field. From 2003 is Roger Paulin's Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany, 1682-1914: Native Literature and Foreign Genius (Hildesheim, Zürich and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2003), ISBN 3-487-11945-5. Cambridge-based Paulin, who has, among other things, earned his spurs with a biographical study of Ludwig Tieck (Oxford, 1986), here traces the impact of Shakespeare on German culture from the earliest times to Word War I. In his detailed account, Paulin charts the early reception of Shakespeare as part of an attempt to revive German literature and to adopt a clear stance against French poetics, and describes the way in which the Germans later came to identify with the playwright and poet who came to be seen as a genius of German origin. What is unique about Paulin's study is the attention to detail, the care the author takes to return to the sources that many authors quote and which few analyse so closely in the presence of the reader. Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany is learned but not difficult. It skips less than one might like, but in the final analysis one should be immensely grateful for such an account of materials that are hard to find, and often harder to read or understand.

In the course of 2004, Irena R. Makaryk (University of Ottawa) published a full-length study of Shakespearean connections in a country that has since taken centre stage in world politics: Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn (ISBN 0-8020-8849-X), is a richly illustrated monograph which deals with the stage genius Les [= Oleksander] Kurbas, Ukranian theatre in the 1920s, and early Soviet cultural politics. Makaryk's book is a magisterial example of what we have been waiting for for such a long time: a theoretically sharp analysis of theatrical and cultural history in a part of Europe that has been closed to most of us until the end of the 1980s.

Canadian in origin as well as focus is Ric Knowles' Shakespeare and Canada (Brussels: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2004), ISBN 90-5201-989-4. This is not a monograph, but a collection of essays by a single author concentrating on Shakespearean production at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival, the translation of Shakespeare in Québec (a hot and fascinating topic since the late 1960s), and adaptations of Hamlet and Othello. The book has a fine structure, and the author's approach to the various modes of Shakespearean reception, also because it is always theoretically sound, may serve as a model to many working in the field of international Shakespeare. Similarly, Sabine Coelsch-Foisner and György E. Szönyi's volume entitled "Not for an Age, but for All Time" (Vienna: Braumüller, 2004), ISBN 3-7003-1470-1, brings together a number of interesting essays on, as the subtitle puts it, "Shakespeare across Lands and Ages."

Finally, a number of teaching aides have appeared on the editors' desk. The successful Shakespeare Dictionary by J. Madison Davis and A. Daniel Frankforter (which first appeared with Garland Publishing in 1995) is now available in paperback from Routledge (ISBN 0-415-97114-4). Although a number of great rivals have appeared on the market in recent years, and even though the somewhat old-fashioned layout of the entries here is not likely to win any prizes for book design, this explanatory catalogue of characters, place names, animals, buildings, rivers, nations, nicknames and the like is still a worthy aid for the reader using unannotated editions of Shakespeare, and (at 16.99) also good value for money.

In the companion series to The Arden Shakespeare, Simon Palfrey has now published his Doing Shakespeare (London: Thomson Learning, 2005), ISBN 1-904271-54-5. This is an introduction, in an accessible style, to the playwright and his work, devoting attention to such complex issues as metaphor, repetition, high style, prose and verse, puns, character, soliloquy, and sex. This could be a valuable guide to the general reader of Shakespeare, and to university students not only in Britain but also in non-English speaking countries. Without meaning to sound at all negative, it is a bit dutiful, in the sense that there is little that Palfrey does not discuss. Readers who prefer a personal narrative and some spunk should get Laurie E. Maguire's Studying Shakespeare: A Guide to the Plays (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), ISBN 0-631-22985-X. It may not be as comprehensive as Doing Shakespeare, but it is bold and relaxed, and tastefully elaborates on many themes that concern us today, as the section headings reveal: "Private Life: Shakespeare and Selfhood," "Marital Life: Shakespeare and Romance," "Political Life: Shakespeare and Government," "Public Life: Shakespeare and Social Structures," and "Real Life: Shakespeare and Suffering."

Finally, one is happy report that new plays are still appearing with a certain regularity in the Norton Shakespeare series. In the course of 2004, the Norton Critical Edition was expanded with Edward Pechter's edition of Othello (ISBN 0-393-97615-7) and Robert Miola's Macbeth (ISBN 0-393-97786-2). Curiously, unlike Miola's Macbeth, Othello comes without an introduction. Both editions are highly attractive, however, with their inclusion of a rich harvest of sources, contexts, and criticism. This saves much work in the library, and enables classroom discussion to refer to secondary materials at a much earlier stage.