January 2007

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen


The air was full of noises in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23 June 2006, BBC 4 re­ported. A fleet of hot-air balloons had hovered above Shakespeare’s native town during the night and early morning, playing music and extracts from Shake­speare’s works spoken by Janet Suzman and other actors. The purpose of the exercise, it transpired, was not to advertise a new RSC production, but to investigate the influence of outside interference on people’s dreams. What dreams might come, indeed, on a midsummer night …

Travel notes: that Hamlet should be a brand name for tobacco products is perhaps hardly surprising, in view of the Danish prince’s suicidal nature. That Shakespeare fishing equipment should be advertised in Stratford-upon-Avon with “hook ‘m on Shakespeare” is not perhaps altogether strange either. But that Australian sugar should be marketed under the brand name Andronicus is a little weird; as if, somehow, that name is associated with culinary excellence, down under ….

NRC Handelsblad reported on 28 November that Shakespeare was again the most often performed dramatist in the Netherlands in the season 2005-06, as he has been for many years. There were 22 productions of his work, considerably more than the 7 productions each of Bertolt Brecht and contemporary Dutch dramatist Don Duyns, who shared the second place.

After Timon of Athens, André Markowicz has now also translated Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida into French (Besançon: Éditions Les Solitaires Intempestifs, 2006), ISBN 2-84681-164-4. Like the earlier translation, this one (made in col­laboration with George Hugo Tucker), comes with a fine foreword by Margaret Jones-Davies, in which she discusses one of the most eccentric of Shakespeare’s plays by analysing it in connection with Henry V and Hamlet, which were written about the same time. Also, she contextualizes the play with reference to the events involving the Earl of Essex around the turn of the sixteenth century, which fore­grounded the fickleness of fortune of individuals in power, in peace and in war. Jones-Davies reads the play as a text on human values (“What piece of work is a man?”) and the way in which these may be eroded in times of crisis, when humans become inhuman, and, as in Troilus and Cressida, the selflessness of the lover may give way to a pursuit of mercantile interests. However, even in a play that sounds the depths of the individual in chaotic times, Shakespeare, as Jones-Davies argues, refuses to side with the cynics. In Henry V the victorious king at Agincourt notoriously has his French prisoners killed. In Troilus and Cres­sida, Hector saves the lives of his enemies, movingly calling this “fair play.”

Two new essay collections deserve attention. First, there is Lectures de “Coriolan” de William Shakespeare, edited by Delphine Lemonnier-Texier and Guillaume Winter (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006), ISBN 2-7535-0330-3. The editors illustrate how rewarding it may be to study a problem­atic and relatively obscure Shakespeare play like Coriolanus. Contributors includ­ing Andrew Hadfield, Pauline Blanc, Wendy Ribeyrol, Kristine Steen­bergh, and Isabelle Schwartz-Gastine, show how Coriolanus is a hero of mythical propor­tions as well as a human being, a warrior who is both loved and hated by the people. A special attraction of this collection is the material devoted to the Lon­don Globe production of this Roman tragedy in 2006. Vincent Roger describes the production in detail. Guillaume Winter interviews Dominic Dromgoogle, who directed the play in London, and Jonathan Cake, who starred as Coriolanus.

Shakespeareans should also be interested to learn about the publication in 2006 of Schiller: National Poet – Poet of Nations, edited by Nicholas Martin (Am­sterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006), ISBN 90-420-2003-2 and 978-90-420-2003-0. These proceedings of the Birmingham Sym­posium devoted to the Ger­man author, Friedrich von Schiller, to com­memorate the 200th anniversary of his death in 2005, mention Shakespeare on many oc­ca­sions, the English author who was admired greatly by Schiller, and who was to acquire the status of the third German classical author after Goethe and Schiller. But in this collection we also learn how Schiller’s Don Carlos, recently performed in London, was praised for being “Shakespearean.” We find a Shakespearean echo when the argument involves the way in which German education in the past has tended to scare school children away from Schiller. It recounts the way in which a Hamlet-like Goethe wrote a poem reflecting on Schiller’s skull when he had this at home during the time Schiller was being re-buried in 1826. And so on. But there are also the detailed comparisons between the work of Schiller and Shakespeare (and their vastly different representations of Joan of Arc), as well as compari­sons between the related appropriation practices of Schiller and his contemporary J.M.R. Lenz. Easily the most fascinating discus­sion here turns on the ways in which both Schiller and Shakespeare gained the status of “national poet” and acquired an international following.

The summer of 2006 saw many Shakespeareans gather in Brisbane, Australia, for the 8th World Shakespeare Congress. It was an opportunity for many Austra­lian scholars and teachers to visit such a major event close to home, as for once it was the Americans and the Europeans that had to travel all the way across the globe. The congress theme was Shakespeare’s World/World Shakespeares, which obviously lent itself to a wide variety of interpretations, which is of course fortunate for such a big event. Nevertheless one trend did stand out: attention to fields of Shakespeare reception outside the usual, canonical Western context. One example was the close attention being paid to the role of Shakespeare in the Islamic world. There was even a rehearsed reading of Forget Hamlet, a Shake­speare-spin-off by Iraqi playwright Jawad Al-Assadi. Another was that some of the major speakers had been chosen from outside the community of scholars, translators and theatre-makers. There were addresses by Australian cricket and hockey coach Ric Charlesworth, author of Shakespeare: The Coach, on using Shakespeare as a “motivational tool” in sports, and by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibra­him, a dissident Malaysian politician who had found reading Shakespeare a com­forting experience during his many years in jail. The conference’s most im­pres­sive lecture, however, came from Michael Neill, who spoke about the theme of shame in King Lear, which, as he argued, was a general human charac­teristic as­sociated with aging, independent of political or metaphysical consid­erations.