Update on the Shakespeare Industry

(August 2003)

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

To newspaper readers in the Netherlands, it may well have seemed that Shakespeare’s works are increasingly becoming a battle field in the (multicultural) war of the sexes. It all began peacefully in January, when AP reported that, for the first time since 1977, a Shakespeare play had been staged in Iran: a British company had played The Winter’s Tale at an international festival, but with the omission of embraces between men and women. That such a western play was allowed into Iran was seen as an enormous breakthrough in itself.

In February 2003, there was a controversy in the Dutch press about Othello, in particular about the way women are portrayed in it. On 1 February, PS, the weekly supplement of Het Parool, carried an interview of Emma Brunt with author Hafid Bouazza. Bouazza had translated Othello for the production of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, which was about to have its premiere, and much of the interview was concerned with his view of the play. Although Othello may also be concerned with racism, Bouazza said, its main theme is misogyny. The military setting gives rise to the sort of macho atmosphere in which Othello calls Desdemona his soldier, and regards her putative disloyalty as desertion. Othello loves war even better than women, Bouazza claims, and for that reason he, Bouazza, had also depicted the Moor as a typical Arab who does not really understand women. Bouazza, himself of Moroccan birth, goes on to criticize what he regards as backward tendencies in Islam.

Later that month, Bouazza’s translation came out in the form of a book with Prometheus, and it was reviewed by Wilfried Takken in NRC/Handelsblad (28 February). Although positive on the whole, Takken finds the translation rather free, and somewhat limiting for precisely the reason that Bouazza had indicated in his interview as well as in the foreword to his translation: the emphasis on Othello’s misogyny, grounded in his professional ethos and in his Arab background. Takken thinks that, by reducing the tragedy to a problem play about the multicultural society ("once an Arab, always an Arab!"), Bouazza is not doing full justice to Shakespeare’s play.

Even Bouazza’s attempt to make a stand for women’s rights did not convince everyone. Prompted by the enthusiastic reception of Ivo ten Hove’s production of Othello, which used Bouazza’s translation, Shakespearean actress Catherine ten Bruggencate wrote a letter to the editor of NRC/Handelsblad (14 February 2003). She, too, praised the production as a whole, but not the way in which the women were portrayed in it. Partly because of a tendentious translation of some of her lines, ten Bruggencate argued, Desdemona comes across as a naive, innocent virgin, who allows herself to be led as a lamb to the slaughter, simply because she does not know any better. Ten Bruggencate objects that Shakespeare’s Desdemona is a passionate and sensual woman, who knows precisely what she is doing, and who knowingly takes the risks that are the ultimate consequence of her decision to marry the Moor against parental opposition. It is she who manipulates even the murder scene, by telling Emilia to put the wedding sheets on the bed. Emilia (a role that ten Bruggencate once created herself) is no utter innocent either, but a woman who is in denial of the true nature of her marriage; who both admires and envies her mistress, the young girl who goes for all-out passion, and is deeply shocked to find herself an unwitting accomplice to her death. Van Hove and Bouazza, ten Bruggencate argues, follow mainstream tradition in "castrating" both women, making them into colourless innocents, while concentrating on the conflict between the two males.

Van Hove replied in the NRC/Handelsblad of 21 February. In his vision, the play is concerned with the irrational forces of nature, which know no difference between men and women. Neither Desdemona nor Emilia are fully rational beings in control of their own fates, but then, neither are the men. Far from being naive, Desdemona is a passionate woman, who takes love very seriously. Neither she nor Othello have the faintest idea as to why their marriage seems to be failing. The storm that begins the play is emblematic of its concern with overriding natural forces, beyond the characters’ control. Curiously, the emphasis on relations between the sexes that had dominated the debate so far seems to have evaporated in van Hove’s view, and has been replaced by a universal concern with the dark forces of nature to which Arab and Westerner, man and woman, are equally vulnerable.

Meanwhile, ten Bruggencate’s admiration for the pluck of Shakespeare’s women characters found its counterpart in an interview by Micha Spel with soprano Carol Vaness, who played Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera (NRC/Handelsblad 14 March). Lady Macbeth is no more a virago than Hillary Clinton for being power-hungry, Vaness stated: she is a real woman with a strong character. Nor is she unwomanly, or devoid of sensuality: on the contrary, the whole play/opera is about sex.

On 31 March, BBC Radio 4 brought an amazing Shakespearean news item. To alleviate its financial difficulties, the RSC is considering a plan to bring out a series of computer games based on Shakespeare’s plays, in cooperation with the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The romances, and The Tempest in particular, seemed to be regarded as suitable material, as their setting is a kind of fantasy land anyway. Possibly the option of alternative endings could be included, though, as a critical Michael Dobson stated in an interview with the channel, the prospect of having Caliban succeed in raping Miranda does not seem all that attractive. He did suggest building in an option whereby the player could only go up to the next level after s/he had delivered a Shakespearean speech flawlessly, with all the stresses in the right places. Whether anything will come of the scheme is still uncertain; it is, of course, also possible that BBC 4 broadcast the item one day early. It is not just the RSC that is in financial trouble: the thirteenth-century Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, where Shakespeare is buried, is in bad need of repairs to the tune of at least £ 100,000. To raise this sum, the trustees have set up a fund, to be accompanied by a website, also still "under construction" (

On 16 April, NRC/Handelsblad carried a brief article about Romeo ’n Juliet: A Caribean Xperienz. This production, which translates the conflict between the Veronese families into a feud between a Surinamese and an Antillian family, had been nominated by the audience for an award, but the organising "Bureau Promotie Podiumkunsten" at first wanted to rule it out because it was a musical, and therefore not a play. The decision was rescinded, however, after pressure from the sponsor, NRC/Handelsblad itself.

On April 24, NRC/Handelsblad reported an original way of celebrating world book day, which had coincided with the anniversaries of Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’ deaths, the day before. In Germany, a group of writers and publishers had cooperated to write a book, print it, and offer it for sale, all within the space of ten hours. The topic on which the forty authors had been ordered to compose a short story within two hours was, quite appropriately, speed. Not much time for blotting one’s lines, one supposes.

On May 13, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw offered an evening centring on Shakespeare and music, entitled "Shakespeare in Love." Tenor Adrian Thompson, accompanied by pianist Roger Braun, sang a number of songs by, or inspired by, Shakespeare. He did so in a most expressive way: particularly Quilter’s setting of "Come away, death" from Twelfth Night was well executed. The repertoire ranged from Schubert’s "Was ist Silvia" to Bernstein’s "Maria" from the West Side Story. The ending was comic: Benjamin Britten’s "asleep my love," Thisbe’s aria from the last act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What was not represented in the programme was any Shakespearean music previous to Schubert: the programme explained this by the somewhat dubious argument that, apart from Purcell’s Fairy Queen, most Shakespearean settings from the seventeenth century have been forgotten, thus disregarding famous pieces such as "It was a lover and his lass," "Where the bee sucks, there suck I," and indeed, the entire operatic Tempest attributed to Purcell. But the relatively modern selection was attractive enough to avoid any regret at this choice. Interspersed with the music, actor Henk van Ulsen read out fragments from Shakespeare’s works, mostly sonnets, in translations by Peter Verstegen and Gerrit Komrij. He also regaled the audience to anecdotes of his earliest experiences with the Bard, falling in love with Shakespeare, when, as a student at the Amsterdam drama school, he illegally acted as an extra in Twelfth Night, and in due course graduated to playing Puck, his most memorable part. It was with a variant on the latter’s epilogue that Van Ulsen took his leave from the audience (quoted from memory: "vond u Shakespeare soms te zwaar? Ja, dat is het repertoire"), thus ending a beautiful evening.

Beginning Saturday 28 June, BBC 2 has been broadcasting a new series on Shakespeare’s life and times, entitled In Search of Shakespeare: A Time of Revolution. The series is presented by Michael Wood, who enthusiastically travels all over Britain (and even to Flushing) in search of traces of the actual scenes of Shakespeare’s own life and that of some of his contemporaries. Suggestive parallels with modern touring companies such as the RSC are used to give the viewers a feel of the working conditions of the early-modern players. Much, almost inevitably, is speculative: much attention is paid, for instance, to the intriguing but unproven theory of Shakespeare the crypto-Catholic, who spent much of his "lost years" teaching in a Catholic household in Lancaster. The series is accompanied by a book, and will also be released on video. Given the documentary’s highly favourable reception, it is likely to be sold to broadcasting stations around the world very soon. For more information, check on:


The spectacular Frisian production of Kening Lear by Tryater turned out to be a great audience favourite. According to NRC/Handelsblad (23 June), it was seen by 39,000 people, making it the most popular theatrical event in Friesland ever. Nearly all twenty-seven performances were sold out. The production, which was director Jos Thie’s farewell, featured over fifty actors as well as twenty horses.

Finally, we received a courtesy copy of Bridges and Boundaries: Warwick Working Papers in Cultural Studies, edited by Suradech Chotiudompant and Enza Minutella (Coventry: Centre for Translation and Comparative Literature Studies, University of Warwick, 2002). Bridge and Boundaries (ISBN 0-9542465-0-0) is the record of a postgraduate conference held at the Warwick Centre for Translation and Comparative Literature Studies in 2002. Of the short papers devoted to a variety of subjects including Orientalism, travel writing, the gender of early modern alchemy, and international perfume advertising, one is devoted to Shakespearean translation. In her paper, Enza Minutella studies four postwar translations into Italian of Romeo and Juliet, and concentrates in particular on the rendering of the opening sonnet spoken by the Chorus. With a keen eye for detail, Minutella compares the 1949 prose translation by Salvatore Quasimodo, the 1954 blank verse translation for the stage by Giuseppe Salvetti (which also preserved the Shakespearean rhyme scheme), Agostino Lombardo’s reading text of 1994, and the curious version of the newsreader’s Prologue in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (here in Minutella’s own transcription):

Fra due grandi famiglie la lotta si scatena
Nella bella Verona Beach, dov’è la nostra scena.
Dal loro antico odio nascono nuovi tumulti
E il sangue di fratelli scorre dopo gli insulti.
Figli di quei nemici senz’altra via d’uscita
Due innamorati, segnati dalle stelle, si tologno la vita.
La loro sorte amara si porta nella tomba nella tomba
Dei due padri nemici la rabbia furibonda.
La vicenda terribile di questo amore
Dalla morte segnato, e dei loro parenti il tenace rancore,
Che nulla potrà estinguere se non la fine di questi figli nel dolore,
Questo nostro teatro racconterà in due ore.

Minutella deftly notes the changes that the sonnet, an Italian invention by Petrarch, has undergone since the fourteenth century. Notable about the poem’s return to its native Italian environment in the Luhrmann film is the way in which the sophisticated Petrarchan rhyme scheme, via the English variants of the sonnet (developed by Wyatt, Spenser, and Shakespeare), leads to the considerably less complex, aa/bb/cc scheme in modern Italian (though with a return to the feminine rhyme that is almost absent in Shakespeare) in order to guarantee the audience’s aural identification of the Chorus with the elevated, poetic style, even though the translator seems not to have shied away from changing "Verona" to "Verona Beach" either.

One easily agrees with John Drakakis, who in his introductory note about the papers collected in Bridges and Boundaries notes: "they make a series of genuine contributions to our understanding of what the epithet ‘international’ actually involves." No doubt this is only part of Minutella’s work on Romeo and Juliet for her doctoral thesis at the University of Warwick; one is likely to hear more of this once the project is completed.