Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

Earlier this year, the editors of Folio received a copy of Life is but a Verse: Well-Rhymed and Bold, Selected Writings by Daniil Pashkoff and Friends, ed. Katheri­na Marsh­field (Braunschweig: Writers Ink e.V., 2002). This cu­ri­ous collection of verse written by and to commemorate the dynamic and char­is­mat­ic Russian student-poet Daniil Pashkoff (who died of dia­betes at an early age in 1999), contains a poem that should be of interest al­so to Shake­speare­ans. It is “A Letter from Bottom the Weaver to His Wife, Mrs. Bottom,” here reproduced by kind permission of Lawrence Gunt­ner of the TU Englisches Seminar at Braunschweig:


       My dear wife, my heart’s attentive nurse,

       Your humble husband never talked in verse,

       My life was dull like badly-written prose,

       But now it is blooming like a rose,

       Lofty words are in my mouth now formed,

       I am Bottom still, but have been transformed!

       I was a weaver, a mechanical,

       Just in this acid life a chemical,

       I laboured hard to earn my brown bread:

       Was I a fool? Had I a donkey’s head?

       I planned on stage as Pyramus to come

       But then, instead, a king did I become.

       A fair queen, who is an elf, a sprite,

       She fell in love just as she caught my sight.

       She heard my ditty, yes, she heard me sing,

       My dulcet voice made me her duke and king;

       She heard me speak, she saw that I am wise,

       My words made her for me blind love devise.

       I went with her into a bower

       And had with her a pleasant hour,

       She fed me with green figs and dewberries,

       With grapes, with apricots and mulberries.

       She plucked the wings from butterflies

       And fanned the moonbeams from my sleeping eyes.

       And now I shall never feel a need

       Because with me is Master Mustardseed,

       With him is Cobweb and with them is Moth

       And each of them the favours for me doth.

       If I return, I’ll be an ass, a fool

       It’s dank at home – here it’s cool.

       Still I see you and hear your shrill cry:

       Hard to forget, though hard I try.

       But waste I time, it is high time to stop.

       Your faithful Bottom, who has reached the top.


There is also a new, updated version (2003) of Norman Sanders’ 1983 Othello edit­ion in the New Cam­bridge Shakespeare (ISBN 0-521-53517-4 PB at £ 7.99 and ISBN 0-521-82795-7 HB at £ 35.00). “Updated” here does not mean that the text and the ap­pa­ra­tus have been adjusted in re­sponse to, say, Ernst Honigmann’s sly third Arden edition of 1997. There was no real need. Cam­bridge, of course, already has its own re­joinder to the issue in its Quarto series, with the 1622 version of Othello ed­ited by Scott McMillin, and it is McMillin who has writ­ten a sub­stan­tial chapter on the critical tra­di­tions and stage practice of Othello since the early nineteen-eighties, and updated the Reading List at the back of the volume.

In a smart chapter, McMillin traces the “political” readings of Othello that followed in the wake of Greenblatt’s seminal chapter on the play in Re­nais­sance Self-Fashioning, Dol­li­more and Sinfield’s Political Shake­speare, and Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice. It is worth noting that in the sec­tion on politicization, McMillin draws on examples from around the world, gene­ral­ly from one-time colonies. Rightly, Martin Orkin has pride of place with his ra­dical use of Othello to question apartheid in South Africa, instead of per­pe­tu­at­ing the time­less and universal readings of the play. To the same category of post-co­lo­nial Shakespeare belongs Orkin’s com­patriot Janet Suz­man, who, when she directed the tragedy, decided to cast the black actor John Kani in the title role. In an appropriate ges­ture to world Shakespeare, McMillin’s neces­sarily se­lec­tive account fur­ther includes im­portant Egypt­ian, Iraqi, and Indian examples.

Be­fore moving on to the recent stage history of the play, McMillin il­lus­trates how Greenblatt’s opening volley invited fe­min­ist cri­ti­cism like Karen Newman’s Fashioning Femininity in Renaissance Dra­ma, as well as Alan Sin­field’s cultural materialist rejoinder in Faultlines. He notes how post­­war productions of Othello in Britain have ge­ner­ally been dis­ap­point­ing, re­gardless of whether the part of the tragic hero was played by Laurence Olivier, Paul Sco­field, or by Anthony Hopkins in the BBC tele­vis­i­on series. The relevant dis­cussion seems to have been whether Othello should be play­ed by a black or a white actor – black be­cause he would have the experience it takes to present on stage the victim of a racist ide­ology, or white because it would precisely be the acting chal­lenge to intuit and convey the ex­pe­ri­ence in Shakespeare. In his balanced dis­cussion of this issue, McMillin devotes attention to two seminal pro­­duc­tions: Terry Hands’ version with the opera singer Willard White as Othello, Ian McKellen as Iago, Imogen Stubbs as Des­demona and Zoe Wa­na­maker as Emilia (also given an eminent dis­cus­sion in Virginia Ma­son Vaughan’s Othello: A Cultural History, Cambridge UP, 1994), and the so-called “photo-negative” production of 1997 with Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame) as a white Othello amidst an otherwise black cast. In the lim­it­ed space al­lowed him, he also discusses Oliver Par­ker’s 1995 flawed film with Lau­rence Fish­burne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago, as well as the lesser known Ame­rican adaptation entitled O (no date given). In its smartly up­dated ver­sion, this Othello in the New Cambridge Shake­speare is bound to last for an­other twenty years.

Earlier this year, Thomson Learning published its pilot volume in the Ar­den Shakespeare companion series devoted specifically to the language of Shake­speare. The first volume in the series is Shakespeare and the Lan­guage of Translation, edited by Ton Hoenselaars, with a foreword by Inga-Stina Ew­bank (London: Thomson Learning, 2004), 346 pp., ISBN 1-90427-145-6. The volume argues that Shakespeare’s international status as a li­te­rary icon is largely based on his masterful use of the English lan­guage, yet beyond Britain his plays and poems are read and performed main­ly in trans­lation. Shake­speare and the Language of Translation addresses this ap­par­ent contradiction and is the first major survey of its kind. Cover­ing the many ways in which the translation of Shakespeare’s words is practised and stu­died from Bulgaria to Japan, South Africa to Ger­many, it also discusses the translation of Macbeth into Scots and of Romeo and Juliet into British Sign Language. The collection places renderings of Shake­speare’s works aimed at the page and the stage in their multiple cul­tural contexts, including gen­der, race and nation, as well as personal and postcolonial politics.

In early June, we were sad to hear of the death of Inga-Stina Ewbank. Stan­ley Wells announced the news on the Shaksper website as follows: “The man­y friends worldwide of Inga-Stina Ewbank, Emeritus Pro­fes­sor of the Uni­versity of Leeds, will be saddened to hear of her death on 7 June 2004. She died peacefully at home after a short and pain­less illness. She was a fine scholar and critic, an inspiring, de­dicated and greatly loved teacher, and the most generous and caring of friends.” Inga-Stina Ewbank was a dynamic, gen­­u­ine and generous scholar whose vision of Shakespeare in translation as a pri­­mary mode of cul­tural exchange has over the years inspired many col­leagues (see her seminal paper entitled “Shake­speare Translation as Cultural Ex­­change” [Shake­speare Survey 48 (1995), 1-12]; and the Foreword she wrote to Shake­­speare and the Lan­gu­age of Translation [2004]). Translating Life: Studies in Trans­­positional Aes­­thet­ics, edited by Shirley Chew and Alistair Stead (Liver­pool: Liver­pool Uni­vers­­ity Press, 1999) remains a fitting tribute to Inga-Sti­na Ew­bank, who, as Dirk Delabastita has noted, was one of the few es­tablished Shake­­­spearean scholars to date to have included translation in her research agenda.

Just out is Jacqueline Cousin-Desjobert’s long-awaited study of the Eli­za­bethan MP, author, pedagogue, and headmaster (St. Paul’s School and the Merchant Tay­lor’s School), Richard Mulcaster (c. 1531-1611). The book ex­plores the way in which Mulcaster considered the sons of Lon­don mer­chants and craftsmen ought to be taught during the second half of the sixteenth cen­tu­ry. This life of the English humanist is of in­ter­est because Mul­caster was opi­nionated, knew contemporaries like Richard Hakluyt, Thomas Tal­lis, Abra­­­ham Ortelius, Emmanuel van Me­te­ren, and Janus Dousa senior. His pupils in­cluded Lancelot Andrewes, Matthew Gwynne, Thomas Kyd, Tho­mas Lodge, and Edmund Spenser. Shake­speare is not included in this im­pres­sive list of acquaintances, but Cousin’s survey of the educational cli­mate in late-six­teenth-century Lon­don is compulsive reading for anyone who wishes to con­textualize the play­wright’s learning and his dramatisation of knowledge and ignorance in the plays. Richard Mulcaster: La théorie et la pratique d’un éduca­teur élisabé­thain (Paris, 2004), ISBN 2-9516752-0-8 (520 pp.), € 77.

The German quarterly Die Horen: Zeitschrift für Literatur, Kunst und Kritik 49:1 (2004) is entirely devoted to Hamlet. Under the title Hamlet und kein Ende / Lese-Arten, Spiel-Räume & Kunst-Stücke, Jürgen Kratzer and Jo­hann P. Tammen bring together nearly 50 contributions devoted to the Dan­ish play, including essays, criticism, and cultural theory, selections of the play’s afterlives (Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller, Paul Celan and many many others), discussions of Shake­speare’s revenge tragedy on the Euro­pean stage and in the cinema. Sepa­rate issues of the journal (ISSN 0018-4942) come at € 9.50 and may be ob­­tained from the editorial office of E­di­tion die Horen, P. O. Box 101110, D-27511 Bremerhaven, Germany.

The latest issue of the Poor Yorick Shakespeare Multimedia News­letter (May 2004) is now available. This issue reports on a number of DVD ver­sions of plays by Shake­speare and his contemporaries, soon to be re­leased, including Gri­gori Kosintsev’s King Lear; Kenneth Branagh’s Ham­let (still delayed); and Alex Cox’s remarkable new version of The Reven­gers Tra­ge­dy, based on Thomas Middle­ton’s play about love, sex, murder, in­cest and re­venge, now set in a futu­ristic, post-apocalyptic Liverpool (star­ring De­rek Jacobi, Chris­topher Eccleston and Eddie Izzard). But there is al­so Shake­speare Wallah (1965), the classic story about the clash between mo­dernity and traditionalism under British colonial rule, seen through the eyes of a civil servant and his tra­vel­ling Shake­speare troupe (dir. James Ivory, with Geoffrey and Felicity Kendal, Shashi Kapoor, Laura Liddell, and Madhur Jaffrey). The 2004 Catalogue is printed and ready for mailing. Write to Poor Yorick Shakespeare Multi­media, P.O. Box 21146, Stratford, Ontario, Cana­da N5A 7V4. Alternatively, write ­to <> or visit the com­pa­ny site at <>.

NRC/Handelsblad (19 Sept. 2003) reported a most original way of using Shakespeare for marketing purposes: the RSC took the staging of Titus Andronicus as an occasion to launch a campaign for recruiting blood donors. The idea behind the campaign was that people who go to see this bloodiest of Shakespeare’s tragedies (or even act in it) would not be likely to faint when called upon to donate some real blood of their own. Not, the paper hastens to add, that the RSC itself is in need of any blood for its pro­duction: the stage blood is all synthetic, made out of sugar water, syrup, and dye from red fruits, just like the sound of Lavinia’s neck snapping is pro­duced by breaking balsa wood. By analogy, the editors of Folio suggest, it might be a good idea to use King Lear to recruit staff for homes for the elderly, Richard III to raise funds for a campaign against child abuse, and Hamlet for a teetotallers’ organization.

In Shakespeare’s own time, the Lord of the Revels made a selection from the best productions of the year for the Christmas celebrations at court; in a modern equivalent, journalist Martin Schouten has drawn up a longlist for the Dutch-Flemish Theatre Festival to be held in Amsterdam and Ghent, from 26 August to 8 September. Among the fifteen pro­duc­tions on the long­list we find no fewer than three Shakespearean ones: Toneel­groep Am­ster­dam’s Romeo en Julia, Richard III by Zuidelijk Toneel Hol­landia, and Tim van Athene by Zuide­lijk Toneel Hollandia and Het Toneel­huis. Of these, only the last was in­cluded in the final selection.

On 26 May, NRC/Handelsblad reported on the RSC’s decision to end their contract with the Dutch architect Eric van Egeraat. Van Egeraat had been work­ing on plans to rebuild the venerable Royal Shakespeare Theatre of 1932. The am­bi­tious scheme of former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble to de­molish the old theatre and replace it by an entire theatre village had led to a wave of pro­tests, which may have contributed to Noble’s decision to leave the com­pany. Under his successor, Michael Boyd, it now looks in­creasingly likely that the building plans will be scrapped altogether.

But let us end on an optimistic note. It was certainly good to learn that on 8 June, the Dutch Shakespearean actor Gijs Scholten van Aschat re­ceived the Albert van Dalsum Ring for his acting achievement. As Wil­fred Takken put it in NRC/Handelsblad of 11 June 2004, “Of the classics, Shake­speare has always been his great, eternal love. In 1984, he already play­ed the lead in Romeo and Juliet. Later he was to appear in Othello, A Mid­summer Night’s Dream, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens. And in 1999 he played Hamlet, directed by Johan Does­burg, per­haps the most beautiful part he ever played. His was not a young Hamlet; Scholten van Aschat was 39 at the time. It prefigured an idea which he is still thinking of staging some day: Hamlet as Prince Charles, the eternal crown prince who will never be king.”

Wilfred Takken also quotes the actor on Hamlet.


Hamlet is certainly a milestone, and the leading role was an exceptional challenge for me. More­over, you keep going over the text because it contains profound re­flec­tion in abundance. To play Shakespeare is to enhance your life. Many of Shake­speare’s lines I re­member, and they often serve me as a guide. Richard the Second, for example, says: “But whate’er I be, / Nor I, nor any man that but man is, / With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d / With being nothing” (5.5.38-41). It is a difficult sentence that seems to contain a sur­pri­singly modern, almost Bud­dhist truth: you will never be satis­fied unless you accept you are nothing. If you wish to become anything at all, you must first have the courage to be no­thing.


A worthy statement, surely, to come from a newly in­vested laureate.