Worlds Elsewhere

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 51

In 2012, Andrew Dickson watched a Shakespeare play in London that set him off on a quest. When it ended, he had traveled to Poland, Germany, India, China and all across the United States. He chronicled his travels in a book titled Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe that was published in 2015. In this podcast episode, he explains what the play was that set him off on this journey, and just what it was he was hoping to find. Andrew is interviewed by Neva Grant.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published June 29, 2016. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “There Is A World Elsewhere,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had technical help from the Sound Company in London and the News Operations Staff at NPR in Washington, DC.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast is called "There Is a World Elsewhere." In 2012, journalist Andrew Dickson watched a Shakespeare play in London that set him off on a quest. When it ended, he had traveled to Poland, Germany, India, China, and all across the United States. He chronicled his travels in a book titled Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, where he explains what the play was that set him off on this journey and just what it was he was hoping to find.

Andrew is interviewed by Neva Grant.


NEVA GRANT: Your adventure started after you saw a performance of The Comedy of Errors at an international festival in London. And this particular play was performed by a troupe from Afghanistan, right?

ANDREW DICKSON: Exactly, yeah. It was 2012 and it was the summer that the Olympics were in London. And as part of the Olympics, there was also, alongside it, a thing called the Cultural Olympiad. And part of that was a thing called the World Shakespeare Festival. So basically, many, many different companies from all across the world turned up in London, doing their own kinds of Shakespeare in Armenian, in Bengali, in Cantonese.

And one of the performances I happened to see was at the Globe, and it was, as you say, a performance of The Comedy of Errors by a company from Afghanistan. And, I have to say, I mean it was a slightly doom-y summer's afternoon; I had a lot of work on. I was like, "Oh, gosh, why am I here, watching a performance of The Comedy of Errors, which is no one’s favorite Shakespeare play, translated into Dari Persian."

And it has to be said, my breath was completely taken away, it was such an entrancing performance. And partly, I think, actually, because of who the group were. They were a group called Rah-e-Sabz, the phrase means "Path to Hope" in Dari Persian. They’d only done one Shakespeare play before. They’d had to rehearse in India because their space was suicide-bombed halfway through the rehearsals. One of the actors' husbands had been killed, because his wife dared to perform on stage. And so there was this huge backstory. And they just brought such richness and complexity and pathos to this play that I’d just never seen before. And I thought, this is completely entrancing, and I thought okay, this is fascinating. How did Shakespeare end up in Kabul? How did Shakespeare end up in all of these other places?

And I started thinking about a journey. I bought a world map, started marking places on, and I set off.

GRANT: So that was the seed that was planted, that made you want to travel around the world, just the experience of that play that made you see a Comedy of Errors in an entirely different light.

DICKSON: Exactly so, though it’s this sense of exile and travel and confusion. I mean you know, the play is not very often performed in the West, anyway. You know, it’s a story of multiple twins being mistaken and ending up in the same place, losing each other. And you suddenly, I thought, in this performance, you just have all of these themes, themes of travel, themes of loss, of separation, of reunion, finally. And it just seemed to kind of somehow encapsulate what I wanted this project to be, which was that we’re continually told that Shakespeare is the world’s most translated playwright, the world’s most popular secular writer in history. And I thought, Well, why? You know, why has Shakespeare, a writer who as far as we know never traveled, why has he ended up in all of these places and all of these different languages in all of these different cultures?

GRANT: And so your journey took you almost, quite literally, around the world. You went to a number of different countries, and on this podcast, we’ve actually traveled to some of those countries and explored Shakespeare’s influence there, places such as India and many parts of English-speaking Africa. So what we thought we’d do for this, is to go to places that we’ve not yet traveled in the podcast, starting with a place that I think might surprise some of our listeners: Gdansk, Poland. How did you wind up there?

DICKSON: Well, it’s such a fascinating story. Basically, I’m trying to work out, you know, where do I start? I had this world map, all of these places on, and then I was thinking about journeys in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. And I started reading about these actors that are called the English Comedians, and basically they are English actors, who stopped working in London for various reasons and traveled across the continent, so they traveled through the Baltic trade routes, through the German states, and they even got as far as Lithuania.

GRANT: And when are they doing this?

DICKSON: They’re doing this right at the beginning of the early 1600s, and so well within Shakespeare’s own lifetime. And they’re taking scripts by Marlowe, by Dekker, by Jonson, and by Shakespeare. And one of the places they visited is Gdansk in Poland, which is on the Baltic Coast.

And the reason I wanted to go there, particularly, is not just because these actors visited. It’s because they actually built a theater there. They built a theater there sometime between 1600 and 1612, which is modeled on the Fortune theater in London, so it’s very similar dimensions to the Globe, but a square shape, open air, which is slightly intriguing, given the Polish winter. But certainly these English actors seem to have performed in this space. They brought English plays out there, probably in translation, and this is really where, I guess, the story of global Shakespeare begins.

GRANT: Right, and as I think you point out in the book, you come within a hair’s breadth of being able to document that Shakespeare, actual plays by Shakespeare, adaptations of Shakespeare plays, were performed in that early theater. And let’s talk about one play in particular, which is, it translates into Brother-Murder Punished, and I’ll let you do the German and explain how it is related to Hamlet.

DICKSON: Yes, well, basically it’s not exactly the best title for a play, is it? In Germany, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, so as you say, Brother-Murder Punished, sometimes translated as Fratricide Punished, and essentially, it’s a very early version of Hamlet, except that it’s not the Hamlet that we know. First of all, it’s translated into German. Secondly, it’s heavily adapted, so the plot is basically there. The revenge plot: Hamlet’s father is killed, Hamlet is sent on this journey to try and avenge his father. But all sorts of materials are introduced. There’s a comic subplot to do with a peasant and an unpaid tax bill. There’s all sorts of crazy other things going on, which are not in Shakespeare's play.

And there has been this long scholarly debate about what Der Bestrafte Brudermord is, you know. Is it a version of Hamlet? Is it actually a version of what we sometimes call the "Ur-Hamlet," the older text that Shakespeare may have based his play on, or actually is it an adapted version, that was taken out by these English actors? And my hunch is, it’s probably the last of these, that it’s an English text, which is translated into German.

But because, of course, we’re talking about the 17th century, this is long before anyone has surtitles on stage, or you can listen to translations. You can’t do any of that. So what do you do? You have an English text you start to begin to translate into German, maybe you introduce extra material to make audiences understand what’s going on. There’s a theory that perhaps a clown character was introduced to sort of explain what’s going on in the play for audiences who didn’t speak the language. And you have adaptations that are being altered for local conditions. A ton of different stuff is happening to this text.

And really, in a way, I found that fascinating, because not only does it perhaps tell us the story of what Hamlet became in the 17th century in Germany, it also really tells us what happens to a lot of Shakespeare’s texts as they travel across the world. They don’t stay exactly the same. They’re translated. They’re adapted. And that’s really why they’ve existed in so many different places around the world.

GRANT: And what really strikes me about using a word like "translated" at a time like this is, you know, when we think of works being translated, we often think of scholars working laboriously and comparing text. But back in that time, I can’t imagine that translation was done with such precision or care. And I also wonder, you know, just what of Shakespeare’s language actually remained.

DICKSON: No one’s entirely sure. That’s the fascinating thing. It’s such an open question. And as you say, it’s a really interesting idea. But the reason, I guess, I thought a lot in the process of writing my book about the idea of authenticity, you know, this idea of an authentic Shakespeare text, which is the real thing, and then the idea that translations are, I suppose, just versions of that, watered-down versions. Actually, I think in a way, that Hamlet example shows us ways in which, because the text were being performed and adapted by actors responding to audiences, actually they’re bringing the text alive in different ways.

I think we need to get past this idea that there is one canonical version of Shakespeare, this guy up on a plinth, and towards a model which is much more flexible and adaptable. And, of course, if you think about it, every single performance of every play is a kind of adaptation. I mean the thing about theater is, it’s not the same every night, is it? And I think that’s what’s really interesting about these early German adaptations, is that they bring us into contact with a very, very different kind of Shakespeare from the kind of Shakespeare that we’ve inherited, maybe, in the English-speaking world.

GRANT: As you said, it’s easy to put Shakespeare up on a plinth, to make him into a demigod. And we should perhaps hesitate to do that, as you point out. But one country, where Shakespeare was definitely put on a plinth, and perhaps that plinth was raised higher than many other writers, was in Germany, which at first seems surprising, because, of course, they had many great writers and thinkers of their own. So how did that come about?

DICKSON: Well, it’s such an interesting story and what really happens is that these early actors touring Shakespeare in the beginning of the 17th century and then that sort of dies down, disappears. That tradition, it doesn’t quite survive. Shakespeare then sort of disappears entirely from the German states until the 1740s, at which point, because Germany is at this point trying to kind of find itself as a nation, a kind of clutter of princely states that haven’t yet unified.

GRANT: In other words, it’s not yet Germany, as we know it.

DICKSON: It’s not yet Germany, no. That doesn’t happen until really quite later, in the 19th century. Of course, Germany’s invaded by Napoleon, all of these different political things are happening. There is no identity as a nation. And what happens is people are searching for a kind of cultural identity. And they do this particularly in the 1770s, in what we call the Sturm und Drang movement, the storm and stress movement, the kind of early Romantic movement. And writers who are fed up of French culture and neoclassicism suddenly discover Shakespeare. They discover this so-called Northern writer, this dramatist who seems to speak much more directly to them. It’s much more primal. It’s much more raw. Somehow, it seems more German to them.

And so, you have writers like Goethe and Schiller read Shakespeare, adore Shakespeare, and stage Shakespeare. So basically, what happens in the 18th century and into the 19th century is that Germany adopts Shakespeare, brings Shakespeare in. And by really the middle point of the 19th century, people are talking about the three most famous German poets being Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare, even though only two of them are German. But there is this whole cultural movement to try and own Shakespeare, to sort of possess him and make him German.

GRANT: I love how you say that it was the Germans who first made Shakespeare a Romantic. It wasn’t the British.

DICKSON: No, exactly. So, I don’t think people really realize this. I don’t think I had fully realized it, before I started researching the book. Shakespeare is sort of brought into the Romantic period, and those writers are searching for something that is much more fierce and powerful. That’s why Shakespeare appeals to them.

And it’s a famous criticism of Shakespeare that Voltaire makes, that you know, the reason Hamlet is a ridiculous play is because it’s got a gravedigger scene, and there’s a guy wandering around with a skull, and meanwhile someone invades Denmark, and all of these different things, which really offended all those neoclassical writers such as Voltaire.

GRANT: Because it was so disorderly, because it seemed like comedy was coming up against tragedy in this really unruly way.

DICKSON: Exactly.

GRANT: Is that the idea?

DICKSON: That’s the idea. They couldn’t cope with that. And then, of course, actually for the German Romantics, that very disorderliness, that becomes a big attraction. This is why German writers want to adopt Shakespeare and make Shakespeare as German as possible.

GRANT: I love how you describe Shakespeare as being part of this trilogy of writers, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, that presumably all schoolchildren in Germany would have studied in some form. And this may seem like a bit of a leap, but I think it’s really interesting here to think of one young schoolboy, in particular, growing up in the town of Trier in Germany. His name was Karl Marx. And he, too, would have studied this trilogy of writers. And what’s so fascinating about Shakespeare is Shakespeare actually begins to work his way into the ideology of Karl Marx, which, of course, we would later know as Communism.

DICKSON: Well, exactly as you say. Marx is quite typical of his generation as a German. He’s obsessed by Shakespeare, and, of course, he lives in London for a period of time and goes to performances of Shakespeare, is involved in a Shakespeare Society. And his daughter later wrote that "Shakespeare was the Bible of our house," which given later Communist thinking on religion being the opium of the masses, I always find sort of fascinating. So Shakespeare is really part of the Karl Marx household and it’s definitely a part of Marx’s life.

And when he started to develop this radical social philosophy that became known as Communism, Shakespeare was a writer he returned to a lot. And he returned to The Merchant of Venice, because that was a very important text to him in terms of exchange value and the idea of indebtedness, you know, that you get so indebted to a moneylender that you may have to sacrifice your body. That’s obviously a very important image for him.

But also the play Timon of Athens, which is very little known and studied generally in the West, but is a perfect example for Marx, in the 1840s, particularly, when he’s developing the book that becomes Das Kapital of, again, the risks of capital. So in Shakespeare’s play, you have a very, very rich man, Timon of Athens, Lord Timon, who essentially loses his money. His friends desert him and he goes mad. And you could actually understand why this appeals to Marx. And so in 1844, when he’s making notes for the book, Timon of Athens is an example that he returns to. And there’s an extended riff in the notes talking about how Timon depicts quote "the real nature of money," which is hugely important to Marx.

GRANT: So I guess we shouldn’t be at all surprised, as we see Communism becoming an actual system of government in countries like Russia and China, Shakespeare becomes part of that ideology. Explain how that happens.

DICKSON: Well, this is the interesting thing. I kept finding Shakespeare popping up in the oddest of places and, yeah, I mean if you’d asked me before I started researching this book, "Why would Shakespeare be in China?" I wouldn’t have guessed the answer being Marxism, but, of course, that’s partly why. After the Chinese Revolution, after the Second World War, Shakespeare is adopted, really because of this close relationship between Russia and China at this stage, that the two were known as the kind of big brother and the little brother, big brother Russia, little brother China. And China, in an attempt to modernize and become a modern Communist country, imports loads of Russian technicians, engineers, architects, but also theater actors. They want to copy Russian culture. And who do they bring along? They, of course, bring Shakespeare. So you have this fascinating way in which Shakespeare, the Marxist Shakespeare, becomes a really crucial part of Chinese culture.

And particularly in the first years of Mao, it becomes a very important idea to modernize China and to internationalize China, and so theater companies are founded, actors are instructed to learn Shakespeare and other Russian classics. And really you have Shakespeare kind of bedding down into Chinese culture, which is much later than it happens elsewhere in the world. And in Germany, as we were saying, it goes back to the 18th century. In other places, it’s 19th century. In China, it really isn’t until the 20th century that Shakespeare gets fully adopted, but Communism is part of the reason why.

GRANT: But then when the Cultural Revolution comes along in the 1960s, what happens?

DICKSON: Well, a sudden change in so many things, of course. Society is changed at every level. But one of the things that happens is that Shakespeare is completely banned, because there is a sudden change in ideological direction. Mao is a great fan of doing this, loved, you know... One of the reasons that he was so dangerous is that he kept altering policy. So one of the things about the Cultural Revolution was that culture itself, high culture, was immediately suspect. And who’s the most intellectual writer? It’s Shakespeare. So Shakespeare, along with all foreign writers, is banned. No one can perform the plays on stage. They’re not taught in schools. Translations are burned. And so essentially, we have a period in Chinese history, 10 years from 1966 to 1976, where Shakespeare is completely wiped off the face of the map, essentially.

GRANT: You know, we should mention, though, that Shakespeare... we’ve been talking about Shakespeare in China more or less in the modern era. But Shakespeare did make its appearance in China well before Communism, correct?

DICKSON: It did, yeah, and really the story starts in the 1910s or so, and in Shanghai actually, because Shanghai is one of the so-called treaty ports that were opened to international trade. And as in so many international cities, Shakespeare ends up somewhere in the mix, and so you have translations.

The very first translation of Shakespeare into Chinese was actually short stories, rather incredibly. The Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, this very popular 19th-century adaptation for children, went all the way across Asia, went to India, went to Singapore, and it went to China, and it went to Japan. So basically, people translated the plays, these very short narrative versions intended for children, but in China they became short stories, essentially. So you have these wonderful translations, which are called things like, I think, The Two Gentlemen of Verona was translated as "Proteus Sells Out His Close Friend for Lust," and all of these things designed to attract, I guess, male book buyers, primarily. But that’s the fascinating thing. You have Shakespeare entering another culture not as a playwright, not as a piece of sort of serious academic Eng Lit, but as a writer of rather gossipy short stories.

GRANT: But his plays were performed as well at that time, weren’t they?

DICKSON: They were, a little bit later, yeah.

GRANT: And the reason I ask is because we did a podcast about Shakespeare in Hong Kong, which of course was colonized by the British. So no surprise that in many of the plays, they would have sort of worn, I guess what you would call white face and wigs, to make themselves look more like characters performing at Stratford or wherever. Did that same kind of thing happen in mainland China?

DICKSON: It did, and actually persisted much later, I think.

So I met a wonderful actor called Jiao Huang, who’s now in his 70s, and he was in a version of Much Ado About Nothing that was performed in Shanghai in 1961. And yeah, you look at the photographs and you would not guess that these actors are Chinese. They attempted to erase every single aspect of their ethnic identity. They’re wearing wigs. They’re wearing, of course, Western costumes, these rather sort of Renaissance-y Western costumes. They’re wearing false noses. They’re wearing blue contact lenses, in order to make their eyes look as if they’re blue, extraordinary. And I said, when I was asking Jiao about this, "This just seems so strange to me. Why would you need to do this in order to perform Shakespeare?" And his view was that well, at that time, the whole idea was to be as European as possible. If you were doing a European writer, you have to do him faithfully, and that meant that we had to look Western.

But the fascinating thing about that production, which is performed in ’61, was that it was actually almost the very last professional production of Shakespeare done before the Cultural Revolution. And then, when the Cultural Revolution ends in 1976, with Mao’s death, the same production ends up becoming the very first Shakespeare to be put back on stage in China. So you have exactly the same cast, or as many of the cast who’d survived the Cultural Revolution as could be found, wearing exactly the same costumes, with exactly the same director, and exactly the same sets, doing exactly the same play.

And of all plays, it’s Much Ado About Nothing, this light, frothy summery comedy. And a really extraordinary story, but I think one that indicates how important Shakespeare can be at times of tension and difficulty. I interviewed Jiao about this. I said, "Why did you want to do Shakespeare so much?" And he said, well, really it was because we wanted to pretend the awful 10 years hadn’t happened, that we wanted to say well, it was Much Ado About Nothing, so we went to Shakespeare.

GRANT: Yeah, almost as if it had been some sort of nightmare. You know, close your eyes, open your eyes, it’s over now.

DICKSON: Exactly, yeah. Eighteen years later and here we all are, and nothing has happened, a complete denial of history, I think. But you see Shakespeare being involved in that. And then these days, of course, you know, having been banned in the Cultural Revolution, Shakespeare’s not hugely popular again in China.

GRANT: So I wonder now, if you’re in Shanghai or Beijing, and you go to see a play by Shakespeare, is that just kind of a hip, culturally cool thing to do, or you’re considered sort of an old fuddy-duddy? I guess it all probably depends on the production, any sort of production.

DICKSON: It does, though actually, to be honest, audiences are astonishingly young in China at the theater. I mean someone told me this before I went, that you know, people under 25 really love theater. And you know, I come from the UK, where theater isn’t necessarily the hippest thing you might be doing on a Friday night. And it’s totally true. Every single performance I went to was completely packed out. The audience are massively young.

I didn’t even actually write about this in the book in the end. I didn’t have space. But I went to a lecture series in Shanghai, given by a professor who was giving a three and a half hour lecture over five weeks on Hamlet, for which tickets were quite expensive. And they’re being booked out months in advance. You know, Friday night in Shanghai, you know, I could think of many exciting things to do on Friday night in Shanghai, but apparently people wanted to learn about Shakespeare. So he’s hugely popular among the millennial generation. He’s hugely popular among people who want to improve their English.

And I did this rather revealing interview in a way with a woman, a British woman actually, called Jo Lusby, who runs Penguin China, the publishers, so the Chinese outpost of Penguin publishers. And she says, for them, Shakespeare is a kind of international brand. He’s not even a playwright. He’s a brand. It’s the kind of thing, like, you know, some people talk about it like imported Scotch whiskey, or Range Rovers, or something. He’s like a luxury product. That’s what people want in order to demonstrate how international they are, how in touch with what’s happening in the rest of the world, and yet again, Shakespeare pops up.

GRANT: You know, toward the end of your travels in the book, you offer an analogy that sort of speaks to why Shakespeare flourishes in so many different ways in so many different parts of the world. It’s not your own analogy, but tell us about this comparison of Shakespeare to a type of plant that sends its roots shooting into all these different directions.

DICKSON: It sounds completely crazy, doesn’t it? It sounds like I’d been sitting too long in the subtropical sun. But yeah, I guess, throughout my book I was trying to answer the question I started with, which is, why Shakespeare, why Shakespeare in all of these places? And not only why has Shakespeare arrived in these places, but why has Shakespeare flourished and stayed and become enmeshed with all of these different local cultures?

And there’s a wonderful theory, which is part of globalization theory, called rhizomatics, which is the world’s ugliest and most depressing sounding word. But essentially, a rhizomatic plant is a plant that doesn’t have a stem or a trunk, like we might think of, I don’t know, a tree, I suppose, and a root system. Actually, the root system is itself the plant. So an example of this is the notorious plant, Japanese knotweed, which is, as you probably know, completely impossible to eradicate once it arrives. You know, spreads its roots out in all of these places, in all of these different directions, and until you extract every single last bit of root, you can’t get rid of the plant, because it can regenerate.

And actually, as much as it troubles me to think of Shakespeare as being the Japanese knotweed of global culture, actually I think it’s quite a good analogy, because we have this idea of instead of him being located in one place or even one set of places, Britain perhaps, this idea of this British oak, which is spreading up from Stratford upon Avon or from London and spreading its leaf canopy across the world. Actually, you have its root system going in all of these different places, entwining with different cultures and different languages and different theater traditions and films and adaptations, all of these different things. And each of those become a different kind of plant. So you have, as it were, the root system being the plant itself. And I think that model is really interesting, because it suggests that Shakespeare isn’t just about one language or one place or one culture. Shakespeare exists in all of these places, and actually they’re all equally important. They’re as much part of what global Shakespeare is, as anything that happens in Stratford on Avon or, I’m afraid to say, Washington, DC.

GRANT: So you just finished this quest in many parts of the world finding Shakespeare in places that we might not expect. Is there any place you didn’t get to go, that you really want to go?

DICKSON: Actually, there are a load of places. When I was doing my world map and marking things onto it, there were so many cultures and countries I wanted to go to. Japan was really, really fascinating.

I guess the big one would be Russia, and I was actually out in Moscow a couple weeks ago getting a lecture on the book. And people took me aside at the end, and said "Yes, but why have you not written about Russia? You must know that Russia is Shakespeare and Shakespeare is Russian." And again, there’s such an extensive connection with Shakespeare through the 18th and 19th centuries, since only the Russians truly understand Shakespeare and really understand what his plays are about. So, I think that would be the obvious one. So maybe that might have to be Volume 2, perhaps.

GRANT: Well, good luck with that, and thanks so much for a great conversation.

DICKSON: Thanks, Neva. Thanks for having me.


WITMORE: Andrew Dickson is a London journalist and critic who spent three years as The Guardian’s theater editor. His book, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, was published by Henry Holt and Company in 2016. He was interviewed by Neva Grant.

Our podcast, "There Is a World Elsewhere," was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had technical help from the Sound Company in London and the news operations staff at NPR in Washington, DC.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.