Observation Deck

The Bard of His Own Backyard

The Bard of His Own Backyard

In the run-up to Brexit in June, as Fleet Street tried to figure out why the Leave campaign was so alluring to voters, some observers employed a famous phrase again and again: “this scepter’d isle,” a description of England in William Shakespeare’s Richard II. A scepter is a symbol of royal authority, and a “scepter’d isle” is an unforgettable image of a sovereign England owing allegiance to no outsider. In this year marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, his language clearly still manages to capture something essential about the way the people of Great Britain, and especially the English, view themselves.

The phrase in Richard II is uttered by John of Gaunt in a powerful speech praising independence and self-sufficiency. He continues, “This precious stone set in the silver sea,/Which serves it in the office of a wall,/Or as a moat defensive to a house,/Against the envy of less happier lands,/This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” Today, it seems that many people still imagine “this realm” in such terms. In the view espoused by the U.K. Independence Party, outsiders — Poles, Latvians, Romanians, Syrians — who come to live amid the fortunate English violate the “blessed plot.” Several months after Brexit, and even amid the backlash against the vote, these indignant feelings endure.

Yet the paradox of Shakespeare is that the same poet who seems so essentially English is also perhaps the most global writer who has ever lived. His character may have praised English isolation — and Shakespeare may never have left the country himself — but his imagination ranged freely across borders. Many of his most famous plays are set abroad: Denmark (Hamlet), Greece (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Italy (Romeo and Juliet), Egypt (Antony and Cleopatra). Ben Jonson, his friend and fellow playwright, praised Shakespeare after his death, writing, “He was not of an age but for all time!” Just as accurately, it could be said that he was not of England, but of the world.

In 2012, London hosted a Cultural Olympiad in conjunction with the Olympic Games. The highlight was a festival in which the Globe Theatre — a modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original playhouse — hosted performances of the Bard’s 37 plays, each in a different language and performed by a different international company. There was a Hindi Twelfth Night, a Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor, a Korean Midsummer Night’s Dream. Significantly, most of the shows were not specially commissioned translations and productions. They were already popular in their home countries — living proof of Shakespeare’s universality.

That word, of course, is one that academic theorists, including Shakespeare scholars, hold in great suspicion. To say that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time — even to say, in the hyperbolic words of critic Harold Bloom, that he “invented the human,” creating our modern sense of what it means to think and feel — is to imply that a white man is the paragon of the human race. This goes against the current intuition, or dogma, that individuals exist primarily in terms of “identity” — gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity — and that it is impossible or offensive to speak to and for humanity as such. This was the point of view voiced last year in the Washington Post by a California high school teacher who argued, “[T]here is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students…. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition.”

That Shakespeare’s rise to global fame is owed in part to power politics is indisputable. If the whole world now reads an English playwright and not one of the classics of Japanese or Indian literature, this has something to do with the fact that, over several centuries, England managed to conquer and colonize much of the globe. Shakespeare was among the baggage of empire, sometimes literally. In his new book, Shakespeare in Swahililand, Edward Wilson-Lee observes that many English explorers and missionaries who descended on Africa in the 19th century came armed with the Bible and the collected plays. Journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley — of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame — told a story about being confronted by a group of Congolese who were suspicious of his habit of taking notes. When they demanded that he burn his writing, Stanley tricked them by throwing his Shakespeare text onto the fire instead. Wilson-Lee points out that Stanley’s tale uses the Bard as an emblem of civilization, against the benighted ignorance of the “natives.”

Seen this way, Shakespeare does indeed look like a mere talisman of Western superiority. Examine his language closely, however, and there are subversive impulses and insights everywhere. Take any critique of the human condition that arises in modern society, and Shakespeare probably got there first. Consider plays like Othello, with its clear-eyed examination of racism and sexuality, and especially The Tempest. In that play, Caliban is enslaved by the colonizer Prospero and learns to turn his master’s language against him. In the 20th century, Caliban became literary critics’ favorite symbol of resistance to imperialism, and The Tempest is studied as an ancestor of post-colonial literature.

Shakespeare is a global poet, then, not only because he wrote about the world outside England and became widely read over the centuries. He also intuited the major issues of the globalized world just as it was being born. As such, his work translates easily to non-English contexts. Shakespeare in Swahililand shows how the Bard may have come to Africa with the Europeans but was adopted very quickly. One of the first printed Swahili books, from 1867, was a prose summary of four Shakespeare plays, including The Merchant of Venice. Decades later, Wilson-Lee finds, an amateur performance of the text was staged in Zanzibar, with the Jewish moneylender Shylock recast as an Indian for audiences on an African island where immigrants from India dominated commerce.

Today, people seem ever more eager to be divided by national borders, and the liberal ideal of globalism is under attack from all sides. The world needs Shakespeare’s cosmopolitan imagination more than ever.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of  FP magazine under the headline, “Man of the World.”

Illustration by Edmon De Haro