In 2012, when the world tuned in for the opening ceremony of London’s Olympic Games, they were witness in part to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s most famed speeches, delivered by one of today’s most revered Shakespearean actors. Kenneth Branagh, dressed as English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, offered lines from The Tempest in the spirit of the ceremony’s larger theme, “The Isles of Wonder”.
It’s 1608. You are passing by the bookstall of the publisher Thomas Pavier on Cornhill, a stone’s throw from the elegant colonnades of London’s Royal Exchange, when something catches your eye: a sensational play dramatising a series of real-life gruesome domestic murders. A Yorkshire Tragedy has that enticing whiff of scandal about it, but what persuades you to part with your hard-earned cash is seeing the dramatist’s name proudly emblazoned on the title-page: “Written by W. Shak[e]speare”.
Certain facts surrounding Shakespeare, his work, and Elizabethan England have been easy to establish. But there is a wealth of Shakespeare knowledge only gained centuries after his time, across the globe, and far beyond the Anglophone realm.
We’ve heard a lot lately about what Shakespeare would do. He’d be kind to migrants, for instance, because of this passage from the unpublished collaborative play ‘Sir Thomas More’ often attributed to him: ‘Imagine that you see the wretched stranger / Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage / Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation (Scene 6: 84-6).
The first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623 – known as the First Folio – has a rich history. It is estimated that around 700 or 750 copies were printed, and today we know the whereabouts of over 230. They exist in some form or another, often incomplete or a combination of different copies melded together, in libraries and personal collections all over the world.
Many playwrights have explored race relations, particularly in America. The growth of the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to a range of plays protesting racism and exploring the African-American experience. Lorraine Hansberry made history as the first black woman to have a play on Broadway: A Raisin in the Sun, also the first play on Broadway to be directed by a black director.
Easter was late in 1916, falling on 23 April, St George’s Day. This coincidence of faith and patriotism was inevitably both heightened and tempered by the ongoing struggles of the First World War. April 1916 came amidst the protracted fighting of the Battle of Verdun, a long and bloody conflict yet one which was only a foretaste of the horrors to come at the Somme the summer following. It also happened to mark the Tercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare.
How do we understand Shakespeare today versus one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred years ago? Through efforts like archaeological digs and excavations, studies of word spelling and linguistic patterns, researchers and experts can reconstruct an early modern theatre experience: plays performed in original pronunciation inside facsimile Elizabethan theatres.
It was only after I finished writing The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction that I got to see the off-Broadway version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical” at New York City’s Public Theater. I was lucky enough to see the Broadway version (revised and expanded) last month.
Since the groundbreaking Original Pronunciation productions at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2004-05, OP has captured the imagination of performers, directors, and the play-going public. Going back to the pronunciation of the late 16th and early 17th centuries reveals nuances, puns, and rhymes that otherwise lie completely hidden, and gives fresh dynamism to productions.
You may know Christopher Marlowe and Richard Burbage, The Globe Theatre and The Swan, perhaps even The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and The Admirals’ Men. But what do you know of modern Shakespeare: new productions, new performances, and ongoing research in the late 20th and 21st centuries? Shakespeare has, in many ways, remained the same, but actors, directors, designers, and other artists have adapted his work to suit the needs of the world and audiences today.
In 2004, Shakespeare’s Globe in London began a daring experiment. They decided to mount a production of a Shakespeare play in ‘original pronunciation’ (OP) – a reconstruction of the accents that would have been used on the London stage around the year 1600, part of a period known as Early Modern English. They chose Romeo and Juliet as their first production, but – uncertain about how the unfamiliar accent would be received by the audience – performances in OP took place for only one weekend.
Translation of Shakespeare’s works is almost as old as Shakespeare himself; the first German adaptations date from the early 17th century. And within Shakespeare’s plays, moments of translation create comic relief and heighten the awareness that communication is not a given. Translation also served as a metaphor for physical transformation or transportation.
To be a tap historian is to be a sleuth. It is to revel, after days of painstaking research, in newly-found bits of information as if they were nuggets of gold. At the New York State Library in Albany, New York, I found the premiere date for Darktown Follies of 1914 (3 November 1913, Lafayette Theater), a date that had eluded tap historians for many years.
The most striking aspect of Shakespeare in India today is that it seems to have at last got over its colonial hangover. It is well known that Shakespeare was first introduced to Indians under the aegis of colonialism: first as an entertainer for the expatriates, then soon incorporated into the civilizing mission of the empire. This resulted in Indians being awed by Shakespeare, taking him too respectfully, especially in academia.
At age eighty-three, ex-prima ballerina Alla Osipenko is more renowned than ever. Video and youtube allow us to sample a talent that the West would experience live only infrequently during the existence of the Soviet Union. Blunt, courageous, uncompromising Osipenko’s brushes with Communistic and artistic authorities ultimately kept her largely quarantined in Russia.