As an Irish schoolteacher in England I adored teaching Shakespeare.
Not the standard Shakespeare. That one is painful for teachers and students alike. The Shakespeare who is supposed to represent the ‘best of British’, which really means the best of English. Whose language and themes are meant to reflect a better England. It’s not that history isn’t there, but its reshaped and refashioned to be acceptable to the worldview of a particular middle-class English mindset.
So we pump kids full of facts about language, characters, themes and dates in Shakespeare’s plays. But we never allow them to get close to Shakespeare and the plays, because what we are doing is teaching them about a certain English view of our own world.
I’m sure this Shakespeare is the Shakespeare that the Leave campaign would like to see more of. I’m sure this Shakespeare would vote Leave himself.
I prefer the man who rose from relatively humble beginnings to become a key player in what was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its time. Who wrote sonnets to his lovers; male, female, black and white.
Who never speaks of:
this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
without a great sense of irony. His most jingoistic, nationalist lines are invariably in the mouths of men who are about to do awful things. His “happy breed of men” are manipulators, often with awful consequences for themselves. The lines might be beautiful, but they’re telling us something. They were certainly telling an Elizabethan audience something, who would have known how to read the context.
It’s why I hate RSC productions of Shakespeare. I’ve seen good ones, but by and large the emphasis is on beautiful lines said by the best actors.
It was why, when I was teaching, I tried to emphasise that Shakespeare was part of a living tradition. That there were other idioms, other languages, in which the plays worked. These weren’t just radical adaptations; they spoke back to the original contexts of the plays by avoiding the pitfalls that the “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” school of ‘beautiful lines and universal themes’ interpretation failed to acknowledge.
Romeo and Juliet (a play in which two young people defy their parents, their society and their God to get married, to die in a place of worship) can be read in the context of Sharia Law and its similarities to early (and ongoing) European judico-religious narratives. This intersects with an analysis of how people with nascent LGBT+ identities (Mercutio) negotiate their place in such societies.
Hamlet is rarely treated in schools as a history play, but actually it is. It’s about the consequence of war for the “sparrows” (mostly women and children) when elites, when Royals, war; particularly when they treat war like a game of chess. Instead of viewing Ophelia as a drowned Pre-Raphaelite virgin – imagine her as a drowned Syrian child on a beach in Greece. You see the power and context of Shakespeare’s words.
But my favourite Shakespearean lesson was teaching Shakespeare in his native Hindi. This was teaching Othello using the recent Bollywood adaptation Omkara (2006).
All the main plot points are there. There are lines which are directly translated from the original. But Othello (Omkara) is now a gang lord enforcer for a corrupt politician. Iago (Langda) and Cassio (Kesu) are his closest lieutenants.
There is a lot of dancing, which really emphasises the sexual undertones of the play.
But, importantly, the adaptation draws on recent Indian history and politics. My students were able to look this up and use it in essays. It emphasised that Othello’s (Omkara) actions, his downfall in murdering Desdemona, weren’t just a consequence of his “green-ey’d monster” (the tragedy of a great man laid low by a character flaw).
In fact, this “green-ey’d monster” is part of a hyper-masculine violent culture in which he is complicit. The world of crime lords and corrupt politicians. It is this complicity that makes him so easily manipulated by Iago (Langda).
Omkara speaks back to the original text of Othello, to its hyper-masculine and violent world of soldiers and royalty, to remind us that toxic masculinity is not a new concern. It also emphasises that culture is not a one-way street. The constant engagement, enrichment and enlargement that those of us from immigrant cultures bring to what are considered traditionally English or British texts.
Shakespeare in his native Hindi offers us a very different Shakespeare from the one that the Little Englanders would prefer. A Shakespeare who questioned a closed, masculine view of England and of the world. A Shakespeare who cannot be said to be on the side of outsiders, he is rarely on anyone’s side, but who is himself a marginal outsider. I think this Shakespeare would be pleased by the way other cultures, particularly immigrant, have adapted and enriched his legacy. I think he would vote to Remain.