How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Data, you are here to learn about the human condition...and there's no better way than embracing Shakespeare.
—Capt. Picard to Lt. Commander Data, "The Defector," Star Trek: The Next Generation
In June 2006, I was scheduled to fly back from a trip to Sicily via Frankfurt am Main. Having seen the airport many times but not the city itself, I decided to spend a few days there. But as I discovered when I went to book a hotel, there was a little problem. Germany was hosting the World Cup that month, and the city was swarming with soccer fans come from all over the globe to watch the nail-biting zero-zero ties on jumbo TVs strategically placed around the city—one even floating on a barge in the middle of the Main. But I lucked out after all. The sights I'd come to see—the Goethe House, the Städel Gallery art museum, the Liebig House sculpture museum—were virtually empty. In the Städel, I had all to myself the four masterpieces by Robert Campin, right next to Bosch's "Ecce Homo." And since the taste of soccer hooligans evidently doesn't run to the music of Anton Bruckner, I was easily able to get the best seat in the house for his Fourth Symphony at the Old Opera.
But best of all, I realized a long-standing ambition: to see one of Shakespeare's plays performed live in German. It was an appropriately grim and dark production of Macbeth at the Municipal Theater, in a new translation/adaptation by Jens Groß, directed by André Wilms. As in most Shakespeare performances these days, the production team was not content to leave well enough alone. The adaptation expanded the role of the witches, and added a role for Satan as their master (he later turned into Macbeth's officer Seyton). The version also rewrote the ending. After killing Macbeth, Macduff is offered the crown, but turns it down, explaining that he did what he did for revenge, whereas Malcolm acted out of concern for the common good and therefore deserved to be king. This optimistic touch was undercut by a reappearance of the witches, who closed the play chanting the same ominous words with which they opened it—the German equivalent of "fair is foul, and foul is fair."
But despite all this tampering with Shakespeare's text, the production was basically true to the play, and as good as most English-language Macbeths I've seen over the years. At least Groß and Wilms didn't turn the witches into a jazz combo, which happened in the Macbeth I saw at the Globe Theatre in London in 2001—the single worst production of any play I've ever seen anywhere in my life. (When the audience is laughing in Act V of Macbeth, you know something has gone seriously wrong.) What struck me most was how well Shakespeare plays in German. I'd gone to this performance with the specific purpose of testing for myself the power of Shakespeare in translation; German is the only foreign language I know well enough for me to do so. Once I adjusted to hearing the text in German—about halfway into Act I—I really felt I was listening to Shakespeare's play—just in another language. Perhaps Shakespeare doesn't adapt quite as well to other languages, but still I believe I learned something important from my experience in Frankfurt. I had some concrete evidence for the traditional claim for the universality of Shakespeare's genius, epitomized in Ben Jonson's famous line: "He was not of an age, but for all time." Here I was, 390 years after Shakespeare's death, seeing one of his plays performed in a foreign country and in a foreign language, and yet it was truer to the original than a production I'd seen in his home base of London five years earlier.
This impression of Shakespeare's universality is confirmed by what Groß and Wilms say in their production's program. They stress how "up-to-date" ("aktuell") Shakespeare is. Wilms even calls Lady Macbeth "hochaktuell" ("highly up-to-date"), although he tactfully declines to go into any detail after he briefly draws a parallel to Angela Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor. In their effort to find contemporary relevance in Shakespeare, Groß and Wilms avoid any cheap shots, and dwell on genuinely broad themes. Wilms says: "The play tells a lot about contemporary power, conflicts and politics, precisely the thin veneer of civilization, which at any moment can break down." He cites the American experience of September 11 as an example of what he thinks Macbeth illustrates—the way political violence can suddenly erupt in the "private sphere" of domestic life and destroy it (accordingly, the production is set at first in what is supposed to be Macbeth's living room). Wilms even raises the possibility of presenting the witches as members of the Taliban (complete with veils!), but he wisely decided not to stage Macbeth in purely contemporary terms. He finds the timeliness of Macbeth in its timelessness—the way it's rooted in universal human experience. He is particularly struck by the symbolism of the moving forest of Birnam, which he regards as a "wonderful image for a modern war" and for the way the civilized world can unexpectedly be invaded by non-civilized forces from beyond its borders.
Raining on Shakespeare's Parade
Foreign producers of Shakespeare like Groß and Wilms evidently don't find his work alien to their own experience, and, given the popularity of the plays around the world, the same may be said of theater audiences everywhere. As far as I can tell, the only people intent on questioning the timelessness of Shakespeare's plays today are literature professors in the English-speaking world. In recent decades it has become increasingly fashionable among Shakespeare scholars to deny that there is anything intrinsically great or universal in his plays. They view Shakespeare as a product of the narrow horizons of his own day, and label him a distinctly English phenomenon. Indeed his greatness is often treated as a cultural construct, something invented or even manufactured in England. His plays are said to be the product of a culture industry, which first imposed his works on England, then on the English-speaking world, and finally on the whole globe, as if he were a skillfully marketed commodity, the Guinness Stout of the Renaissance.
In this view, Shakespeare is the ultimate Dead White European Male. He was canonized by the cultural establishment of England and then used to impose English values around the world (especially throughout the British Empire). In their efforts to cut Shakespeare down to size, and find something contingent, even arbitrary, in his reputation, Shakespeare scholars sometimes speak as if the cultural establishment could have taken any one of his contemporaries—say, Ben Jonson or Thomas Middleton—and through clever packaging and marketing built him into the world's most famous poet. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! The only reason the general public pays attention to Shakespeare scholars is for their help in understanding his greatness, and yet some of them are now actively engaged in debunking that greatness as a cultural myth.
Since outsiders may have trouble believing that the literary critical establishment is so cavalierly shooting itself in the foot, I need to quote some examples. In a book intended to introduce general readers to King Lear, published in 1995 by Northcote House in their series "Writers and Their Work," Terence Hawkes ominously entitles the last chapter "Instead of a Masterpiece." As a historicist, Hawkes rejects any notion of the greatness or the universality of King Lear:
Yet no historicist view of the play can countenance such "universalist" attributions of permanence, or such "essentialist" claims to the transcendence of time, location, and way of life.... Any consideration of King Lear's stage history before the twentieth century will immediately cast doubt on the assumption that the play is clearly and transcendentally recognizable as a "masterpiece".... In other words, King Lear turns out to be a text whose history, in terms of stage performance, critical response, and its own material existence, quite clearly lacks the sort of continuing identity and coherence that we expect great works of art to have.
Knowing what sells books, the publisher Northcote is less than candid with potential readers. The volume's back cover proclaims: "King Lear is generally thought to be Shakespeare's masterpiece"—with no indication that Hawkes devotes the book to debunking that old-fashioned notion.
For anyone interested in sampling the way contemporary scholars attack the Shakespeare myth, a good place to start would be a collection of essays called The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth (1992). In her introduction, the editor, Jean Marsden, generalizes from the case of Shakespeare to debunk any notion of literary greatness:
While these essays deal only with the fate of one writer, the patterns they trace are not limited to Shakespeare. These patterns suggest that our vision of our most revered literary figure is largely defined by causes outside the text, causes which determine even which literary qualities we value most. The extra-literary nature of these determinants calls into question the cult of the author, not just of Shakespeare, but of any and all authors. Examined more closely, veneration of an author has as much to do with his or her potential as a cultural hero who can be appropriated to serve our non-literary needs as with literary "greatness." Thus the existence of a culturally defined "Shakespeare" illustrates our need for myths as well as the way we use these myths once they are established.
The way scholars like Hawkes and Marsden feel compelled to put words like universalist, masterpiece, greatness, and even Shakespeare in scare quotes epitomizes the debunking trend in contemporary literary criticism.
Shakespeare in Tokyo
These issues were crystallized for me when I attended the World Shakespeare Congress in Tokyo in 1991. One might have thought that the very existence of this conference, with scholars from all over the globe in attendance, was eloquent testimony to Shakespeare's universality. But many of the Shakespeare scholars from Britain, the United States, and Canada balked at drawing that conclusion. They actually seemed apologetic, especially to our gracious Japanese hosts, for in effect imposing this event on the rest of the world. They seemed embarrassed by the worshipful way Shakespeare was being treated, and, although never this explicit, seemed to want to say something like: "We're so sorry to have forced you to make such a fuss over Shakespeare; he's really not that big a deal and we're sure that each of your nations has a poet just as good, if not better." By contrast, the Japanese and other Asian scholars were thrilled to have the opportunity to honor Shakespeare. I came away from the conference with an impression that was at first paradoxical—Shakespeare seemed to be least appreciated in the English-speaking world. But a moment's reflection suggested what was happening—Shakespeare was being taken for granted by his linguistic compatriots, but the rest of the planet was still caught up in the excitement of discovering and coming to appreciate his genius.
Thanks to the careful planning of our Japanese hosts, that week in Tokyo I had my first chance to see a live performance of Shakespeare in a foreign language. It was an adaptation of King Lear in Japanese, directed by J.A. Seazer and performed at the Panasonic Globe Theater (even I have to admit that occasionally Shakespeare does get mixed up with multinational capitalism). Since my knowledge of Japanese is extremely limited—pretty much to the word for "bullet train"—this performance didn't give me the opportunity to test how Shakespeare's text plays in a foreign idiom. Nevertheless, I remember this evening as one of the greatest theater experiences of my life. If Akira Kurosawa had gotten together with Bertolt Brecht and a Balinese shadow-puppet master to stage King Lear as a Chinese opera, it couldn't have been wilder or more eclectic than this production. I'm sure that much was lost in translation—and the cutting of the text—but the production had a raw, elemental power that captured perfectly one element of the play's greatness. (And how often do you get to see Goneril nude on stage, as we did that night?) In many respects, this Lear was even better evidence than the Macbeth I saw in Frankfurt of Shakespeare's ability to transcend cultural borders. The production had found a way to translate Shakespeare into a language far more remote from English than German; and in the way it melded a variety of dramatic traditions from around the world, it turned Shakespeare into a truly global phenomenon.
Back at the conference, I was also impressed by the way a number of the Shakespeare scholars from Asia reacted to the representatives of the English-speaking nations. Feminist scholars from Britain, the United States, and Canada raised the issue of Shakespeare's sexism—the oft-heard argument that he represents an exclusively masculine viewpoint and reflects his age's prejudices against women. For that reason, the English-speaking scholars regarded Shakespeare as complicit in the ongoing oppression of women around the world and hence as a reactionary cultural force. I remember one woman standing up at a session—I believe she was from Malaysia—and recounting how important Shakespeare had been to her and her family as political dissidents in their community. They drew strength from their reading of Shakespeare to challenge the reigning dogmas of the regime under which they lived. For them, Shakespeare was a great liberator, not an oppressor.
Macbeth as Liberator
The same idea came up in a number of the seminar papers presented by a significant contingent of Eastern European scholars at the conference. Zdenek Stríbrný, from Charles University in Prague, gave an especially interesting paper on "Shakespeare as Liberator—Macbeth in Czechoslovakia." He pointed out that Macbeth has been popular among the Czechs almost from the beginning. The first translation of the play into Czech was published in Prague in 1786. The Czechs in fact made Macbeth their own and in general turned to Shakespeare as a way of establishing their legitimacy as a culture. In their efforts throughout the 19th century to translate Shakespeare, as Stríbrný writes, "they wanted to prove to the whole nation and the world that the Czech language was capable of coping with the highest achievements of European culture, even though it was, by that time, practically abandoned by higher society and spoken only by common people." (As part of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs were forced to use German as the official language of business, politics, and high culture for much of the 19th century.) In short, the Czechs did not regard Shakespeare's plays as something imposed on them. Rather they embraced these foreign works as a way of cultivating their own identity and freeing themselves from the hegemony of German culture.
Stríbrný went on to show that at later moments in Czech history, Shakespeare in general and Macbeth in particular proved to be a rallying point for the Czech people. At the midpoint of World War I (1916), the Czechs chose to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death by producing 15 of his plays at the National Theater in Prague. According to Stríbrný, Macduff's triumph at the conclusion of Macbeth served "to infuse [the Czechs] with confidence that the end of war and usurpation was approaching. As a whole, the 1916 Shakespeare cycle of the Prague National Theatre grew into a cultural demonstration indicating that, after three hundred years of subjection, the Czechs were ready to take their culture and, by implication, their government into their own hands."
The Czechs again turned to Macbeth for inspiration during the darkest days of World War II and the Cold War. After the German annexation of Czech territory in 1938, a production of Macbeth in Prague in October 1939 served as a protest against Nazi tyranny. Both the costuming and scenery, by conjuring up images of the SS and the swastika, called attention to the Nazi takeover and its brutality. Staging Macbeth served as a form of protest once again during the era when Czechoslovakia was dominated by the Soviet Union, especially after Russian troops occupied the country in 1968 to crush the liberation movement known as the Prague Spring. Stríbrný discussed a performance of Macbeth organized by the dissident playwright Pavel Kohout in 1978 at a private home (he had been denied access to the public theaters). This production has been made famous by Tom Stoppard (himself a Czech by birth) in his play Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, the second half of which dramatizes Kohout's courageous staging of Macbeth and the attempt by the secret police to shut it down. Stríbrný quotes Kohout discussing his decision to stage Macbeth in the face of Communist tyranny; he said that he and his fellow actors chose the play "to lead them through the labyrinth of time, which was out of joint, to a catharsis uplifting their downcast souls."
Stríbrný's Shakespeare and Eastern Europe, published by Oxford University Press in 2000, is a lucid and detailed study of how Shakespeare has been received in a series of foreign cultures generally thought to be quite alien to the English-speaking world. The case of the Czechs turns out to be typical. Far from representing the cultural establishment in Eastern Europe, Shakespeare provided a way of subtly criticizing it and sometimes rebelling against it, particularly in the Soviet Union. As Stríbrný summarizes his conclusions: "The chapters on Shakespeare under the Bolsheviks and behind the Iron Curtain prove the amazing adaptability of his plays to any political system but also the way his humanism can expose ‘the whips and scorns of time,' the ‘oppressor's wrong,' and the ‘insolence of office.'" In one of the most notorious incidents of artistic repression in the Soviet Union, in 1936 Stalin condemned a widely successful opera by Dmitri Shostakovich and had it banned. The opera was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on a short story by Nikolai Leskov with the same name, a 19th-century transposition of Shakespeare's plot to a Russian setting. Evidently Stalin was sensitive about a portrayal of a domestic tyrant on the stage, especially when he ends up murdered in Act II. Even in a foreign language and twice-removed from the original, Macbeth still had the capacity to rattle the most cold-blooded of all tyrants. Scholars have been debating whether Shostakovich was truly a dissident artist, but apparently Stalin for one was deeply suspicious of the way the composer was using Shakespeare.
The Historicist View
From all around the globe—from Frankfurt to Tokyo, from Prague to Moscow—we have testimony to Shakespeare's power, his ability to move people of all nations, to inspire them, to shake them out of ingrained modes of thought and feeling, to give them the strength to question and challenge authority. Above all, we see how Shakespeare remains politically relevant to a wide variety of situations around the world; he seems to be taken most seriously by people who find themselves in the middle of a crisis and, in particular, who feel their liberties threatened. Such proof of Shakespeare's enduring relevance flies in the face of the claims made by those scholars who insist his universality is a sham, a kind of cultural myth. We must assume that only a set of theoretical presuppositions could be blinding them to such an obvious truth. (Evidently Shakespeare's art is a classic case of something that works well in practice, but not in theory—at least in literary theory.) These scholars turn out to be operating with a false conception of culture.
That conception is rooted in the philosophical position known as historicism, the idea that all thought is not simply conditioned by historical circumstances but is actually determined by them. In the historicist view, a culture is like the cave in Plato's Republic—it sets the limits of a people's horizons. They cannot see beyond the images their particular culture develops and projects on the wall of the cave. According to this understanding, Shakespeare was an Elizabethan Englishman and hence his intellectual horizons were limited to those of Elizabethan England. To interpret his plays, we must first and foremost understand what was on the minds of people living in his day and how they thought about the issues that concerned them. (The majority of Shakespeare scholarship today is devoted to exploring this kind of question.)
One can immediately see why Shakespeare's worldwide influence leaves historicists puzzled. If their understanding of culture is correct, why should someone in modern Tokyo have any interest in plays written by someone in London in the late 16th or early 17th centuries? Indeed, if all cultures are self-contained and, as it were, hermetically sealed off from each other, how could someone in modern Tokyo even begin to understand something written in Elizabethan England? Of course, no one doubts that it can be very difficult for people from one culture to understand the products of another culture, especially one remote in space and time. That is why the Japanese need translations of Shakespeare, together with notes, glossaries, and other explanatory aids. But sometimes what appears to be cultural remoteness may turn out to be a form of cultural proximity.
The Japanese are historically much closer to the kind of feudal society Shakespeare portrays in many of his plays, especially in the English histories and tragedies like King Lear and Macbeth—Japan was ruled by a military aristocracy well into the 19th century and by a divine emperor until 1945. I've always thought that the success of Akira Kurosawa's Shakespeare films, Throne of Blood (1957; based on Macbeth) and Ran (1985; based on King Lear), can be traced to the fact that he had a sounder grasp than European and American directors of the nature of the societies depicted in those plays. Warring nobility and kingship based on divine right were quite alien to most Europeans and Americans by the 20th century, but they are concepts fundamental to understanding the poet's histories and tragedies. Having been born in pre-1945 Japan, Kurosawa was more familiar than most Westerners with the kind of crisis and breakdown of a feudal order that Shakespeare dramatizes.
This phenomenon might provide a way for historicists to try to explain away the impression of Shakespeare's universality as a kind of temporal illusion. By a fortuitous concatenation of circumstances, a people at a later date might be at the same stage of historical development as the Elizabethans, thus putting them in a favorable position to understand Shakespeare's drama. But one would be hard-pressed to extend this kind of explanation to the Soviet Union, and the Czechs in the 19th century, and all the other cases we have seen of foreign cultures drawn to Shakespeare. And in its strict and only logically consistent form, historicism must—and usually does—insist on the uniqueness of all cultures, so that no two cultures can genuinely be at the same stage of historical development, no matter how similar they may seem. For all the parallels between feudal Japan and feudal England, one must insist on equally fundamental differences between the two regimes. And so we are back where we started—because Shakespeare is culturally alien to the Japanese, it is very difficult for them to understand him.
Yet it is not impossible. This is shown by the excellent scholarship on Shakespeare coming out of Japan (as was evident at the Tokyo conference in 1991) and above all by Kurosawa's films, which frequently get to the essence of Shakespeare more profoundly than the efforts of Western directors. Like everyone else on the planet, the Japanese have certain advantages and certain disadvantages in trying to understand Shakespeare. It is not an easy task for anyone. It requires an intense effort, and the best stimulus to that effort is recognizing Shakespeare's greatness and universality. Only if one realizes how much there is to learn from Shakespeare—at all times and in all places—will one make the kind of effort required to understand his plays. I think back to Stríbrný's impressive achievement in 1991—the edifying sight of a Czech scholar speaking in English in Tokyo to an audience from several different nations about the reception of Shakespeare in the Slavic world—and not merely making sense but providing genuine insights into the power of Macbeth.
"This can't be happening" is what the historicist scholars at the conference should have been thinking, if they were true to their philosophical premises. On theoretical grounds they should have insisted that meaningful dialogue about Shakespeare could not have been taking place among people from such disparate cultures. Yet that is exactly what was going on. As critics of historicism since Karl Popper have insisted, it works by exaggerating a difficulty into an impossibility (more precisely, a difficulty in practice into an impossibility in theory). In a strict historicist view, only an Elizabethan Englishman should be able to understand Shakespeare properly. In view of this reductio ad absurdum, let's examine more closely the way historicist scholars conceive the interaction of Shakespeare and a reader or an audience, beginning with the receiving end of the bargain. In the attitude I saw at work at the Tokyo conference, an author is viewed as dominating and mastering his audience. Ever since Michel Foucault, literary scholars have been infatuated with the idea of literary relations as power relations. The reader is a passive receptacle, who submits tamely to the author's authority. Contemporary literary critics are obsessed with the issue of Western imperialism and thus picture literary influence as a kind of colonization. A canonical Western author such as Shakespeare is seen as penetrating the hitherto self-subsisting culture of a country like Japan, occupying it and conquering it.
The unspoken premise of this view is that people in foreign lands are content with their native cultures and have no interest in being exposed to different views of the world. This may be true of the majority of people in any given culture, but we know it is not true of all. Just as historicism confuses difficulty with impossibility, it goes wrong when it blurs the distinction between the extraordinary case and the average case. Historicists in fact take their bearings from the average run of humanity, who are average precisely because they accept conventional opinions at face value. But there are always dissidents in any culture—sometimes extraordinarily courageous dissidents—who challenge its basic assumptions, even in totalitarian regimes, which seek brutally to suppress any deviation from authoritative opinions. That may explain why Shakespeare has been especially attractive to people suffering under foreign domination and domestic tyranny. In any event, the record shows that people do not accept Shakespeare passively. Rather, as we have seen, Shakespeare is assimilated into foreign cultures in a continuous process of adaptation. Foreign producers feel free to rework and remake Shakespeare for their own purposes and in the new context of a different culture. The history of Shakespeare's reception around the world is a chronicle, not of cultural passivity, but of creativity of the highest order. Many regard Ran as Kurosawa's masterpiece as a director.
Escaping the Cave
Thus, as we have seen in our brief survey, Shakespeare most often crosses the border as a liberator, not a conqueror. Indeed, cultural exchange is generally more like free trade than imperialism. To the Czechs in the 19th and 20th centuries, unhappy with a culture dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then by Nazi and Communist tyranny, Shakespeare provided a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifling environment. Historicists always stress the integrity of a culture and treat it as a seamless whole, set apart from the rest of the world. There is something to be said for wholeness in culture, and it has been celebrated ever since the German Romantics and their nationalist aspirations. But we should always remember that the wholeness of a culture can become a prison for those living within it—that is the fundamental insight of Plato's parable of the cave.
The parable acknowledges the one kernel of truth in historicism—that most people in a community are the captives of its authoritative opinions. But Plato sees beyond this fact to something more important: in any community there are some people who long to escape from the confines of the cave, to question authoritative opinion and search for genuine knowledge. These are the people Plato calls philosophers, and Socrates was his chief example. Plato criticizes the poets in the Republic for being, in effect, the prime builders of the cave. In their eagerness to please their audience, they give eloquent expression to its presuppositions and prejudices, hoping to win its applause by flattering its communal pride. But Plato subtly raises the possibility of a truly philosophical poet, who, like Socrates, would not rejoice in what would today be called his native culture but would instead question its assumptions to the core. Shakespeare turned out to be that kind of philosophical poet—not the first, and not the last—but certainly the greatest.
Ever since, Shakespeare has served as a beacon for those around the world trying to find their way out of the cave. In some ways his effect is most potent in foreign lands. The initially alien character of his works helps give people in other countries a fresh perspective on their native culture and opens up a new world of thought to them. No wonder people all over the globe flock to his plays. To the scholars who apologize for the way the West has exported Shakespeare to the rest of the world, I pose this question: would it have been better if we had somehow held back Shakespeare, in some bizarre form of cultural quarantine? That would in fact have been a cultural injustice of monumental proportions. Fortunately there is no way to prevent other cultures from importing Shakespeare. The world does not need protection from Shakespeare. Indeed it is highly patronizing to other cultures to assume that they're so fragile that they can't absorb Shakespeare and benefit from contact with his works.
The historicist model of culture is fundamentally flawed. Far from being self-contained and monolithic, most cultures are open to outside influences and as a result become multivalent and hybrid in character. Japan is often cited as the model of a closed society, and indeed from the 17th to the 19th century the Japanese ruling class did pursue a policy of cultural exclusion, in particular trying to stave off Western culture. There were many cultural benefits to this policy—the various arts did flourish and maintain their integrity and authenticity under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo period. But ultimately cultural protectionism can result only in cultural stagnation, and the Japanese elite eventually realized—admittedly with some prodding from Commodore Perry and the U.S. Navy—that the country was, disastrously, falling behind the West, especially in science and technology. The result was their decision in the second half of the 19th century to modernize Japan under Western influence.
But the idea that Japan ever represented some kind of purely native culture is a myth. From ceramics to religion, from calligraphy to cuisine, from architecture to language itself, classic Japanese culture reveals the heavy influence of Chinese, Korean, and other models. After all, Buddhism is not native to Japan. It turns out that the prime example of a closed-off culture is in fact a tribute to the power of cultural assimilation and hybridity. The reason the Japanese elite believed it had to seal the country's borders is that Japanese culture may well be the most assimilative on earth. This became evident—for good and ill—in the 20th century, once Japan's borders were opened to outside influence. One of the great emerging stories in the arts in the 21st century is Japanese-American cultural fusion in such areas as video games, animation, and comic books—the development of what is being called a Pacific Rim culture. We have to bear this larger cultural context in mind in order to assess the immense popularity of Shakespeare in Japan. As with every other Western influence, the Japanese have come under the "domination" of Shakespeare, but they have also known how to assimilate Shakespeare and make him their own. The King Lear I saw in Tokyo was living proof of that. Human beings are of course creatures of habit and often cling to their ancestral ways. But they also have an inherent curiosity and eagerly inquire into and embrace whatever is most alien to their familiar existence.
If historicism gets the receiving end of cultural interchange wrong, it also misconceives the creative end. Just as cultures are not self-contained, authors, too, are open to foreign influences. This is especially true of Shakespeare. Perhaps the principal reason he appeals to a worldwide audience is that his own horizons pushed to the limits of the world as he knew it. Naturally he betrays signs of being an Elizabethan Englishman—in his language, in his factual knowledge, in some of his preoccupations. He was an Englishman writing for an English audience; accordingly, his histories deal with English subjects and constitute a substantial portion of his output—ten out of 37 plays. Other plays, such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Cymbeline, might also be said to take up English history, albeit in more mythic form. But for all the English content in his work, what is truly remarkable about Shakespeare is the geographical and historical range of his remaining plays.
If we judge by the subjects he chose to portray, Shakespeare, far from being a provincial Englishman, was deeply interested in the alien, in what was genuinely remote from his experience as an Elizabethan. Half his tragedies are set in the ancient world, and constitute a sustained and profound effort to understand and depict what made it different from the modern. Famous critics like Samuel Johnson and Goethe have claimed that Shakespeare's Romans are simply Elizabethan Englishmen dressed up in togas, but they are wrong. As I have shown in detail in my book Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (1976), despite a few anachronistic details like a clock striking or caps on the heads of working men, Shakespeare displays a remarkably accurate knowledge of ancient Rome—undoubtedly derived from his careful reading of Plutarch and perhaps indebted to reading in authors such as Livy and Machiavelli as well.
Shakespeare understands, for example, the differences between the republican and imperial regimes in Rome, and even grasps the subtleties of their operation (such as the tribunes' role in the Republic and how this changed between the time of Coriolanus and the time of Julius Caesar). Above all, Shakespeare fully understands the implications of the fact that the ancient Romans were not Christians. If they were simply Elizabethan Englishmen in disguise, they would hardly look upon suicide as a noble act, and embrace it with an eagerness that completely eludes a modern Christian in Shakespeare, such as Hamlet, for whom "the Everlasting" has "fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter." When Horatio wants to follow Hamlet into death, he knows to say: "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane."
In his Venetian plays—The Merchant of Venice and Othello—Shakespeare explores a phenomenon that was new in his day: a commercial republic. If Venice itself wasn't alien enough for Shakespeare to investigate, he concentrates in both plays on the problematic status of an alien within the Venetian community. Shylock as a Jew and Othello as a Moor challenge the purportedly cosmopolitan city's claim to welcome foreigners. Shakespeare has been accused of anti-Semitism for his portrait of Shylock and racism for his portrait of Othello, but in fact these characters offer perhaps the best evidence of the extraordinary range of his dramatic sympathies and his ability to represent realms of experience utterly foreign to Elizabethan England. One has only to compare Christopher Marlowe's Barabas in his The Jew of Malta with Shylock to see the difference between a racial stereotype and a sincere effort to portray an alien as a rounded character, with faults as well as virtues, to be sure, but as fully a member of the human race. Shakespeare gave Shylock a moving expression of the humanity he has in common with the Venetian Christians:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
Did the average Elizabethan think this way about Jews before Shakespeare wrote these lines? But Shakespeare was not an average Elizabethan Englishman; we would not be reading him so avidly if he had been. The historicist view of literature lands us in a colossal irony—we turn to Shakespeare precisely because he is an extraordinary writer, and then critics do all they can to reduce and assimilate him to the case of the average man of his day.
I could go on documenting the wide scope of Shakespeare's plays, but let me confine myself to one last aspect of his extraordinary achievement. In references scattered throughout his plays, he shows that he knew he was living in the great age of European exploration and discovery. Even if Shakespeare's geographic knowledge was limited to European horizons, in his day those horizons were expanding at an unprecedented rate and beginning to take in the whole globe. Modern nation-states were just beginning to take shape in Europe—France was the first. In fact the major powers in his world were not nation-states at all, but the two great multinational empires that divided up the Mediterranean—the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire. In the 16th century these empires were still expanding, which brought them into conflict all over the Mediterranean, including North Africa. In short, Shakespeare's world was more global than we tend to realize. The now familiar national borders in Europe had not yet taken shape; indeed, they were in continual flux. In this world of fluid borders, Shakespeare was not bound by the limited horizons of the nation in which he happened to be born.
O Brave New World
Shakespeare's plays show that he was well aware of what was happening in the New World. Although The Tempest is set somewhere in the Mediterranean, the play draws upon accounts of the earliest English attempts to colonize the Americas. In the meeting between Caliban and the Europeans, Shakespeare stages a cultural encounter that in retrospect looks uncannily prophetic of what was to become the history of European imperialism—so much so that the imperialist theme has come to dominate academic study of The Tempest today. Shakespeare's creation of Caliban is evidence that nothing human—indeed nothing subhuman—was alien to him. The measure of his imaginative power is his ability to take a character utterly remote from his personal experience and make him come alive on the stage—to make us feel that this character is acting just the way such a strange being—if he did exist—would act in real life.
In order to create such aliens on the stage, Shakespeare could not have been bound by the horizons of Elizabethan England. His plays demonstrate how open he was to foreign ideas and influences. We don't know exactly which languages he knew—personally, I like to take a wild guess that Shakespeare had a facility for picking up languages—but he appears to have drawn upon Latin, Greek, French, and Italian sources, and perhaps works in other languages as well (maybe all in translation, maybe not). In his portrayals of Rome, Venice, and other exotic worlds, he is always awake to the issue of cultural difference, while at the same time searching for whatever elements of common humanity he can find, even at the frontiers of the world known to him. The world has rewarded Shakespeare for his remarkable openness to its range and diversity—the world has in turn become open to Shakespeare. He tried to understand the whole world as he knew it, and now the whole world tries to understand him. The poet of the world has become the world-poet.
I have a few concluding words for my fellow Shakespeare scholars. Sit back and enjoy the spectacle of his universality. Stop debunking the source of your livelihood. In contemplating the intense efforts of foreigners to come to terms with Shakespeare, take a cue from the playwright himself in his sonnet 116: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments." And one last bit of advice for everyone: if you're ever in Frankfurt, skip the soccer and go see a performance of Shakespeare in German. You'll learn who really wins the World Cup.