'Worlds Elsewhere' Makes Clear: Shakespeare Is What We Make of Him
Dickson takes readers on a journey of the many Shakespeares in our world; from an entertainer in Gold Rush bars, to the defender of freedom in apartheid South Africa, to a founder of communism.
Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's GlobePublisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Author: Andrew Dickson
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: 2016-04
I was visiting New York in 2008. Sir Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Lichtenstein Theater was featured in an airline magazine. I called for tickets, but was a week late as the show had just closed. I called American Express travel concierge and asked them to find me “something Shakespeare” in New York. They recommended Antony and Cleopatra at The Duke on 42nd Street.
I arrived just after a young lady had been ushered in. The man at the door asked if I was with her as she was seated next to me. I said no. I took my seat and had the funny feeling I knew the woman. She said she was the girlfriend of actor Marton Csokas, who was playing Antony in the production. She said she was an actress but I probably wouldn’t know her. It turns out that I spent the evening seated next to actress Eva Green, who at the time was best know as Vesper Lynd in 2006’s Bond extravaganza, Casino Royale.
That is but one of my many personal Shakespeare stories. We 21st century human beings still cherish this midlands playwright, the son of a glover, who died over 450 years ago. We do so, because somehow, he was able to tap into human emotion and intellect with tendrils cast perhaps by Prospero himself, tendrils that still pulse with truth and meaning, tendrils that defy physics as they penetrate both space and time.
The magic that is Shakespeare was quickly recognized, from hugely popular performances, to sponsorship by King James, to being the first modern English playwright to inspire a collected works. In his book, Worlds Elsewhere, Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, Andrew Dickson takes the reader on a history of Shakespeare’s literary travels, but not places like Algeria, Verona, Denmark and Venice, where he takes us in his works, but to Gdansk, to mining towns booming during California’s Gold Rush, and to modern day China and to Mumbai and Kolkata. Instead, he takes us to the unlikely places his plays have traveled on the page and in performance. Dickson explores the influence of Shakespeare on the development of India’s Bollywood, and the role his works played in helping the South African state rediscover its conscience during the struggle against apartheid.
Shakespeare’s works perhaps first traveled toward the end of his lifetime as troupes of actors took his works to play venues across Europe. These were often highly adapted to local audiences, and greatly shortened. Contemporary references tend more toward plot than title. It wasn’t until the 1740s that Shakespeare actually became known as the author of some of these works outside of his native England.
The story of this history is welcomed and refreshing. For those of us who love the Bard, there is precious little new scholarship on his life and source materials. There is no shortage, however, of commentary and reworking of the works. Dickson’s work opens an entirely new window through which to view the influence of Shakespeare on the modern human.
Dickson takes the reader through how Shakespeare influenced Goethe’s works, and how he became a posthumous antagonizer of Voltaire. But it is the charming set pieces, the exploration of Shakespeare being played in frontier towns in California, for example, where the book carries the reader away. Dickson didn't just read about the locations he explores, he traveled to them, dug through old newspapers, visited sites and talked to those who either experienced the more contemporary influences themselves, or were charged with the stewardship of cultural memory.
These are engrossing stories. Near the end of the book, Dickson describes a Chinese version of The Taming of a Shrew that was met with uproarious laughter for perhaps sensibilities more aligned with Shakespeare’s time, sensibilities no longer palatable to a post-feminist Western audience. Dickson writes: “Petruccio was played by a professional wide-boy gambler, Katherine as a sharp-as-knives vixen whose six-inch heels added genuine danger to her athletic kung fu. I tried hard, but could sense little apparent anxiety about the gender politics: as Petruccio grabbed Katherine and flung her on top of the on-stage piano, pausing only to bash out Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everyone in the audience guffawed loudly. When it came to her concluding speech -- delivered without a flicker of irony -- even Samsung Man lowered his screen and cheered.”
Then just a page later, he describes Karl Marx’s profound admiration for Shakespeare, how “As a journalist and agitator, he deployed Shakespeare to score satirical points or to ram home a thesis.”
There is so much in Shakespeare, so rounded and deep a sampling of the human condition that his works become a kind of statistical pool from which any group can find the themes to reinforce their positions. In South Africa, Shakespeare was a voice of freedom for the oppressed. In China, a reinforcement of misogyny for Chinese women who choose learning and career over marriage. For Marx, Timon of Athens presages many of the these he would develop about wealth and worth, with the following quote acting as a 1844 note in Das Kapital:
Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
The Nazi’s adapted his Merchant of Venice to reinforce their anti-Semitic vitriol. In India, Dickson tells us of an Urdu Comedy of Errors retitled, A Puzzle, that opens with a spectacular scene in a coal mine. The playwright Narayan Prasad Betab was not channeling Shakespeare to enlighten his Parsi theatre goers, but to satisfy the theatre managers who wanted to fill seats. Who better than Shakespeare who had been packing houses for centuries, where ever his works are performed? The communist and the capitalist find equal comfort in Shakespeare.
We all have our stories of Shakespeare. From those stories we have crafted our own version of the Playwright. Perhaps that is the most intriguing aspect of Worlds Elsewhere; we find a personal Shakespeare in our casting back. Dickson delivers stories filled with intimate mirrors of personal reflection, and grand looking glasses that reflect profound ideas, movements and moments. Anyone who loves Shakespeare, who has indeed created their own version of the Bard, will find in Worlds Elsewhere hundreds of kindred souls through which to compare, to commiserate and to conflate. Worlds Elsewhere proves a tincture to the Shakespeare infection enthusiasts share. The words of Lady Macbeth seem appropriate here:
Foul whisp'rings are abroad. Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
We may well craft our own private Shakespeare and so interpret our world, through that secret construction, but so does everybody else.