I quite enjoyed Andrew Dickson’s Worlds Elsewhere, at least as much a travel book as a Shakespeare book, in which he looks at the ways Shakespeare has been interpreted, adapted, and adopted by non-British places on several continents – Germany, America, India, South Africa and China.
I don’t want to get into a synopsis here, especially for a book that is, by its nature, all over the place, since half the fun is discovery, but it’s a fun ride. The more distant the culture is from his own, the more fascinating things he finds – Shakespeare so within the fabric of Bollywood that hardly anyone notices it, a history of the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft (the first organized Shakespeare literary society) and its WWII-era intrigues (the Germans like to translate Twelfth Night by its subtitle, Was Ihr Wollt, which is admittedly less controversial than straight-up calling it Triumph of the What You Will, but I suppose Shakespeare Himself had worn out the world’s tolerance for “will”-based wordplay long before Weimar, so I’ll quite while I’m ahead), a primary-source debunking of the mythology surrounding Mandela’s Robben Island Bible copy of the complete works, and the latter-day awakening of China’s fascination with the Bard (A nice primer for 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu’s China, which is high on my stack right now).
Or maybe it’s the more distant the culture is from my own. I would have enjoyed the book even more if either he hadn’t dedicated about twenty percent of it to America or I didn’t live in America. Not that an outsider’s view of one’s own culture isn’t always welcome and intriguing; more that the modern differences are hair-splitting and the historical differences are something I’m already reasonably well versed in. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. That said, any chapter in which I get to pull out the phrase “a profusion of esculents” (found here in a newspaper account of an unruly Nevada City, California audience and the sorts of edible projectiles they toted circa 1856) is not a waste of my time.
The segment most intriguing to me was his brief glimpse into the life of South Africa’s Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, whose works I immediately started seeking out to add to the (growing; ever growing) stack. Besides being a linguist, politician (performer, journalist, traveller, intellectual…), Plaatje translated several works of Shakespeare into his native Tswana; I’m probably going to try out his novel, Mhudi, or Native Life in South Africa first – my Tswana is a little rusty…
Another thing that stuck with me was his recounting of an anecdote from American anthropologist Laura Bohannon, who spent time with the Tiv people of West Africa in the early 1950’s. Frustrated by a rainy season in which indoor song, storytelling, and beer (not necessarily in that order) got in the way of her cultural study (I will not editorialize; I will not editorialize), she joined in by telling them the story of Hamlet, which just meant fifteen different things to them, culturally speaking, that it did not mean at all to her. But they seemed to enjoy it:
Some time…you must tell us some more stories of your country…We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.
Even for those of us simply trying to translate these plays for an audience whose cultural distance from Shakespeare is very nearly that of the Tiv, worth tattooing on the arm.
Worlds Elsewhere is a pleasurable read even for the non-geek. And if you’re not already checking it out, Dickson’s blog (WorldsElsewhere.com) is well worth your time as well.