Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 20
Shakespeare Goes Global: The Plays in Print
'Was ever woman in this humour wooed?' On 22 July 1942, the German SS announced that all the Jews in Warsaw would, in the euphemism of the day, be 'resettled' to the camp at Treblinka. It was effectively a death sentence:
'There were however six groups of people who were to be exempted from the resettlement. These included all able-bodied Jews of working age, all persons employed by German public authorities or in German production facilities or those who were on the staff of the Judenrat and the Jewish hospitals. One sentence suddenly set me thinking; the wives and children of the people in these categories were not to be resettled either.'
The 22-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki was one of those exemptions. Now over 90 years old and Germany's leading literary critic, he told his story to the German Parliament in January 2012. A German-Polish Jew, he was working for the Judenrat, the Council of Jews set up by the Nazis. He had no wife or children, but he was engaged, and he realised that, if he acted straight away, he could prevent his fianc�e from being 'resettled'. He must marry her at once:
'The ceremony did not last long. I cannot recall whether in all the rush and excitement I actually kissed Teofila, I don't know. But I well remember the feeling that engulfed us, a feeling of fear, fear of what would happen in the coming days. And I still remember the Shakespearean line that occurred to me at the time: 'Ward je in dieser Laun' ein Weib gefreit?'
'Ward je in dieser Laun' ein Weib gefreit?': 'Was ever woman in this humour wooed?' It's a quotation from Shakespeare's Richard III and it's an astonishing thing for a young German Pole to think of at such a moment. At this time of extreme need, the only words Marcel Reich-Ranicki found were Shakespeare's.
'He was the soul of the age, but at the same time he speaks to every age. Shakespeare is always our contemporary.'
In this series we've been looking at how Shakespeare's plays were crafted to speak to a particular audience and the uncertain, restless world that that audience lived in. We've been focusing on what Shakespeare's words meant, in England, to a public that was hearing not the world's most famous playwright, but hearing for the very first time, the latest play by a successful writer for the commercial London stage.
In this final programme I want to look instead at the many things that Shakespeare's plays have come to mean to the whole world. For hundreds of years, people like Marcel Reich-Ranicki have found in Shakespeare the words to express their own deepest feelings. How has this supremely public writer become the private companion of so many, his words the stuff that their hopes, fears and dreams are made on? How did this very English playwright go global?
Well the answer, I think, is here in the British Library, and it's in this book that I've got in front of me: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies - often referred to simply as the 'First Folio'. It's a big book, it's about the size of a packet of cornflakes, and its 900 odd pages contain 36 plays. For The Tempest, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and a number of other plays, this book, the First Folio, is the only surviving text.
The first folio was advertised for the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1622, six years after Shakespeare had died, but as often happens, the publishers ran a bit late and it appeared only in 1623. Now, it was rare for plays in English by a single author to be gathered and published like this. That tribute was usually reserved for the great writers in Latin. But with this book, people everywhere, people who had never seen Shakespeare played in the theatre, could make his works part of their lives. And from the beginning, we know that they did.
The First Folio allowed Shakespeare to travel out of the theatre and into the world. The copy I'm looking at now belonged to William Johnstoune, who lived in Dumfriesshire in Scotland. Written in the margins are observations (presumably Johnstoune's own) on the text of the plays. We are looking over the shoulder of one of Shakespeare's earliest readers, alone in his study in Dumfriesshire in the 1620s, underlining phrases that interest him and commenting on them in the margin. Looking at these notes, we're watching Shakespeare become part of William Johnstoune's world.
He marks Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking, 'The distracted queene goes writes & talkes sleeping', and he observes 'unnaturall deedes trouble the mind unnaturallie'. Reading Richard II, Johnstoune raises a very Scottish eyebrow at John of Gaunt's rah-rah-for-England speech about 'this scepter'd isle . . . This precious stone set in a silver sea' and you can almost see his lips purse as he scribbles in the margin 'extreame high praise England'.
Sitting hundreds of miles from the jostling crowds of the Bankside theatres, shelling their oysters and flaunting their rapiers, Johnstoune is a founder member of a new kind of audience for Shakespeare: a worldwide public composed of anybody who can read the plays and make them their own. When Shakespeare turned into a book, the man who built the Globe became a global figure.
And that means global in the most up-to-date sense: Johnstoune's copy of the First Folio is now in Meisei University in Tokyo. But I am studying it in a caf� in London on my smartphone. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck puts a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. In the world of modern magic, online Shakespeare circles the globe instantly.
And on every circling the words mean something new. In 2012, the very new state of South Sudan found echoes of its post-conflict recovery in an officially sponsored production of Cymbeline in Juba Arabic. A hundred years earlier, a New York film studio had reimagined Romeo and Juliet, with a star-crossed Huron brave and a Mohican princess. It was love. It was doomed. It was America. It was a new medium, and Shakespeare, as always, was there.
Memorably he was there on Robben Island, the infamous South African jail, where in the 1970s, leaders of the African National Congress were imprisoned during the struggle against apartheid. Sonny Venkatrathnam was one of them:
'When I got to Robben Island we had no access to a library or any other reading material. I applied to buy some books and the reply came that I am allowed only one book. Eventually I decided the only book that would keep me going for some time would be the Complete Works of Shakespeare - well I knew they wouldn't allow me to have the Das Kapital or something.'
In order to keep his Shakespeare with him in his cell, Sonny Venkatrathnam disguised it by sticking Hindu cards sent to him for Diwali over the covers. The Robben Island 'Bible' is now part of the legend of the battle against apartheid:
'About six months before my due release date, I circulated The Complete Works of Shakespeare and asked my comrades there to select a line or a passage that appealed to them and sign it. All of them chose lines or passages that inspired them and strengthened the resolve for the struggle.'
On the 16 December 1977, the disguised Robben Island Bible reached Nelson Mandela. He signed his name beside this passage on courage and death from Julius Caesar:
Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
(Julius Caesar 2.2.32-7)
The same passage had moved William Johnstoune in Scotland 350 years earlier: 'Death a necessarie end will come when it will come and is not to be forefeared'.
The prisoner Walter Sisulu, pondering racial injustice in South Africa, fascinatingly does not choose as his passage words chosen by Othello, the Moor of Venice, and victim of many racist slurs. He chooses instead the Venetian Jew, Shylock:
Shylock: You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
. . .
Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You called me dog
(The Merchant of Venice 1.3.108-25)
Imagining Sisulu reading these lines, is to imagine Shakespeare conjuring the humiliations of apartheid South Africa. The Robben Island Bible, like the First Folio, allows everyone to see in Shakespeare the mirror of their own predicament and, in the Warsaw ghetto or in a South African prison, Shakespeare speaks to the unsettled condition of our time. In the First Folio, his contemporary Ben Jonson described him as the 'soul of the age', but also as 'not of an age, but for all time'. Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate:
'I think the key to Shakespeare's endurance, and the fact that in every culture and every age he seemed to speak to the present, comes from that paradox. On the one hand he was the 'soul of the age', all the great conflicts and innovations of the age, the sense of the discovery of new worlds, new ways of looking at the world, it all is there in Shakespeare. He was the soul of the age, but at the same time he never confined himself to the particularities of his historical moment and that meant that because he sort of plugged in to the fundamental questions about human society and human life, he speaks to every age. Shakespeare is always our contemporary.'
In this programme we've been looking at how words aimed at a London public four centuries ago are still potent around the world today. Shakespeare's plays were written for a new medium, the public theatre of Elizabethan London. In the 1920s, Shakespeare took to another new medium: radio, an 'airy nothing' where, as in a theatre like the Globe with little scenery and few props, words alone spark the imagination.
I'm standing outside Broadcasting House in London. When this building opened in 1932, the architects, searching for an emblem to symbolise world broadcasting, turned of course to Shakespeare. And so over the door of BBC Broadcasting House, are two sculptures by Eric Gill. A young naked boy stands on a globe protected by an older bearded man, it's Ariel, the invisible spirit of the air, who serves Prospero in The Tempest. The actor who originally played Ariel would have required wires to fly over the theatre stage, but the wireless - still in its infancy - would finally set Ariel free and carry Shakespeare himself across the globe.
Prospero: These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on
(The Tempest 4.1.148-57)
Shakespeare quotations are taken from:
Julius Caesar (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01239-1
The Merchant of Venice (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01395-4
The Tempest (London: Penguin, 2007). ISBN: 978-0-141-01664-1