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Shamanism in Korean Hamlets since 1990: Exorcising Han

By Hyon-u, Lee | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Shamanism in Korean Hamlets since 1990: Exorcising Han


Hyon-u, Lee, Asian Theatre Journal


Hamlet in Korean History

Hamlet has a special significance in the history of Shakespeare in Korea. The first complete translation of a Shakespearean play was Hamlet by Hyun Chul in 1922, and the first complete Shakespeare production was also Hamlet (dir. Lee Hae-rang, trans. Jung In-sup, 1949), performed by the drama club of Chungang University in 1949. Hamlet (dir. Lee Hae-rang, trans. Han Ro-dan, 1951) performed during the Korean War was a legendary success. Moreover, the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's plays has been Hamlet. Productions of Hamlet by two of the leading theatre men of Korea, the director Kim Jung-ok and the actor Yu In-chon (who performed the role of Hamlet in five different productions), triggered the Shakespeare boom of the 1990s that continues to this day.

The reason the play has been so continuously admired by Korean people and has made such a significant contribution to the history of the modern Korean theatre over the past hundred years may be that there is some fellow-feeling between Hamlet and the Korean people with their painful experience of Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, military dictatorship, the IMF monetary crisis, and so on. Since the period of Japanese colonialism, Hamlet's "to be or not to be" may have sounded like "a proposition for survival" to Koreans. This was, in fact, one of the first lines of Shakespeare to be introduced to the Koreans when Jang Duck-soo translated it in a magazine article in 1915 as "salka jookulka hanan kushi munjeroda" (To live or to die, that is the question) (Shin 1998: 28). The phrase "to be or not to be" might have reminded Koreans of Jang Ji-yon's famous article protesting the Eulsa Treaty (the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty of 17 November 1905), which deprived Korea of diplomatic rights. In a Hwansungshinmun (Hwangsung Daily) newspaper article, Jang cried out, "What a pity! How vexatious! Our twenty million compatriots, enslaved by others! To live or to die?" (1) (Jang 1905). Hamlet's agony, as expressed in "to be or not to be," may be rather similar to the suffering of Korean people, with their traumatic history of the last century.

Even during the Korea Shakespeare boom of the last twenty years, Hamlet has been performed more than any other Shakespearean drama. Between 1990 and 2008, about 45 Hamlets out of 210 Shakespearean productions have been made, about 20 percent of the total. The Hamlets, like other Shakespeare productions that have been admired by local audiences and critics, have Koreanized styles and themes; for Hamlet productions this is closely connected with shamanism. The prominent productions since the 1990s include Kim Jung-ok's Hamlet (1993), Lee Yun-taek's Problematic Man Yunsan (1995, 2003) and Hamlet (1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005), Jo Kwang-hwa's Ophelia: Sister, Come to My Bed (1995) and Rock Hamlet (1999, 2000, 2006), Kim Min-ho's Crazy Hamlet (2002, 2003, 2006), and Bae Yo-sup's Hamlet Cantabile (2005, 2007). All stage shaman rituals--notably the gut (2) --or a scene of shamanistic possession. I argue that these shamanistic Hamlets, which have emerged in an era of democratization, globalization, and extended freedom of the 1990s, serve to exorcise the Korean problem of "to be or not to be" that results from a century of colonialism, war, dictatorship, and economic crisis.

This paper analyzes the shamanistic characteristics of the major Hamlet productions since the 1990s. (3) I believe that this helps us understand more clearly, in terms of society as well as theatre, how Korean society has received Hamlet since the 1990s. It clarifies the evolution of theatrical discourse concerning the relationship between Hamlet and Korean shamanism, a social practice that is closely connected with indigenous sentiment of pain and regret, called han.

Shamanistic Ophelia

The character of Ophelia has been central to the representation of shamanism in these Hamlets: usually Ophelia is a medium who is possessed by a ghost.

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