Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism

By Hourigan, Ben | Australasian Drama Studies, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism


Hourigan, Ben, Australasian Drama Studies


Irena R. iVlakaryk and Joseph G. Price, eds, Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006)

In April 2006, a series of articles in The Australian condemned the politicisation of Shakespeare Studies in Year 11 English classes at Sydney girls' school SCEGGS Darlinghurst. Of Othello, girls were asked to 'explain how dramatic techniques might be used to communicate ... two of the following readings ... Marxist, feminist, race'. Education writer Justine Ferrari garnered comment from Harold Bloom, who called the task 'sublimely stupid', and from Les Murray, who reportedly 'described the question as horrifying'. In a further article by Steve Lewis and Imre Salusinszky, Peter Morgan of the University of Western Australia claimed that 'teachers are disappointed they are not teaching literature any more. They feel the subject has been hijacked by those who want to teach about race, gender and Marxism, rather than about literature.'

Given the currency of such concerns, Shakespeare in the Worlds of Communism and Socialism has particular relevance in the Australian context. Australian journalists and educators may worry about the occasional over-prevalence of political or ideological approaches to the teaching of literature, but the threat here is mild at worst. The essay collection reviewed here shows the politicisation of art in this case, the plays of Shakespeare taken to its extreme. The accounts it gives of situations where the production of plays is a matter for strict state control and intervention could be viewed as cautionary, but they can also put in perspective any temptations one may have, in our thoroughly liberal and pluralist society, to become hysterical about high-school essay questions.

Contributions to the collection describe the texture of Shakespeare performance and reception in the former Soviet bloc and other communist countries during the twentieth century. A final piece on Marxist Shakespeare studies in North America caps off the book. The essays divide into four sections, each of which looks at 'the complex, uneasy, and unpredictable alliance of Shakespeare with communist ideology' (3) from multiple vantage points. The section titled 'Shakespeare in Flux' focuses on productions in former Soviet territory, from 1917 to the Stalinist 1930s. 'World War, Cold War, and the Great Divide' covers productions in East Germany. 'National and Cultural Diversity' features contributions on Czech, Polish, Hungarian and Chinese productions, while 'Theorizing Marxist Shakespeares' takes a closer look at the ideological character of Marxist Shakespeare reception in Cuba, East Germany and North America. Each of the sections begins with a valuable introduction by editor Irena R. Makaryk, which sets the essays to follow within the context of the historical period and subject matter that they deal with. The editors report that 'this study is the first sustained, global look at Communist and socialist Shakespeare from 1917 to (roughly) 2002" (10).

One could be tempted to assume that under communism, state oversight of Shakespeare productions would homogenise and reduce the complexity of the plays and the interpretations that can be made of them. Yet the essays here show the subtle variations of detail in a multitude of Shakespeare productions all put on under conditions where art was expected to follow an at least nominally Marxist line be it Bolshevik, Stalinist or Maoist. As the editors write: 'Although the Soviet dictatorship could exercise political control, each country and each culture absorbed into the orbit adapted Marxist principles idiosyncratic to each state and its respective theatrical traditions' (5).

At the same time though, issues recur across the contributions. Wc see repeatedly how Shakespeare's venerated status within the Soviet sphere of influence as if it were not enough merely for his plays to be permitted! was grounded in his works being seen as precursors to socialist realism, and in interpretive reduction of his plays to stories of class conflict. …

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