Shakespeare Reception in India and the Netherlands until the Early Twentieth Century

By Thakur, Vikram Singh | CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare Reception in India and the Netherlands until the Early Twentieth Century


Thakur, Vikram Singh, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture


Shakespeare has always been an object of critical enquiry for scholars, as well as theater practitioners around the world and hundreds of approaches towards Shakespeare bear testimony to his popularity (see, e.g., Huang and Ross). Some have glorified Shakespeare as the unshakable monolith of English literature, while others have discovered him to be an important site of imperialism and colonialism. These divergent approaches resulted in a wide range of Shakespeare scholarship. In the study at hand I discuss Shakespeare's work in two different cultural contexts by looking at its reception in India and in The Netherlands which is, of course, at variance for the varied geographical, historical, and cultural differences between the two cultures and countries. However, what makes me attempt this study is the fact that Shakespeare was a foreign playwright to both countries yet both cultures have gradually assimilated his works and made him, probably, the most performed foreign playwright since the 1870s.

Theater in The Netherlands in the sixteenth century was dominated by morality plays: playwriting was not a professional enterprise but a hobby for the educated citizens who looked towards the classics or to Italian and Spanish writers as models. Robert Henri-Leek informs us that plays were organized in Rederijkerskamers (Chambers of Rhetoric) of which "D'Eglantier (The Eglantine) was the most prestigious at the turn of the century ... [that] played an important part in the promotion of the educated Amsterdam dialect as the national language, and in the battle against the intrusion of foreign idiom into its literature" (8). Thus, when Shakespeare's plays came to The Netherlands, they might not have found an easy path to tread owing to the presence of classical and continental models of drama. In India theater proper, by contrast, had almost disappeared by the eleventh century and theatrical activity was sustained by sparse folk and traditional performances, which too, were on the decline by the eighteenth century. The theatrical vacuum proved helpful in the growth of modern Indian theatre. When English theater was introduced in cities like Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai), the educated elite for whom it was a novel experience took to it with enthusiasm. As R.K. Yajnik points out, "There was no question of the model to be followed. India simply adopted the mid-Victorian stage with all its accessories of painted scenery, costume and make-up" (103). Also, English theater seemed to impart the educated elite a distinct cultural identity as described by Sudipto Chatterjee in the following words: "The Bengal Renaissance was the outgrowth of the grafting of a foreign culture onto a more-than-willing native culture. For the Bengalis their response to what was imposed by the British was a search for a cultural identity that could, at some level, set them on a par with their European overlords. It is in the wake of this endeavour to assume/regain a respectful self-identity that, in 1840s, several theatres [among other institutions] were spawned in the native quarters of Calcutta" ("Mise-en-(Colonial)-Scene" 20). Consequently, there was a flood of theater buildings in Calcutta with the opening of a Hindu theater, the first Bengali theater on 28 December 1831. The early productions were staged with all their "Englishness" intact including proscenium stage, box sets, carefully chosen costumes, and well-rehearsed dialogues in English. As Shakespeare's plays were performed frequently in the English theaters, it was no surprise that they formed the chief repertoire for modern Indian theater too.

Shakespeare's reception in The Netherlands dates back to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when traveling actors from England would visit the Low Countries and Germany to perform their plays. As Leek notes, some of the English actors even settled down in the Low Countries and there is evidence of collaboration between them and the Dutch actors (2-5). …

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