Man of the World: Shakespeare May Never Have Left England, but He Became the Most Global Writer Who Ever Lived

By Kirsch, Adam | Foreign Policy, September-October 2016 | Go to article overview

Man of the World: Shakespeare May Never Have Left England, but He Became the Most Global Writer Who Ever Lived


Kirsch, Adam, Foreign Policy


In the run-up to Brexit in June, as Fleet Street tried to figure out why the Leave campaign was so alluring to voters, some observers employed a famous phrase again and again: "this scepter'd isle," a description of England in William Shakespeare's Richard II. A scepter is a symbol of royal authority, and a "scepter'd isle" is an unforgettable image of a sovereign England owing allegiance to no outsider. In this year marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, his language clearly still manages to capture something essential about the way the people of Great Britain, and especially the English, view themselves.

The phrase in Richard II is uttered by John of Gaunt in a powerful speech praising independence and self-sufficiency. He continues, "This precious stone set in the silver sea,/Which serves it in the office of a wall,/Or as a moat defensive to a house,/ Against the envy of less happier lands,/ This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England." Today, it seems that many people still imagine "this realm" in such terms. In the view espoused by the U.K. Independence Party, outsiders--Poles, Latvians, Romanians, Syrians--who come to live amid the fortunate English violate the "blessed plot." Several months after Brexit, and even amid the backlash against the vote, these indignant feelings endure.

Yet the paradox of Shakespeare is that the same poet who seems so essentially English is also perhaps the most global writer who has ever lived. His character may have praised English isolation--and Shakespeare may never have left the country himself--but his imagination ranged freely across borders. Many of his most famous plays are set abroad: Denmark (Hamlet), Greece (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Italy (Romeo and Juliet), Egypt (Antony and Cleopatra). Ben Jonson, his friend and fellow playwright, praised Shakespeare after his death, writing, "He was not of an age but for all time!" Just as accurately, it could be said that he was not of England, but of the world.

In 2012, London hosted a Cultural Olympiad in conjunction with the Olympic Games. The highlight was a festival in which the Globe Theatre--a modern reconstruction of Shakespeare's original playhouse--hosted performances of the Bard's 37 plays, each in a different language and performed by a different international company. There was a Hindi Twelfth Night, a Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor, a Korean Midsummer Night's Dream. Significantly, most of the shows were not specially commissioned translations and productions. They were already popular in their home countries--living proof of Shakespeare's universality.

That word, of course, is one that academic theorists, including Shakespeare scholars, hold in great suspicion. To say that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time--even to say, in the hyperbolic words of critic Harold Bloom, that he "invented the human," creating our modern sense of what it means to think and feel--is to imply that a white man is the paragon of the human race. This goes against the current intuition, or dogma, that individuals exist primarily in terms of "identity"--gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity--and that it is impossible or offensive to speak to and for humanity as such. This was the point of view voiced last year in the Washington Post by a California high school teacher who argued, "[T]here is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students. …

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