Shehrazade Zafar-Arif: Shakespeare has gone from colonial poet to poet of the colonies

Still from Sohrab Modi's 'Khoon ka Khoon' ('Blood for Blood') 1935 attribution

Shehrazade Zafar-Arif  Shehrazade Zafar-Arif

Still from Sohrab Modi's Khoon ka Khoon (Blood for Blood), 1935 - an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Shehrazade completed her Masters in Shakespeare Studies (2016) a programme offered jointly between King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe.


Calcutta, 1848, the height of British imperial rule in India: the Sans Souci Theatre puts on a production of Othello with an Indian actor, Baishnav Charan Adhya, in the lead role.

London, 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death: a report entitled ‘All the World’s’, commissioned by the British Council and conducted by YouGov, finds that Shakespeare is more widely liked, understood and regarded as relevant outside the UK than within it, with the highest numbers occurring in India.

There’s a lot to be said about the timeless relevance and the globalisation of Shakespeare. But if we scan back to India in the 19th century, we can trace how he first arrived in the subcontinent, the same way he reached a lot of Asia and Africa: through colonialism. In this way, Shakespeare became an unknowing poet of empire. He was a symbol of national pride, of quintessential Englishness and the power of the English language – all things that were being imported to the colonies with a kind of missionary zeal.

It is a legacy that remains strong in India and other ex-colonies, but one that has changed over time.

Theatre-going was an integral part of life in London. It was a tradition that was easily transported to Calcutta, the intellectual and cultural capital of British India – almost a London away from London. But the early theatres of the 1700s, one of which was even supported by Shakespearean actor David Garrick, were exclusively controlled by and catering to the British rather than the ‘natives’.

The 1848 performance of Othello, however, blurred the lines between coloniser and colonised: Adhya had stepped into a decidedly British space within his own country, just as Othello was an ‘Other’ in his own play. This seemed to pave the way for other localised performances of Shakespeare: in 1853, students at the David Hare Academy and the Oriental Academy in Calcutta put on their own productions of The Merchant of Venice and Othello respectively, before audiences that were a mix of British and wealthy Bengalis.

Shakespeare also began to be translated for local audiences. His plays were performed in Bengali about 23 times between 1852 and 1899. In this we can see a shift from adaptations of British Shakespeare in English, which had a decidedly colonialist precedent, to recreations and translations by non-British and non-English-speaking cultures, which were in many ways a response to the former. Today, Shakespeare’s works have been translated into 80 languages, and such translation reflects a need by the translator to make him their own, and see their own cultures and linguistic nuances reflected in the stories that have inevitably become so familiar through the prevalence of Shakespeare across the world.

Such adaptations have even returned to Shakespeare’s own Globe. In 1999, kathakali [a form of classical Indian dance] masters performed King Lear, using the technique’s physicality of emotion to represent the play’s outpouring of emotion. In 2012, the Pakistani group ‘Theatre Walley’ performed an Urdu version of The Taming of the Shrew, re-envisioning the clash between a headstrong woman and patriarchal social pressures in a context that would have been all too familiar in Pakistani society.

The spread of the empire made the spread of Shakespeare’s words inevitable and perhaps accounts for the trend of ‘Bardolatory’ among people who’ve never set foot in Britain. But even in his own time, Shakespeare was not confined to his own shores. His scripts, or versions of them, were taken across northern Europe by travelling acting troupes, much like the players in Hamlet, adapting and moulding the plays to suit the local context. One unproven account claims that the first Shakespeare play performed outside of England was on an East India Company ship, the Red Dragon, in 1607. It’s not an entirely absurd prospect: the plays, with their lack of props and reliance on words and memory, were easily transportable, barely even needing a stage.

Shakespeare himself was always interested in the foreign. He borrowed stories from and set his plays in other countries – though the Bohemian coastline in The Winter’s Tale suggests he wasn’t that bothered by geographical consistency. Geography was fluid on the bare stage of the Globe, allowing a scene to switch from Rome to Egypt in the span of a few lines, or allowing a ship to traverse the ocean. In this way, theatre was a tool for negotiating and crossing cultural and national boundaries. Perhaps that’s why Shakespeare’s plays have remained a medium to recreate old stories into new cultural contexts, reclaiming a once colonialist narrative. Like the bare globe stage, the plays are a blank slate onto which artists can tell their own stories.


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