The world’s the stage: Shakespeare’s rise to global pre-eminence

By Jerry Brotton for the Financial Times, 30 December 2015

Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, by Andrew Dickson, Bodley Head, RRP£20, 512 pages

Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, by Emma Smith, OUP, RRP£19.99, 328 pages

The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, Cambridge University Press, RRP£18.99/RRP$29.99, 386 pages

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro, Faber, RRP£20/Simon & Schuster, RRP$30, 448 pages

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and, inevitably, it will reveal more about ourselves than the Bard. Just consider the tercentenary in 1916. Then, as war raged in northern Europe, the English actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree was dispatched to New York to mark the occasion in suitable style at a safe distance. Back home, alongside muted performances and festivals, the scholar Israel Gollancz edited A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, described in its preface as “a worthy Record of the widespread reverence for Shakespeare as shared with the English-speaking world by our Allies and Neutral States”. Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and Rudyard Kipling all contributed, extolling the playwright’s peculiarly English qualities. More than 20 languages were represented among the 160-odd essays, including the Bengali of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, but, nonetheless, there was little doubt about where — and to whom — Shakespeare really belonged.

How we remember Shakespeare is always defined by the present. Today, against the backdrop of uneven globalisation rather than total war, what we see in the plethora of performances, exhibitions and books already beginning to appear is a tension between two distinct versions of the Bard. On one side, still, is the familiar Shakespeare of stirring battlefield rhetoric and bawdy fools that has woven itself so deeply into the English psyche; on the other, increasingly, is the quite different figure celebrated in events such as the 2012 “Globe to Globe” festival at the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London: an international, multicultural Shakespeare who has taken Freud, Marx, feminism, the sexual revolution, decolonisation and two world wars in his stride and emerged more popular and powerful than ever.

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