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Shakespeare's Universal Appeal

As the German writer Goethe once remarked, Shakespeare transcends culture and history, yet still remains English. Prof John Drakakis has analysed references to Shakespeare in popular culture, including in the films The Last Action Hero and Star Trek 6. In a lecture taken from Literature, Travel, Translation symposium at the University of Warwick in 2010, he examines the success of cultural translations of Shakespeare and translation as a theme in the texts themselves.

General Chang

“Shakespeare is a cultural icon, quintessentially English and at the same time global... the subtlety of his characterisation survives the process of translation, the transplanting into alien cultures and the erosion of time.” As Prof Drakakis notes, it’s not just England that has claimed Shakespeare as its own: the Welsh, Scottish, North Americans and even Arabs have also made their case. “Some claims are related to the cultural capital that Shakespearean texts have accumulated and with which particular national cultures want to be identified.”

The list of claimants to Shakespeare also includes Klingons. In Nicholas Meyer’s 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Chancellor Gorkon asserts condescendingly that “you’ve never experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read it in the original Klingon”. There follows a rapid firing of Shakespeare quotes between him and the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Says Prof Drakakis, “Shakespeare is a cultural weapon that can be deployed with effectiveness by Captain Kirk’s Federation and by the Klingon administration - deeply schooled in the discourse of post-colonialism, that the film mischievously identifies with communism and with fascism. Shakespeare is paraded as both an ideological and ultimate prize.”

What are the allegorical meanings in the film? It takes its epigraph ‘The Undiscovered Country’ form Hamlet. Prof Drakakis goes on to note that the film “proceeds to translate a range of universally-recognised Shakespearean quotations into a discourse appropriate to the political obsessions of Cold War politics. The process is a sophisticated one but not entirely new... it’s not difficult to find instances of this kind of cultural translation in the plays themselves."

One such example Prof Drakakis gives is from The Merry Wives of Windsor, where, in a devastating punchline, Pistol says of Falstaff’s plan to make love to Ford’s wife: “he hath studied her well, and translated her will out of honesty and into English”. Pistol knows Falstaff is the victim of his own outrageous fantasy and Pistol understands intralingual translation very well indeed.

Prof Drakakis points out that translation in Shakespearean texts is a slippery term. “It can mean, as in the case of Bottom’s transformation from human being to animal - 'Bottom, thou art translated' - or it can mean a much more sophisticated deployment of the term meaning a shift from one discursive domain to another or also a movement from one social position to another.” Of the Merry Wives of Windsor example he says: “Pistol’s allegation against Falstaff exposes the contours of this dense but shifting process that traverses the full gamut between a meaning with which we’re familiar to a much more complex, potentially incendiary use that is of a more local historically and culturally-specific provenance. Indeed, in order to grasp what Pistol’s remark actually does here involves a form of cultural translation that has been in common practice in historical commentaries on the text of Shakespeare and his contemporaries for many generations.

“On the surface of it, according to ancient Pistol, Falstaff appears to have displaced a stable, abstract concept or a quality or a precept honesty into a fraught linguistic arena of a sexual politics whose foundation is full of cultural difficulty; precisely that incendiary combination of sensory stimulus, linguistic expression, content on precept that Eco identified as being interconnected, and in which translation itself is unavoidably entwined, and that acts as a barrier to the concept of universality.”

It’s also important to remember the realm of the theatre. “Pistol appears to be accusing Falstaff of an identical practice – by shifting meaning from one realm of signification to another as though they were two separate languages. Let’s remember here as well that this is a script for performance and that Mistress Ford would not have been what she seemed on the Elizabethan stage, a detail that would only compound further the complexity of the exchange between Falstaff and Pistol.”

For Prof Drakakis this comic example shines a light on the dangers of translation. At a superficial level Shakespearean English resembles modern English. Yet he says “all good editions of Shakespearean texts in English are translations – they’re modernised and include a glossary of meanings with reference to particular historical events and so on". Yet despite advances in modern bibliographical technique there are still editions “that depend upon essentialist moments of understanding”. Take one edition of Othello where the line “This Ludwig is a proper man, a very handsome man" in Act 4, Scene 3 is given to a servant woman and not Desdemona because the editor thought that Desdemona “isn’t the kind of girl who would say such a thing”. For Prof Drakakis this points “to the complexity of the relationship between translation and interpretation that a play like Othello poses”.

His final example of cultural translation is the Hollywood movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Last Action Hero. This includes the line “something is rotten in the state of Denmark and Hamlet is taking out the trash”. Prof Drakakis asks, does the success of this big-budget action film - with its cultural nod to Shakespeare’s play - depend on the universal appeal of Hamlet or is it a translation from one epoch to another? Or indeed from one language to another? One thing is for sure: Schwarzenegger challenges two centuries of romantic readings of the play and of its central character.

A summary of the Literature, Travel, Translation symposium is now available.

Listen to the full talk below


John Drakakis is Professor in the Department of English Studies at the University of Stirling. He joined the university in 1970 and teaches courses in Shakespeare, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, Renaissance Literature, and in Critical Theory.

His research interests are primarily in seventeenth-century textual bibliography, Shakespeare, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Renaissance literature, critical theory, and modern drama and media and cultural studies. He is currently the General Editor of the Routledge New Critical Idiom Series. Prof Drakakis' current work in progress is the New Arden Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice, a book entitled Shakespearean Discourses, and the topic of Republicanism in Shakespeare.

Interested in studying English? Check out the English and Comparative Literary Studies department website.

Image: General Chang, played by Christopher Plummer, in Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country. Image via Trek Core.