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Shakespeare without borders: Adapting the Bard

How England's most famous playwright belongs to the world.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

7 November 2013 at 2.38pm | 3 Comments

We may think of Shakespeare as England’s poet, but he's a lot more international than that. In De Oscuro’s MacBeth  the dancer-actors speak extracts from Shakespeare’s play not just in the original English, but also in a new Welsh translation by Mererid Hopwood and occasionally in Polish and Hebrew. They're far from the first to let Shakespeare loose in other languages.

Shakespeare originated an estimated 2,000 English words commonly used today – including ‘bump’, 'swagger', 'eyeball' and 'obscene'. Modern English wouldn't be what it is without Shakespeare. But the plays written 400 years ago by a man from the Midlands have had a global appeal for centuries.

The Globe to Globe Festival at Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside in 2012 was testament to that. Over a few months the complete stage works were performed in 37 different languages. Troilus and Cressida in Maori, The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili, Richard III in Mandarin, All's Well that Ends Well in Urdu, Love's Labours Lost in British Sign Language – the feast of languages was a full debauch. The Globe is planning to invert that festival between 2014 and 2016 with the world tour to end all world tours: Hamlet (in English), performed in every single country in the world.

Groundbreaking though the Globe's festival was, it did not showcase a new phenomenon. Shakespeare has been around in translation as far back as the poet's lifetime. In the early 1600s English theatre companies on tour in Europe performed versions of Shakespeare's plays, first in English but soon adapted to the local vernacular – a German version of Titus Andronicus was published as early as 1620. In some places the popularity of the plays engendered a whole new culture of theatre – Shakespeare is still seen as a key progenitor of German theatre.

Though German came first, translations to other languages followed in the 18th century, with Voltaire's French translations in the 1730s, Sumarokov's Russian in 1750 and translations into Italian (1756), Spanish (1772), Czech (1786), and more translations across the rest of Europe. On the back of the British Empire, Shakespeare was performed in Calcutta in the 1780s in Marthi, Gujurati and Parsi, and Urdu translations came in the 19th century. Elsewhere we have translations into Hebrew (1874), Japanese (1885), Arabic (1890s), Korean (1921) and Chinese (1922). With the translation of Hamlet into Klingon in 2000, you could say the final frontier has been crossed.

There are also huge numbers of successful adaptations where Shakespeare's original poetry is just a side show: the host of Shakespeare operas; musicals such as Kiss Me Kate or West Side Story; films such as the brilliantly atmospheric adaptations by Akira Kurosawa (including Throne of Blood and Ran); and modernized recontextualizations such as 10 Things I Hate About You or O. Or if you want to dispel the smoke of words altogether there are ballets of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale – and a raft of silent films from the early 20th century (including Svend Gade's 1921 Hamlet and Dmitri Buchowetski's 1922 Othello) that transcend linguistic boundaries all on their own.

When it comes to Shakespeare, the world is but a word – give or take a few. There seems to be no medium in which he won't flourish.

What Shakespeare adaptations do you love?

The Dream / Symphonic Variations / Marguerite and Armand runs from 7–10 June 2017. Tickets are still available.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Diana Lee responded on 11 November 2013 at 4:45pm Reply

    Ms. Beaumont, may I ask you where you acquired the information that Shakespeare's play was first translated into Korean in 1906? I'm Korean and I thought Shakespeare's plays were not introduced until 1960s in this peninsula!

    I love balletic adaptation of Shakespeare's plays, by the way. Sir Macmillan's choreographies are sublime. I liked Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo et Juliette, too.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 13 November 2013 at 11:18am

      Hi Diana,
      Thanks for your query. My source had been the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography's entry on Shakespeare ( However, following your question I've looked a little further and it seems 1906 was in fact only the first known time Shakespeare's name was printed in Korean, in a magazine called Joyangbo. The first performance of Shakespeare in Korea was in 1909, of Hamlet performed in Japanese. In 1919 some of the Tales of Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb were translated into Korean. The first full translation seems to have been Hyun Chul's translation of Hamlet, serialized 1921–2 and first published in full in 1923. My sources here are Jong-hwan Kim's article 'Shakespeare in a Korean Cultural Context', published in the Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 12 no. 1, and Younglim Han's article 'Korean Shakespeare: The Anxiety of Being Invisible', published in Shakespeare Without English: The Reception of Shakespeare in Non-anglophone Countries, edd. Sukanta Chaudhuri and Chee Seng Lim.
      I'll amend the article accordingly. Apologies for being misleading, and thanks again for the prompt to look into this further.
      All best,
      Content Producer

  2. Shakespeare did borrow a little from the world's stories too, so you could say that things have come full circle. However he is nonetheless the undisputed master of the English language, so all credit due there.

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