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400 years after his death, a new look at Shakespeare, the global brand

Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe

By Andrew Dickson

Henry Holt

512 pages, $35

By Michael D. Langan

The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death was Saturday.

Still, no reader of the Bard should be surprised to see a new book, “Worlds Elsewhere” pop up, showing how Shakespeare went global. Andrew Dickson, the author, writes regularly for “The Guardian,” has contributed to “The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare” and is a regular presenter on BBC radio.

Dickson’s dictate is to explain how a gentleman from Warwickshire who never set a foot outside England became so knowledgeable about the world he described in his plays. He was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, educated at a grammar school nearby, and he and his wife, Anne Hathaway, a local girl, had three children including twins.

On the face of it, Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) knowledge of the world should seem sparse, given his background. You see this confirmed in the Coriolanus quote above, but it wasn’t. His education, which may seem scant in our view, actually would compare favorably with some college students today.

As a playwright, Shakespeare traveled back and forth to London frequently beginning in 1592. He rented in London, traversing a few blocks each day, from the parish of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, near Southwark cathedral to the Globe or the Rose theatres, a few miles walk.

But as Dickson clarifies, while the Bard’s “physical existence was cramped and confined … his imagination roamed far and wide.” Why and how should this have been?

One reason is that there was the explosion of Elizabethan publishing during the Bard’s lifetime, particularly travel and discovery writing. And, as many know, Shakespeare took advantage of the historians Halle and Holinshed. They filled in what Dickson calls the bloody chronicles of Welsh, Scottish and French voices, along with Shakespeare’s “magpie enthusiasm” of reading Ovid and Virgil in the original, and Plutarch’s Lives in his spare time.

Of course, Shakespeare has been revered worldwide for a long time. How did the reverence develop? Somehow, Shakespeare made a lot of what he got. Nobody can explain the alchemy of literary genius very well, but we know it when we see it and it is observed in Shakespeare perhaps more than in anyone else.

Stephen Greenblatt, professor of humanities at Harvard, is the latest to try. In the April 21 issue of “The New York Review of Books” he observed, “We speak of Shakespeare’s works as if they were stable reflection of his original intentions, but they continue to circulate precisely because they are so amenable to metamorphosis. They have left his world, passed into ours, and become part of us … and will become part of others whom he could not have foreseen and whom we can barely imagine.”

Dickson expands Greenblatt’s observation when he notes, “No other writer’s work has been performed, translated, adapted and altered in such a remarkable variety of cultures and languages.”

How did Dickson come up with so much material to flesh out this huge book of discoveries? He began in 2012 by watching an Afghanistan troupe come to the Globe in London and put on a version of “The Comedy of Errors” translated into Dari Persian.

That year nearly 50 countries were invited to Britain to put on productions. Counted among them were languages that included Cantonese, Armenian, Bengali, Castilian Spanish and Palestinian Arabic.

After so many years of listening to them in Elizabethan English, our author admitted he was bored with them. Then, all of a sudden, the plays in other languages, he wrote, “had a habit of wriggling free … remade with quizzical freshness.”

Dickson realized he had to travel to countries where Shakespearean performances were prominent. He investigated Asian performance, Zulu adaptations, 18th-century French translations, productions in post-conflict Balkans.

“A route began to assemble itself, hewn from the chaos. There would be not one journey, but a series of … explorations,” including Germany, India, South Africa, and finally China.  In conversation about what he was planning, a Russian director told him, “There will be many Shakespeares.”

You don’t get the idea that Dickson is stuffy or overly academic. He seems genuinely surprised as he goes along, finding out things, and relating them to the reader in an easy way as if he’s half-surprised himself. At first I wondered at the value of the book. But as I read on, I began to admire his goal. Dickson’s no pedant, but he’s given us an equivalent travelers’ DNA of Shakespeare’s work that the more erudite seem to have missed or thought unimportant.

On his journeys, Dickson visited the air conditioned vault under the Capitol Dome, which contains more First Folios than anywhere else.

He tracked down Joseph Goebbels’ obsession with Shakespeare. He also discovered the story of the scuffed-up version of the Bard’s work on which Nelson Mandela and other Robben Island prisoners wrote their name. We are told that “The Merchant of Venice” was far and away the most popular title to be adapted in India, perhaps because, Dickson notes, “vengeful minorities and embattled minorities are everywhere.”

In the end, Dickson revised Jane Austen’s famous remark in “Mansfield Park”; “Shakespeare one gets acquainted without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s constitution.”

Now thanks most lately to Andrew Dickson, Shakespeare is a transnational “brand” and, to paraphrase Austen, is part of the world’s constitution as well.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer for The News.