Literature

From Stratford to Shanghai: An Interview with the Globetrotting Shakespeare Expert, Professor Michael Dobson

As the most influential and widely revered writer in the English language, William Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) plays have captivated audiences around the world for centuries. Translated into well over 80 languages, his timeless works continue to be a staple of the modern theater scene. From the heart-wrenching tragedies of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, to the comedic wit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s plays offer something for everyone. Even after four centuries, the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s work is a testament to his enduring genius.

Professor Michael Dobson, the Director of the Shakespeare Institute, is a renowned expert on Shakespeare, having previously taught at other top institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, and the University of London. He has also held research fellowships and visiting appointments in countries around the world, and has given lectures on Shakespeare in more than 35 different countries. He has published numerous books and articles on Shakespeare, including The Making of the National PoetThe Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare: A Playgoer’s and Reader’s Guide.


Simply Charly: In your opinion, what makes William Shakespeare’s works so enduring and universal in their appeal?

Michael Dobson: For me, Shakespeare’s brilliance as a playwright lies in his uncanny ability to step back and let his stories unfold without getting in the way. His characters seem to be free to navigate their own paths, regardless of any authorial influence. They appear on stage as if their sole duty is to be themselves and to speak and think as such. The plays are not didactic; they do not seek to prove a moral point or demonstrate a particular theory. Instead, they simply portray the events and the people involved with an immediacy and vividness that allows the audience to understand them. We are not burdened with unnecessary details about the characters’ backgrounds or circumstances, and there is no narrator putting a distance between us and the characters, as there might be in other forms of storytelling. The characters are often in moments of crisis in their family or political lives, and their stories may belong to fairytales, myths, or history, yet suddenly in the theatre, they are real people in the same room with us, happening to us and each other in real-time. I wouldn’t claim that these plays are ‘universally’ appealing (my sisters don’t like them much!), but after four centuries of continual eager performance and enjoyment worldwide they are definitely enduring.

SC: What inspired you to become a Shakespeare scholar, and how did you first become interested in his works?

MD: My love for Shakespeare began with my first attendance at a live performance of his work. Growing up in a seaside town with limited theatre options, I missed out on some fantastic productions, like Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1970 to 73. However, my parents loved theatre (they met in an amateur dramatic society), and I eventually caught up on Shakespearean performances. I got hooked on the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1970s and I have been lucky enough to work with some of the actors I first saw in that company back then—Alan Rickman, Juliet Stevenson, David Suchet, Janet Suzman…

My interest in Shakespeare was piqued in school when we studied Macbeth. I loved delving into the rich language one sentence at a time. However, it wasn’t until I was 16, when the school put us in a bus all the way to Stratford to see Henry V, that everything clicked. Watching Terry Hands’ Royal Shakespeare Company production, I realized that these scripts were not literary curiosities but blueprints for possible live performances, and the language was meant to be experienced in real-time between bodies on stage.

English was already my favorite subject, and I soon discovered that performing Shakespeare’s plays was the best way to study them. While at university, I spent most of my time acting in plays, though I noticed that I was typically cast as older characters who remained fairly still and had a lot of exposition to recite. I even played the ultimate senile role of Time in The Winter’s Tale, in a production that included a young Samuel West as Florizel and Patrick Marber as Autolycus.

Realizing that my future lay in academia rather than professional theatre, I continued to nurture my love for Shakespeare by watching, studying, and teaching his works.

Although my facility at remembering blank verse and my willingness to show off certainly contributed to my continuing excitement about Shakespeare, I can’t attribute it solely to these factors. Throughout my education, I was fortunate enough to encounter a series of exceptional Shakespearean teachers, all with a strong sense of performance. At school, I was directed by Wendy Williams, a passionate Welshwoman who cast me in a string of small parts in Hamlet—a non-speaking courtier, the actor who plays Lucianus the poisoner, and the priest at Ophelia’s funeral. Decades later, she requested that I read ‘Our revels now are ended…’ at her funeral. As an undergraduate at Oxford, I had the pleasure of being taught by Peter Conrad, a dazzling prose stylist and cultural critic who wrote brilliantly and playfully about Shakespeare. Later, as a graduate student, I was fortunate to have Stanley Wells as a mentor. He is probably the greatest Shakespearean scholar of his generation and is one of Judi Dench’s closest friends. I was lucky to have him in Oxford during my doctoral studies, as he was editing the ground-breaking Oxford edition of Shakespeare at the time before returning to the Shakespeare Institute as its director. I also had the opportunity to teach Shakespeare at Harvard as a visiting scholar while writing my Oxford D.Phil—though I admit that I primarily went there in pursuit of the woman who became my wife, Nicola Watson, who was there on a fellowship. We both had the privilege of leading discussion classes and grading for Marjorie Garber, whose wit, energy, and style I strive to emulate to this day. Finally, I must mention my grandfather John Berriman, a stage-struck amateur who helped set up the non-professional theatre in his home city of Middlesbrough and who played the Ghost in Hamlet for them in 1951.

SC: Could you discuss your research and publications, and how they have contributed to our understanding of Shakespeare and his plays?

MD: I eventually dedicated a book to my grandfather, called Shakespeare and Amateur Performance (2011), which is, in many ways, a supplement to my first book, The Making of the National Poet (1992). One day, I walked into a bookshop in Oxford and found a stack of remaindered books published by the Cornmarket Press. These were facsimiles of acting versions of Shakespeare produced between the later seventeenth century and the mid-nineteenth. They were fascinating because the plays had been drastically rewritten in some cases, and it became immediately obvious that something I had always assumed—that Shakespeare’s plays had been continuously popular and admired from his time to ours—was true, but not quite in the way that I had imagined it to be true. What was really striking was that the exact period which had first decided that Shakespeare was central to English-speaking culture was also the period that had felt the need to change some of his scripts to prove it. David Garrick, the actor-manager who had been the first self-declared Shakespearean actor, had been one of the people who had done a lot of the rewriting—shortening The Taming of the Shrew into Catherine and Petruchio, cutting The Winter’s Tale into Florizel and Perdita, cutting the gravediggers out of Hamlet and keeping Laertes alive to take over Denmark at the end. Going to America when I did, as a British expatriate, to write about the making of modern British national identity clarified and energized all sorts of things, and seeing performances and talking with scholars and translators in other countries continues to do so. The book is still in print, and I hope it has been useful to other people too.

I have continued to explore the intersection of culture and changing ideas of national identity, often focusing on the idealized version of “Shakespeare’s England”. This is the subject of a book I co-wrote with Nicola, England’s Elizabeth (2002), which examines representations of Elizabeth I (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Englands-Elizabeth-Afterlife-Fame-Fantasy/dp/0198183771). Nicola and I are fascinated by how readers and theatregoers enact their literary and theatrical preferences, from founding amateur theatre groups to making pilgrimages to literary destinations like Stratford or erecting statues to Shakespeare.

My work has also continued to explore how Shakespeare’s plays interact with the changing cultural environment around them, both in professional and amateur productions, and both within and outside of the English-speaking world. For instance, I recently published an essay in the French journal Cahiers Elisabethains on French responses to Shakespeare, entitled “Molière à Shakespeare”. Furthermore, one of my great joys is participating in a weekly online meeting with colleagues from the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive. Our task is to write annotations for video recordings of recent Asian performances of Shakespeare. Currently, we are working on Uruwang, a Korean opera based on King Lear in which Lear becomes the legendary Uru and Cordelia becomes Uru’s daughter Bari, who restores him to sanity by embarking on a quest for sacred water, eventually becoming the founding semi-divine patroness of Korean shamanism.

For those interested in Shakespeare’s plays and their afterlives, I would recommend The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, which Stanley Wells and I published in 2001 and have updated regularly with help from others (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-oxford-companion-to-shakespeare-9780198708735?cc=gb&lang=en&), or its more condensed version, Shakespeare: A Playgoer’s and Reader’s Guide (2020), (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/shakespeare-a-playgoers-and-readers-guide-9780198855231?q=playgoer%27s%20and%20reader%27s%20guide%20dobson&lang=en&cc=gb ).

SC: What has enabled Shakespeare’s plays to stay alive in so many theatrical repertories and cultural contexts subsequent to his own?

DB: Shakespeare’s plays are both strong and flexible. They are plural and generous, allowing for editing and reshaping. Shakespeare’s writing is marked by his ability to convey faith without being sidetracked by doctrine, and by his preference for truth over fact. This has greatly helped his plays to outlive his specific time and place.

During Shakespeare’s period, the theatre in England was both a popular commercial institution and an art form that could achieve true artistic distinction. Unlike some Italian city-states that established court-only royally-funded companies catering to the tastes of a narrow elite, English monarchs just hired in successful commercial companies to perform at their palaces. As a result, literary drama in Renaissance England was inclusive and willing to experiment with all sorts of entertainment.

Shakespeare was a shareholder in his own company and therefore did not need to collaborate as much as his fellow writers did. He had an interest in producing scripts that would remain popular over a longer period, and his plays reflect this approach. They incorporate tricks, motifs, and tropes from religious drama, popular folk entertainments, ballads, Roman tragedies, bear-baitings, chronicle history books, other plays in which he had acted, contemporary stand-up comedy, courtly sonneteering, and more. This rich variety has made them remarkably resilient over time.

Every new period, innovation, and territory has been able to create something powerful out of Shakespeare’s works. For example, Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a great baroque semi-opera, while David Garrick’s version of Much Ado About Nothing, in which he cast himself as Benedick, was a great realist sitcom production. Henry Irving’s Macbeth was a great Gothic spectacle, and Verdi’s Otello is a great Italian opera. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a great MTV-influenced teen movie.

Shakespeare’s plays are endlessly adaptable and appeal to a wide range of audiences. They are always open to interpretation and adaptation, which is part of their enduring appeal. The history of Shakespeare in performance is a conversation between his scripts and every change of taste, technical innovation, and new medium from his time to ours. There is no ‘authentic’ or ‘definitive’ performance of his plays; instead, there is only adaptation and interpretation. Shakespeare never let mere facts distract him from truths, and we should not pursue some fantasy of historical authenticity when staging his plays. The plays interact with the changing world around them, and adaptation and interpretation are integral to what they are.

SC: How do actors approach playing a Shakespearean character, particularly in regard to the language and verse?

MD: Most actors, both in English-speaking countries and beyond, are eager to perform Shakespearean roles whenever possible. Shakespeare was an actor himself, and he wrote brilliantly for his fellow performers, giving them plenty of room for interpretation. He gives actors more words to speak and act than do most other writers for the stage, too. While some present-day performers try to simulate their idea of what the gestures and speech of Elizabethan actors might have been like (often sounding like overacting pirates in the process!), most approach a Shakespeare play as they would any other, treating the material as new.

One key to performing Shakespeare is mastering the verse, becoming familiar with the structure of long Elizabethan sentences, and confident in one’s ability to make old words sound new and clear throughout a demanding performance. Sir Simon Russell Beale is an actor who excels at playing Shakespearean roles, such as Richard III, Ariel, Hamlet, Malvolio, Thersites, King Lear, and Prospero. Along with myself and Shakespeare Institute colleague Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Beale is editing a series of editions of Shakespeare plays specifically designed for use in rehearsal rooms, called the Arden Performance Editions of Shakespeare. For this series, the introductions don’t delve into previous performance history or interpretations, instead leaving it up to each actor to decide how to approach their role.

The Arden Performance Editions provide carefully curated texts as close as possible to what Shakespeare’s company would have used, and they offer both versions of certain speeches where early editions from Shakespeare’s time offer legitimate choices between possible first drafts and revisions. The notes explain unfamiliar words and names, paraphrase complicated sentences, and demonstrate how the verse works. The concise notes leave plenty of blank space for actors to scribble their own notes about stage business. The success of the Arden Performance Editions suggests that actors want support in understanding the material and delivering it well, without being overwhelmed by extraneous information.

I have also compiled a book of essays by actors discussing their approach to playing Shakespeare’s tragic characters. Performing Shakespeare’s Tragedies Today (2006) features contributions from actors including Simon among others such as Imogen Stubbs, Tony Sher, and David Warner, who share their insights into playing characters like Gertrude, Iago, and King Lear.

SC: Could you discuss the role of the director and the creative team in bringing a Shakespearean play to the stage, and how you have collaborated with these individuals in the past?

MD: Directors definitely have a different approach when it comes to working with scholars. While actors may occasionally send me a text message asking for clarification on a particular word or phrase in a play they’re rehearsing, directors tend to be more demanding, or sometimes less so. Some directors will call me after they’ve already made all of their decisions about a play and ask me to write a program note that explains why their interpretation is the best one. Others, who don’t attend many productions by other directors, will ask me about all the other productions of a play that they missed, hoping to avoid mistakes and steal ideas from their competitors.

But there are also a few directors who really want to explore the Shakespeare script they’re working on and bounce ideas off someone who has already spent time thinking about it. One such director is Lucy Bailey, who has directed some amazing productions of Shakespeare for the RSC and for Shakespeare’s Globe. I remember discussing Timon of Athens with her, as she was preparing for her fantastic production at the Globe, which was haunted by carrion birds. We talked about how Timon develops a relationship with the audience in the second half of the play, after he no longer wants to interact with any of the other characters.

We also talked about Macbeth, and how she wanted to turn the entire Globe into a vision of hell, where the Macbeths’ marriage would initially seem like a refuge. And I remember how lucky I was that the first week of my new job as director of the Shakespeare Institute coincided with the early stages of her superb RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew. Lucy was particularly interested in using the marital bed as a symbolic prop, so she brought her designer to the Institute, and we all discussed the play from different angles. I introduced her to Liz Sharrett, a Ph.D. student who was writing about Elizabethan beds, and the set for the show ended up transforming the entire thrust stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre into a giant double bed, with Christopher Sly asleep in one corner and having various misadventures across it in between scenes.

SC: How do you think Shakespeare’s plays have been received by different audiences and cultures around the world, and how have these reactions differed?

MD: Here follows a flippant summary of how Shakespeare is understood in a selection of different countries:

Germany: Shakespeare ist unser Shakespeare. It is a mere freak of literary history that he wrote in the offshore Germanic dialect now known as English, as has been obvious since Goethe and Schiller re-founded our national literary tradition on his works, and as has been even more so since we established the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft (1864), the world’s first national Shakespeare society, before we even established a unified German state.

Italy: Shakespeare is a belated expression of the Italian Renaissance, and all his best plays are about us anyway.

France: Shakespeare is an exciting Romantic writer, who does ghosts and folklore and storms and passions in a way in which our neoclassicists weren’t allowed to, and we belatedly admit that he is more fun, which is why we now stage him more than we do Molière or Racine.

Denmark: Shakespeare’s most famous play is all about us.

Norway: Shakespeare’s most famous play is all about us beating the Danes for a change.

Croatia: Twelfth Night is ours because our coastline used to be called Ilyria.

Romania: Pericles is ours because it mentions Transylvania, admittedly in an offhand remark about a customer from a Greek brothel who has just died of a venereal infection.

All of the above: Shakespeare is the European genius we all have in common.

Russia: Shakespeare is intensely serious about death in a way that makes him more akin to Dostoevsky than to most of those trivial-minded decadent foreign entertainers. This is why we understand and perform him far better than do the corrupt liberals of Western Europe.

Japan: Shakespeare is the acceptable face of foreign culture, because he writes great parts for female impersonators, and his plays, though relatively young, are at times interestingly akin to Noh and Kabuki and Kyogen, so that they provide us with pretexts for mixing them up a bit for a change.

India: we got taught this stuff officially under the Raj but it got out into popular culture and indigenous popular theatre and Bollywood and now we can’t really tell which endlessly recycled plot motifs we got from Shakespeare and which we got from the Mahabharata.

China: We may be instructed to adapt some of this stuff into Peking opera during those short periods when official policy is nominally in favour of selectively admitting some of the approved classics of world culture.

The USA: this olde worlde stuff is sort of cute if you only regard the royal bits as ancien regime kitsch, and anyway we are the last real swashbuckling Elizabethan adventurers, so it’s ours.

Canada: Christopher Plummer’s English accent is nearly as good as Richard Burton’s, really it is, and we’re terribly sorry abote it if it isn’t.

More generally, hearing Shakespeare in non-Anglophone countries, spoken in new, fresh, modern translations, can be much more enabling than hearing it in the English-speaking world, where his poetry can sound over-familiar or quaint or burdened with connotations of obedience tests endured compulsorily in classrooms. But many countries first produced what remain their ‘classic’ translations of Shakespeare during the nineteenth century, and many of those translations cut or miss the jokes and go in for a generalized noble national seriousness. When my friend Martin Hilsky translated the entire Shakespeare canon faithfully, accurately, and without bowdlerization into Czech, he was vilified in the press for supposedly introducing all sorts of obscenity into the plays—simply because the versions the journalists and their readers had grown up with had been old, Victorian, euphemistic versions.

SC: How do you think Shakespeare’s plays and language have evolved over time, and what changes have you seen in productions and performances?

MD: Beyond the English-speaking world, the tragedies were often the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be translated and performed, providing big roles for star actors. As a result, Shakespeare is in many places thought of mainly as a writer of tragedies, perpetually giving important people mortal wounds to prompt their memorable poetic final speeches. This is a one-sided and odd view of a writer who wrote more comedies than tragedies, and whose tragic protagonists often have a strong sense of black humor even in their worst agonies. However, things are changing. My favorite experiences as a theatergoer over the last decade have been at international Shakespeare festivals, where I have seen wonderful English-language productions by companies like Cheek by Jowl or Flute Theatre, as well as work from all over the world. The biennial Craiova festival in Romania has been particularly fruitful. During their first visit in 2010, the program consisted of a production of Hamlet every night and a matinee. Yet, every production felt new and fascinating.

One local change in the Anglophone world is that some directors nowadays feel frustrated by the archaism of Shakespeare’s vocabulary. They paraphrase what they consider obscure or misleading-sounding phrases. I sometimes despair of ever again hearing Hamlet say, “By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!” again, even though the word “let” in the sense of “impediment” is still used in every lawn tennis match in the world. However, a more welcome change is a general widening of the demographic when it comes to casting. Shakespeare did not write for a cis-gender, realist theatre, and his female roles were played by males during his time. Therefore, it is good to see performers from a wider range of backgrounds and genders getting to bring the characters to life. My friend Amanda Harris was a wonderful Katharina for the RSC in the early 1990s. However, she got many more lines as Baptista in their gender-swapped production of The Taming of the Shrew in 2017, and she was just as funny.

SC: In your opinion, what are some of the most challenging aspects of studying and teaching Shakespeare?

MD: As educators of Shakespeare’s works, we are often faced with a legacy of falsehoods, absurdities, and misconceptions that have become associated with Shakespeare over time. Some of these include bizarre and evidence-free claims about the true authorship of the plays, the assumption that Shakespeare’s audiences were uneducated and only enjoyed crude humor and violence, the oversimplification of Elizabethan society as having only a small literate elite and an ignorant majority, the belief that comedic characters in Shakespeare’s plays should always deliver their lines with a humorous accent and in a comedic style, and the notion that Shakespeare is only relevant to the English due to his stereotypical portrayal of “Merrie Englande.” Despite these challenges, teaching and studying Shakespeare is still a rewarding profession, and an ever more vital defense for civilization at a time when the value of free interpretation, shared culture, and cultural conversation are increasingly being downplayed within education systems that prioritize immediate job training and economic utility over a well-rounded education.

SC: Could you speak to your experience as a Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and an honorary governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and how these roles have informed your understanding of Shakespeare and his legacy?

MD: I’ve devoted significant effort in my scholarly career to exploring the history of staging public events and erecting monuments in honor of Shakespeare. I’ve also spent many nights and many words analyzing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances from a spectator’s perspective. I’m pleased in recent years to have been able to repay some of the debt of gratitude I have incurred in this way through contributing from behind the scenes, serving on committees responsible for making these events possible. But if given the option, I’d still choose to perform on stage, even if it meant playing Time again. I do already know the lines, if anyone is casting The Winter’s Tale

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