(2 of 4)
Before they even understand why, kids are taught that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time. Most of them grow up to be adults who still believe it and who buy books. The market for Shakespeare books is too huge to measure, but in 2004, there were around 125 books by or about the Bard published in Britain alone.
It was books, tucked under the arms of England's traveling nobles and gift-bearing emissaries during the 17th century, that helped turn the Shakespeare industry into a global enterprise. Shakespeare's plays are now translated into over 70 languages including Klingon (in the fictional language from Star Trek, Hamlet's famous speech opens with "taH pagh taHbe"). "Even a bad translation conveys the sense that he's great," says Jean-Michel Déprats, editor of Shakespeare's complete works for France's La Pléiade Library editions and translator of more than 30 of his plays. "The extreme brevity of Shakespeare's language is problematic. Like his use of monosyllables, which are bound to be longer in [some languages]. The difficulty is trying not to lose what's important. For me, it's the rhythm, the performability, the physicality of the language."
Translation demands interpretation, which leaves behind cultural fingerprints. Every time Shakespeare's texts are morphed into another tongue, they become as much a product of that nation as they are of the author himself. Granted honorary citizenship, he's elbowed his way alongside literary heavyweights like Germany's Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Russia's Leo Tolstoy and France's Voltaire, becoming the international favorite. In Russia, for example, Hamlet is performed more than any other play. "Hardly any other country ever knew such veneration of a play, or of a playwright," says Alexey Bartoshevitch, distinguished Shakespeare scholar and professor at the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Theater Arts. "At some point, Shakespeare ceased to be perceived as a phenomenon of a foreign-language culture and emerged as one of Russian psyche and Russian art. In different times, different Shakespeare plays come forth. Now, they turn to The Merchant of Venice to muse on xenophobia, something dangerous and deeply rooted both in mankind and Russian culture. In the 1960s, everybody understood that Richard III was about the Stalinist terror. Now, the play finds a new angle directors look at the roots of Richard's complexes of ugliness, deformity and loneliness that have made him such a depraved, sadistic, horrible creature. It's an attempt to explain rather than forgive."
To Thine Own Will Be True
For as long as people have been reading Shakespeare, there have been people writing about reading Shakespeare. In the 20th century, Shakespeare criticism took off, fueled by the emergence of new schools of literary theory and spawning a whole new minimarket in publishing. Scholars and critics broke up into camps, each espousing its own way of understanding the Bard. These days, rivalries between them can play out like one of his epic tragedies. Feminists, looking at the plays from a woman's point of view, clash with Freudians and their Oedipal obsessions; Marxist critics wield their political theories against Christian critics and their Biblical ones. Most recently, the New Historicists who, led by their founding father, U.S. scholar Stephen Greenblatt, read Shakespeare's plays in historical context have come up against the most well-known (and vocal) critic of them all. That would be Bloom. He believes literature should be read on purely aesthetic terms, removed from history or politics, and calls New Historicism "[Michel] Foucault and soda water."
All this bickering might help nudge up sales, but the big business is in biographies. "Most academics want to write about Shakespeare's plays," says Greenblatt. "The paradox is that most nonacademics want to read about Shakespeare's life." In 2004, Greenblatt's Will in the World came out to critical acclaim and went on to become a best seller. In the past few years, biographies like Frank Kermode's The Age of Shakespeare, Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography and James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare have all sold well on the promise of trying to reveal what made Shakespeare tick. "If you think of the plays as letters that had been sent to you by a dead person who somehow knew your name, you'd want to know who that person was," says Greenblatt.