2014 is the UK-Russia Year of Culture. We will be able to enjoy Malevich and the Russian avant-garde at the Tate Modern, Russian space mission exhibits at the Science Museum, and productions by the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Musical Academic Theatre, and concerts by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and so on. There will also be a collaborative production of War by the contemporary Russian playwright Yury Klavdiev as part of the International Chekhov Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival’s shared centenary First World War theme.
Meanwhile Britain is sending over James Bond in the ‘Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style’ exhibition at the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum. Is this in ironic deference to the dapper President Putin’s former role in the Soviet intelligence services, fresh from his controversially genial interview with journalist Andrew Marr earlier this month?
The geniality between Putin and Marr has been controversial because of the countries’ strained relations in recent years. Here I don’t want to discuss the state of UK-Russian relations, their differences over Syria or Ukraine, or either country’s human rights’ records, explored in other writings and blogs, but to consider Shakespeare’s role in international cultural diplomacy.
The UK-Russia Year of Culture would not be complete without some Shakespeare, especially on his 450th birthday. The Globe Theatre will be touring Russia for the first time, with productions of Hamlet, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Chekhov International Festival.
Shakespeare declared ‘all the world’s a stage’ (As You Like It, Act II Scene VII). Shakespeare’s work, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and increasingly the resurrected Globe Theatre, are centre-stage in British cultural diplomacy. We saw this in the organisation of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival alongside the 2012 London Olympics. The linked Globe to Globe programme brought together Shakespeare’s 37 plays, performed in 37 different languages, to Shakespeare’s Globe.
Cultural exchange remains an integral aspect of a state’s international diplomacy and its international standing. Countries often have specific organisations to promote their international cultural relations. For Britain, the leading government body is the British Council, set up in 1934. Its work was originally directly conducted through British embassies and high commissions, before branching out into a network of its own centres. The Council’s core objectives, set out in a Royal Charter, include ‘promoting cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures between people and peoples of the United Kingdom and other countries’. Shakespeare has been at the heart of promoting British cultural relations for the British Council and its cultural diplomatic partners.
That Shakespeare should be at the heart of British cultural relations is hardly surprising given Shakespeare’s status as ‘the symbol of literature in English’. Shakespeare was writing at a pivotal time in the forging of the modern nation, and new global encounters and conflicts. Indeed Shakespeare became directly engaged in cultural diplomatic service to the realm when his company became The King’s Men and had to entertain King James’s court and visiting dignitaries. In keeping with this UK-Russian Year of Culture, it has been argued that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed before Queen Elizabeth’s court and the Russian Ambassador under Tsar Boris Godunov, after ratifying a treaty between their countries. Scholars have suggested this visit may have inspired Shakespeare’s lines on the missing Duke in Measure for Measure:
Some say he is with the Emperor of Russia (Act III, Scene II)
Or again Shakespeare making Hermione in The Winter’s Tale daughter of the emperor of Russia.
Fast-forwarding from Shakespeare’s services to Tudor and Jacobean cultural diplomacy, Shakespeare was conscripted into defence of the realm during the Second World War. The 1944 film of Henry V staring Lawrence Olivier served as patriotic wartime propaganda for both the British public and their transatlantic US cousins.
Shakespeare enjoys a national export role where post-industrial Britain increasingly projects itself abroad through English language teaching, education and culture. If officials in the 1990s preferred to project a ‘Cool Britannia’ of pop music and Britart, the 2010s have seen more close identification with Shakespeare. Symbolically the 2012 London Olympics opened with the actor Kenneth Branagh, well-known for his Henry V screen performance, declaring:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. (Act III, Scene II)
Yet if Shakespeare’s works – here The Tempest – have been deployed for official patriotic ends, they actually offer a more ambivalent Our Island Story than Prime Minister David Cameron’s favourite childhood book. All those violent tragedies by the King’s Player about killing the king.
Shakespeare’s works defy official efforts to project a smooth harmonious national message domestically and internationally. Leo Tolstoy was not wrong in famously denouncing Shakespeare for failing to provide a solid moral vision and clear spiritual guidance.
Moreover Shakespeare’s iconic national cultural status was only really consolidated through foreign enthusiasm for the bard and his appropriation to spur other national cultural traditions. This appropriation was initiated by German intellectuals in the eighteenth century, who argued that key Enlightenment ideals were not universal, but reflected dominant French cultural judgements. Shakespeare, Herder’s 1773 essay outlined, did not slavishly follow the neoclassical models of drama, but appropriated the spirit of the classical tradition to advance new national cultural forms. Shakespeare therefore could be invoked to legitimise efforts to develop an independent national culture. Such was the enthusiastic engagement with Shakespeare that German theatre and scholarship forged a sophisticated understanding of Shakespeare’s work that had yet to develop in Britain, as the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne advised the young Queen Victoria in 1838.
Coincidently Lord Melbourne’s praise of German scholarship was given on the same evening they discussed how ‘the Emperor of Russia [Tsar Nicholas I] was beginning to sink under the immense weight and fatigue of governing such an empire as Russia’. Sleeplessness is a perennial theme of Shakespeare’s kings weighed down by sovereign responsibilities and the guilt of their deeds. Consider Henry IV’s famous soliloquy:
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hushed with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum bell? […]
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And, in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. (Act 3, Scene I)
German national cultural engagement with Shakespeare was echoed in other European countries, including Russia. In the mid-eighteenth century, Catherine the Great had helped pioneer Russian interest in Shakespeare through her loose adaptions of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens into Russian, along with two historical plays imitating Shakespeare. But it was the European Romantic movement and the rise of Russian national consciousness against the Napoleonic invasion that spurred Russian cultural engagement with Shakespeare. Young officers involved in the war against Napoleon and the 1825 Decembrist Uprising against Tsar Nicholas I found inspiration from Shakespeare to oppose tyranny and develop Russian national culture. Notably Alexander Pushkin, founder of Russia’s great national literary tradition, drew on Shakespeare, arguing that ‘the national laws of the Shakespearean drama are appropriate for any theater’. Shakespeare crucially wrote his own national rules, and thereby suggested other writers could do the same. ‘It is not that we ought to imitate Shakespeare’, Pushkin declares, rather ‘we ought to write in the spirit of our age as Shakespeare did in his’. It is in this spirit that Pushkin describes his historical tragedy Boris Godunov, as ‘arranged…according to the system of our Father Shakespeare’. Pushkin’s engagement of historical subject was apt, given Boris Godunov’s ambassador, highlighted earlier, might have seen an original performance of a Shakespeare play. Incidentally Stratford theatre goers could enjoy an RSC production of Pushkin’s tragedy Boris Godunov last year.
What did Pushkin mean by writing in the spirit of the age? For Pushkin, Shakespeare sought to understand tragic historical conflicts objectively through presenting different viewpoints. Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece War and Peace shares a tragic sense of history with Shakespeare, but Tolstoy we saw condemned Shakespeare for his amorality. Conversely Soviet Russia, encouraged by Marx’s love of Shakespeare, adopted Shakespeare to its internationalist canon as a writer depicting the common people as observers and potential actors in history. Consequently British student visitors to the Soviet Russia during the Cold War might find their young Communist hosts confront them with rather better knowledge of Shakespeare, Byron, or The Beatles’ lyrics than themselves. (I was one such visitor).
Just as British diplomacy has sought to display its cultural capital through Shakespeare, so too have other nations. An international Shakespearean cultural tradition developed supporting national cultural traditions towards a world of independent nation states against previous claims to empire. Shakespeare is therefore an actor on the international cultural diplomatic stage that the diversity of states may entertain and appropriate. At the same time, Shakespeare’s plays have also offered critical exploration of tyrannies and abuses of power.
While Pushkin and the Decembrists were particularly drawn to Hamlet, the most popular Shakespearean tragedy in the Soviet era was Othello. It was apparently Stalin’s favourite play. We can speculate on the reasons why: Stalin seeing himself as the outsider to the Moscow elite; Stalin seeing himself as the tragic hero duped into false persecution by an Iago-like secret services plotting around him. Researcher Jill Bates in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Nottingham is completing a fascinating study on Shakespeare’s reception in Russia and will be able to answer our speculations.
What might be the favourite Shakespearean plays of our current political leaders? And what insights into their characters might we glean from their choice? Putin in his interview with Andrew Marr spoke about the need for leaders to know when to step down from power. But neither Putin or Cameron is likely to choose King Lear. Internet speculation gives Cameron’s favourite as Romeo and Juliet. This choice fits neatly with Cameron’s speech in defence of a small island’s achievements, listing Shakespeare alongside the teenage cultural exports of One Direction and The Beatles. So what about the Russian president? Analogies were made in the press to Putin and Julius Caesar when the RSC brought its acclaimed production onto tour to Russia in 2012. Is he a Henry IV sleeping uneasily with his crown? Or perhaps Putin identifies with Twelfth Night and Malvolio’s line that has inspired kings, kingmakers, pretenders and republican opponents alike:
some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em (Act II, Scene V)
What will the cultural legacy be of this Year of Culture? Even if official relations remain shaky, might not cultural exchanges between ordinary Russian and British citizens be opened up, borrowing from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which:
will out last a night in Russia
When nights are longest there. (Act II, Scene I).
Vanessa Pupavac is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance was published by Palgrave.