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Whose Shakespeare Is ‘Our’ Shakespeare? ‒ Interview with Dr Zorica Bečanović-Nikolić

In our quest to learn more about Shakespeare’s legacy, we interviewed one of the most esteemed experts in the study of Shakespeare in Serbia ‒ Dr Zorica Bečanović-Nikolić, professor at the Department of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, University of Belgrade.

Photo: Jessie Chapman / Wikimedia Commons

Where does the necessity to understand Shakespeare stem from? What kind of knowledge does his art offer?

Shakespeare’s presence nowadays is ubiquitous, in all cultures and in all media, in popular culture and in cyber sphere… Phrases like ‘to be or not to be’, ‘the time is out of joint’, ‘something’s rotten in the state of Denmark’, ‘the winter of our discontent’… are widely familiar, sometimes even (ab)used in commercial allusions, like in the name of a British reality programme To Buy or Not to Buy. However, that doesn’t mean that many people are actively understanding Shakespeare. To understand Shakespeare, or, for that matter, any other classic: Homer, Dante, Cervantes, implies dialogue, artistic or intellectual alertness, engagement, and the ensuing aesthetic pleasure. Shakespeare’s plays touch upon just about all urgent questions one needs to answer on the path of life: about one’s self and self-understanding, like in Hamlet; about relationships with others, in family, or in love, in Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Othello, The Tempest, and in all comedies; about politics and social conflicts, in history plays, Richard III, the entire Henriad; about ambition and power in Macbeth, about race, religion, gender, like in the Merchant of Venice. The necessity to understand Shakespeare comes from the necessity to understand human condition, in all its personal and social aspects. The knowledge Shakespeare’s plays offer is a most intense experience, which ‘grows to something of great constancy, but howsoever strange, and admirable’, as Queen Hippolyta says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

How much is Shakespeare British and how much is he a universal writer?

Shakespeare is British, of course, and English, ‘The lad of all lads was a Warwickshire lad…’ as a song on Shakespeare goes. On the other hand, he is one of the greatest poets, some would say the greatest poet of the English language, which is not only British, and he is one of the most widely translated poets and playwrights, accessible in almost all languages, ‘in states unborn, and accents yet unknown’, as predicted in the words uttered by Cassius in Julius Caesar. In English and in translations, Shakespeare speaks to people around the world, inspires them to act, stage plays and direct films, write, think, feel, and communicate. Many great minds from various cultures found in Shakespeare their essential collocutor: Victor Hugo in France, Goethe and Schiller in Germany, Pushkin, Pasternak, Tarkovsky in Russian culture, Laza Kostić in Serbian culture, Akira Kurosawa in Japanese culture, and many, many others, of course, throughout the world. In 2012, all 37 Shakespeare’s plays were staged in 37 languages at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, within the Globe to Globe program. Being so widely appreciated and appropriated, Shakespeare is, undoubtedly, as much universal as he is British.

Do you think cultures affect our perception of the Bard's writing?

Every perception of any meaning is always culture-conditioned. We cannot escape our own intellectual formation, our world-picture, and our value-systems. The French, for example, before Victor Hugo, while still under the dominant influence of the aesthetics of classicism, didn’t appreciate Shakespeare’s art at all. Some of the fiercest remarks belong to Voltaire, and that is well known. The Germans, on the other hand, in the period of Romanticism, for example, as Jonathan Bate has shown in The Genius of Shakespeare, struggled to overcome the frustration they felt regarding the French culture, which was deemed superior and more sophisticated, by finding encouragement for their ‘young culture’ in Shakespeare. Not only cultural epochs and their dominant values, or national cultural traditions, but all cultural phenomena can determine the perception of Shakespeare. It took the feminist critic Coppélia Kahn, with her feminist and psychoanalytical perspective, to discover hidden femininity in King Lear. Before her essay "The Absent Mother in King Lear", Lear’s striking utterance: ‘O! how this mother swells upward toward my heart! Hysterica passio!' was not considered as something of prime significance, although many critics interpreted the play, along centuries.

To what extent do Shakespeare's works echo in our culture?

I’ve already mentioned the major poet of Serbian Romanticism, Laza Kostić. He wrote a marvelous poem On Shakespeare’s Tercentenary in 1864. The beginning of the poem glorifies Shakespeare as the masterpiece of God’s creation, and as its human continuation. The third person narrative of the beginning switches into a dialogical second person, and the poetic voice speaks directly to Shakespeare and to three of his characters until the end of the poem. The invocations of Shakespeare’s characters bring condensed interpretations of three plays, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. It is written in iambic pentameters, with resonant alliterations, evocative of Shakespeare, and not so characteristic of Serbian verse. The history plays in the nineteenth century, written by J. S. Popović, A. Nikolić, J. Subotić and Laza Kostić show certain traces and echoes of Shakespeare. One of the first psychoanalysts in our culture, Dr Hugo Klajn, wrote influential Shakespearean criticism. Poets like Svetislav Stefanović, Sima Pandurović, Stevan Raičković, translated Shakespeare. The English scholars like Vladeta Popović, Borivoje Nedić, Vida Janković, Nikola Koljević, Svetozar Koljević, Marta Frajnd, wrote on Shakespeare. The most comprehensive critical introductions to all plays we owe to Professor Veselin Kostić. Theatrical tradition of staging Shakespeare is long and influential. Some of the greatest actors played Shakespearean roles: Raša Plaović, Ljuba Tadić, Stevo Žigon, Đuđija Cvetić, Miki Manojlović.

How would you describe your approach to Shakespearean studies?

In the book Šekspir iza ogledala (Shakespeare through the Looking Glass, 2008), I have shown a conflict of interpretations discernible between the modernist and the postmodernist approaches to Shakespeare’s history plays. It is a book about hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, which shows different approaches to Shakespeare in the 20th century: from new criticism and old historicism, to deconstruction, new historicism, cultural materialism, psychoanalysis, feminist criticism. As for my approach in teaching, I would describe it as dialogical, and ‘presentist’, in a way, perhaps. I try to keep myself and the students, constantly engaged in answering the questions: what is Shakespeare’s text telling us, here and now; and how can we respond in interpretation?

Would you say the general interest in Shakespeare is anyhow detrimental? Is our reading impeded by it? Would we read his writing in the same way if we did not have the foreknowledge of his greatness?

If you free your mind from prejudices, positive or negative, you are free to converse with this great poet freely. Most of the students I know, at one point realize that. Shakespeare doesn’t have to be a distant classical value. He doesn’t have to be a pop-culture ‘icon’, either. You can study philosophy and politics, and anthropology related to Shakespeare, of course, but if you read the Sonnets, or Hamlet’s soliloquies, he whispers to your ear, in the most intimate of manners, he reaches the most discreet parts of our selves.

Has the 21st century contributed in some unique understanding/approach so far? What do you think is in store for Shakespearean studies?

I should mention ‘presentism’, advocated, at the beginning of the 21st century, by Terence Hawkes, Hugh Grady and Ewan Fernie. Then, the so called ‘spiritual turn’ in Shakespeare studies, well represented by the books of Ewan Fernie: Shame in Shakespeare (2002) and The Demonic. Literature and Experience (2013), as well as by the collection of essays Spiritual Shakespeares (2005). Richard Wilson has been very much engaged with the twentieth century German political philosophy, in his books Free Will (2013) and Worldly Shakespeare (2016), and has related his readings of Shakespeare’s plays to the contemporary global crises. One can also notice that Shakespeare Studies, which were at the end of 20th century saturated with theory, are now being more and more oriented towards comparative readings with writers from other cultures. Renaissance scholars, like Patrick Gray, explore Shakespeare in the context of the European renaissance thinkers. The British Council’s guest Ewan Fernie, who will be lecturing at Sava Center on 16th April, represents most of these tendencies. And something more: his latest book Macbeth, Macbeth (2016), co-authored with Simon Palfrey, is described by Slavoj Žižek as ‘an instant classic’. The book is published within the series entitled Beyond Criticism, which explores the radical new forms that literary criticism might take in the 21st century. One of the ways is, according to the editors: away from the abstract theory and back to the literature itself.

This article is part of our Shakespeare 400 initiative.

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