Shakespeare’s plots and characters are as alive and relevant today as they were in the 16th century Image Credit: Shutterstock

In 2014, the British Council asked 5,000 young adults around the world to name a person they associated with British culture, identity, and the arts. Queen Elizabeth, J.K. Rowling, and David Beckham all came back as answers, but at the top of the list was someone just a little bit older: William Shakespeare.

The fact that Shakespeare looms so large in global perceptions of the UK is perhaps not surprising, despite the fact that he was born more than 450 years ago.

Though he came from modest beginnings — he was born in a rural market town and probably didn’t go to university — Shakespeare has become one of the most performed, quoted, taught, and widely read authors in history.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of that activity took place in England, Shakespeare’s home country. Artists and thinkers celebrated Shakespeare’s creative power and pointed to it as an example of British achievement.

Shakespear work at MBR Library Dubai
First edition of Shakespeare’s edited works Image Credit: Supplied

National poet

He became the country’s unofficial ‘national poet’, in the words of my colleague Michael Dobson, and this deep association between Shakespeare and British culture survives to this day.

What is sometimes less appreciated, however, is how far Shakespeare has travelled beyond the UK, and how much he has become the creative property of countries far from his homeland.

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By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his complete works had been translated into most European languages, and by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they had found their way into the libraries and onto the stages of countries across Asia and the Arab world.

A great deal of that travel was a consequence of the British Empire, reminding us of how literature can be as much a tool of political subjugation as one of intellectual liberation. But once Shakespeare’s plays found audiences in countries far from the UK, they also became a way of challenging imperial power and celebrating local languages, art forms, and cultures.

Under the seemingly safe and conservative label of ‘Shakespeare’, translators and adaptors have used the plays to respond to political debates and to speak out about controversial issues that might otherwise be censored.

Shakespeare has found a place in so many other countries’ national histories and traditions Image Credit: Supplied

Increasing visibility

In recent decades, adaptations of Shakespeare from the Arab world have become increasingly visible at international theatre festivals.

In the early 2000s, the Kuwaiti theatre-maker Sulayman Al-Bassam wrote and directed The Al-Hamlet Summit and Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, both of which used Shakespeare’s plays as a way to explore relations between the Arab world and western countries.

A few years later, several Arab-language productions of Shakespeare featured in the 2012 London Olympic celebrations.

These included a Sudanese Cymbeline, a Tunisian Macbeth, a Palestinian Richard II, and an Iraqi Romeo and Juliet. While all these productions found inspiration in Shakespeare’s writing, they also took it in dramatically new directions, responding to their own cultural heritage and political concerns.

Today, Shakespeare is a global citizen, ranging widely across languages and cultures and finding continued life on the stage, in film, and on the internet. He might have come from England, but he thrives thanks to the creativity of artists and thinkers around the world.

Perhaps that’s why he came in at the top of the British Council’s list: not because he is so intrinsically British, but because he has found a place in so many other countries’ national histories and traditions.

Dr Erin Sullivan teaches at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham