400th death anniversary of Shakespeare

The Bard's many faces

Shakespeare's works live on in the rich variety of interpretations in Asia; the old plays gain new relevance by taking in the social, cultural and political contexts of the region

In Asia, Shakespeare's works wear many faces.

Wide eyes rimmed by bold lines of make-up, gestures measured and deliberate, his Macbeth takes the stage in India in the form of a kathakali performance, a stylised classical dance drama. In Japan, Macbeth is a mediaeval samurai warrior, his tragedy filtered through the lens of noh and kyogen, the classical forms of Japanese drama and comic theatre.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, but the English playwright lives on, reincarnated the world over in a rich variety of adaptations and interpretations that give these old plays relevance and a new lease of life.

"What makes Shakespeare a source of endless fascination is not so much the answers he gives us, but the questions he raises - in what it means to be human," says Dr Andrew Hui, an assistant professor of literature at Yale-NUS College, of Shakespeare's enduring appeal.

And Asia, too, has embraced his works, first imposed on most nations here by colonial rulers, with adaptations that run the gamut from faithful to inventive, traditional to contemporary. "What makes Asian versions of Shakespeare great is that they integrate the customs, cultures and traditions of the country and people, meld it with Shakespeare and create a third new reality," says Dr Hui. "It becomes an intercultural dialogue, featuring elements and traditions from the region."

The Sunday Times takes readers around Asia for a look at some unique takes on Shakespeare's works and what they can tell us about the diverse cultures and countries in the region.


Caesar as a skinhead and Brutus as an undercover cop: Malaysian play-turned-independent film Gedebe (2003) drags Shakespeare's Roman tragedy Julius Caesar into the terse underbelly of the Malaysian underground music scene.

Shakespeare scholar Nurul Farhana Low Abdullah of Universiti Sains Malaysia tells The Sunday Times: "It stands out as a bold interrogation of power and betrayal, by setting the basic premise of Julius Caesar in the world of Malay skinhead subculture."

The film, which mainly uses the Kelantan dialect, stands out among reimaginings of Shakespeare's works in Malaysia, where themes from conflict to love are moulded to fit the sociopolitical context of a country still struggling with communal tensions and political tussles.

In Instant Cafe Theatre's English- language adaptation of The Merchant Of Venice (2000), for instance, directors Jo Kukathas and Rey Buono took the tension between Christians and Jews in the Bard's original and repositioned it as a fraught relationship between Malay and Chinese communities. In Malaysia, Malays enjoy special rights as enshrined by the constitution, while the Chinese are still considered by some Malays as immigrants.

And Macbeth and Julius Caesar translate easily for an audience from the Malay world who would be familiar with a feudalistic social order, since Malay culture is traditionally feudalistic in nature, explained Dr Nurul in a paper in 2012.

But Romeo And Juliet, the tale of star-crossed lovers, is also among the most beloved of Shakespeare's plays in Malaysia. To Dr Nurul, "the whole idea of forbidden love, family feuds... I think that is very in tune with the Malay world".

The main stumbling block when it comes to Shakespeare in Malaysia is language and the public's misconceptions of his work as archaic.

Performing group KL Shakespeare Players specialises in presenting condensed Shakespeare plays, accompanied by narration in easily understandable English, with a sprinkling of the vernacular.

"It's said that only about 5 per cent of the vocabulary Shakespeare uses differs from what we use. With some explanation, the 5 per cent can be made understandable, especially if theatregoers are regularly exposed to Shakespeare plays that deliver the text with clarity and truth,"says Lim Soon Heng, a veteran actor with the group.

The Bard, too, has done well in traditional forms. His works were performed as bangsawan, or Malay opera, in Malaysia as far back as the early 20th century.

In both Indonesia and Malaysia, his plays have been put on as wayang kulit performances.

In Bali in the 1980s, Gambuh Macbeth - a staging of the Scottish play in the style of the traditional Balinese dance drama - emerged, presented in several temples.

Its director I Kadek Suardana recalled in an essay in 2002: "When I first read the play in Indonesian translation, I never thought about Scotland or England."

In the tragedy, Scottish general Macbeth, consumed by ambition, kills the king to take the throne - and is then riven with guilt and paranoia. This, Suardana thought, is a powerful illustration of the karmic debt accumulated when a rightful path (dharma) is abandoned.

The principles of kharma and dharma resonated with Balinese Hindu philosophical principles and the glimpses of power and ambition, he found, mirrored those of former Indonesian president Suharto and his wife.


The Bard still lies in the shadow of the Thai king who introduced Shakespeare's works to his nation.

While Shakespeare came to a number of Asian nations on the wave of colonisation, Thailand imported Shakespeare out of the perceived need to "Westernise" itself.

English-educated King Vajiravudh (1880-1925) took on the task of translating some plays into Thai - The Merchant Of Venice in 1916, As You Like It in 1921 and Romeo And Juliet in 1922 - and adapted Othello into a Thai traditional dance drama in 1925, transplanting them into a context more easily recognised by his people.

In his Othello, for instance, the head general is sent to suppress Malay pirates and is promised the position of ruler of Malacca Island if he succeeds.

Dr Paradee Tungtang, a Khon Kaen University lecturer who has studied Shakespeare's works in Thailand, says the Bard intimidates readers who "praise and enjoy the King's translations more than they do the original works".

She adds: "The King's works are so famous that, to some extent (his) name overshadows that of the original playwright. His translated works ostensibly become 'original' in their own right."

Recently, Shakespeare's leap to the silver screen was foiled by controversy: Shakespeare Must Die - an adaptation of Macbeth by director Ing Kanjanavanit, touted as the first Thai Shakespearean film - was banned in the country as censors ruled that it "has content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation".

With its focus on greed and the struggle for power, the film played on heightened political sensitivities sparked by the 2006 coup that toppled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. The film has documentary footage of military crackdowns on anti-government protests, a character named Dear Leader who bears a resemblance to Thaksin and a murderer in a red cloak - the same hue won by pro-Thaksin demonstrators.

Director Ing Kanjanavanit said in her statement then that the people were "living through Shake- spearean times".

"High drama in the streets, in the courts, in parliament, everywhere we go. Rage and hatred, spin doctors staging obscene plays within the play, piling lies upon lies, you name it," she said.


Mining Asia for its rich cultural offerings - from Indonesian gamelan music and silat to Peking opera and the Thai classical dance khon - Singapore director Ong Keng Sen juxtaposed diverse traditions and art forms to give Shakespeare's works an Asian pulse.

In his Shakespeare-inspired trilogy - Lear (1997), Desdemona (2000) and Search:Hamlet (2002) - cultures and languages collided in a groundbreaking experiment. Out went Shakespeare's verse, in came each actor speaking his native tongue.

"Cosmopolitism was the motivating force of Ong's Shakespeare, visually and intellectually," wrote Shakespeare scholar Dennis Kennedy, who is emeritus professor and fellow in Trinity College Dublin.

Singapore, founded on an ideal of multi-ethnicity and cultural equality, offers "a vision of the mixed cultural world of the future", he wrote in the foreword of a book Shakespeare In Culture.

With Lear, for instance, Ong emphasised this by using actors from countries such as Japan, China and Thailand, each embodying traditional art forms: a Japanese noh actor played the deposed king, while his cunning daughter was a Peking opera singer.

Shakespeare plays, in various forms and languages, are a mainstay of Singapore theatre.

Since 1997, the Singapore Repertory Theatre's Shakespeare In The Park series has served up the Bard in an outdoor setting, sticking closely to the original script while exploring different approaches to it. Last year, it put an Asian twist on The Tempest, featuring ghostly creatures in long gowns, reminiscent of Sadako from the 1998 Japanese horror movie The Ring.

Also last year, playwright-director Najib Soiman incorporated the Kelantanese dance-drama mak yong for his take on Much Ado About Nothing, titled Ma'Ma Yong: About Nothing Much to Do.

"The best Asian Shakespeares I've seen reflect this approach where you're not slavishly imitating or trying to replicate Shakespeare," says Dr Andrew Hui, assistant professor of literature at Yale-NUS College.

Ong's trilogy is an example, he adds. "What makes his work fascinating is his refusal to simplify Asia: putting in so many different aspects of Asian countries and rich traditions across the region, so many different Shakespeares."


Shakespeare's tale of a hated moneylender being outsmarted is one of his most popular plays in India.

The Merchant Of Venice has been translated and re-translated more than 50 times into the country's vernacular languages and hit the stage in a number of iterations, including well-known theatre critic and director Ananda Lal's controversial 1997 take, with its female Shylock and Antonio.

As Dr Poonam Trivedi, former secretary of the Shakespeare Society of India, said in a 2006 interview: "The Merchant Of Venice is a story about a moneylender. In Indian society, before modern banking systems were in place, the moneylender or sahukar was a familiar, but feared, figure."

It embodied, she said, issues that struck a chord with Indian audiences. "Class and communal conflict, moneylenders and merchants, young lovers controlled by an older generation, a resourceful young woman who resolves all happily; it is as if they are living out their problems and desires through Shakespeare."

Translation of the Bard's works in Indian languages emerged as early as 1852 and they were performed in India - under British rule for almost 200 years - before they reached Australia or New Zealand.

Shakespeare's plays have settled into India's education system and found a place in theatre, dance and cinema.

They have made inroads into the traditional Indian dance drama kathakali, with its defined movements, and into Bollywood. The latter was influenced by Parsi theatre, which had a tradition of adapting Shakespeare's works in Urdu.

Film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj has released a Shakespeare trilogy. It comprises Maqbool (2003) - a cross between Macbeth and Mario Puzo's The Godfather, about the relationships in a criminal gang, with policemen taking the place of the witches in the original play; Omkara (2006) inspired by Othello and exploring issues such as caste politics; and Haider (2014), an adaptation of Hamlet set against the backdrop of the 1995 Kashmir insurgency.

This, said Dr Poonam, exemplifies attitudes of the young towards Shakespeare - "one of great respect and acute understanding, but with no colonial awe or hang-up".

Greater China

Shakespeare adaptations in Chinese-speaking regions such as China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have evolved over time, in tandem with shifts in social mores and the political climate.

The first wave of Shakespeare adaptations that spring up in China in the early 20th century hewed closely to initial translations and were performed in the realist, spoken drama form of huaju.

Plays which lend themselves to a Confucian re-interpretation have proved especially popular.

As Chinese scholars Zhang Xiaoyang and Hsiao Yang Zhang observe in their book Shakespeare In China, the character of Hamlet is imbued with Confucian characteristics in adaptations and often portrayed as "having a strong sense of political duty" in his "heroic struggle against the gloomy and depressing atmosphere".

In the Taiwan Shakespeare Database curated by the National Taiwan University, Hamlet, the tragedy about a depressed and murderous prince who turns on his family, is among the most popular tragedies. It has been staged seven times, more than the most popular comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream (done six times).

But increasingly, directors have taken liberties in tackling Shakespeare classics. An example is Chinese director Huang Ying's Macbeth, a satire of the political jockeying to be found in authoritarian regimes and elsewhere, which will be staged at The Esplanade next month.

He tells The Sunday Times: "I had to study the play closely to discover what it had in common with a contemporary setting. For example, if the character of Banquo is a Mr Nice Guy with hidden motives, could that work?" Banquo is an ally who is later murdered by the power- hungry Macbeth.

Successful screen adaptations, such as the hit 2006 martial arts period film The Banquet by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, are loose adaptations which incorporate themes and ideas from several of the Bard's works, rather than adhering to one play.

In an essay on the film, literature professor Amy Scott-Douglass from Marymount University notes that it "serves up a feast of Shakespearean references, including allusions to Hamlet, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Macbeth and Romeo And Juliet".

Dr Andrew Hui, an assistant professor of literature at Yale-NUS College, says of the film: "Inheritance, usurpation, murder, revenge, filial duty - these are themes you find in Chinese culture too and you can use Shakespeare to think about them."

South Korea/Japan

The sweep of Shakespeare adaptations produced by South Korea and Japan is staggering, both in richness and variety.

Shakespeare's works first arrived in Japan in the late 1800s, when the Meiji Restoration - a period when Imperial Japan started looking to the West - was taking off. His plays were initially staged as kabuki, a popular form of traditional Japanese theatre. They were treated as a symbol of Western culture and were widely read, translated and taught in schools.

Prominent directors have adapted the Bard's works. Stage director Yukio Ninagawa earned acclaim for his version of Macbeth at the 1985 Edinburgh Festival, which transformed the power- hungry Scottish king Macbeth into a samurai in 16th-century Japan and borrowed kabuki elements.

The late Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa based his films Ran (1985) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) on the tragedies King Lear and Hamlet respectively. Throne Of Blood, his 1957 adaptation of Macbeth, which incorporated elements from the imperial Japanese theatre form of noh, is hailed by critics as one of his best works.

Today, Shakespeare is still adapted, re-imagined and deconstructed across all mediums, from the high-brow to pop culture.

In anime and manga series such as Romeo x Juliet (2007) and Wandering Son (2011), the young protagonists of Romeo And Juliet have become characters exploring their gender, sexuality and identity.

In South Korea, Shakespeare was first brought over in 1910, when Japan colonised the country.

Reception to his works since has grown steadily, particularly in the 1990s, with more than 250 stagings and more than 800 books published, according to South Korean professor Lee Hyon-U, an expert on Shakespeare.

With the rise of Hallyu or the Korean wave in recent years, film adaptations have sprouted, of which the most well-known is the 2008 romantic comedy Frivolous Wife, based on The Taming Of The Shrew.

But Hamlet remains the most popular text, accounting for close to a fifth of those stagings, according to a 2011 paper by Prof Lee. Many adaptations feature Korean shamanistic rituals, he notes.

These productions, he explains, "exorcise the pain of a people who have suffered from the problems of 'to be or not to be' through times of colonialism, war, dictatorship and the IMF crisis...

"They are closely connected with han, an indigenous sentiment of pain and regret".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline '400th death anniversary of Shakespeare Malaysia/Indonesia The Bard's many faces'. Print Edition | Subscribe