The Global Influence of Shakespeare
Associate Professor of English Alex Huang co-founded a video archive of worldwide performances inspired by the Bard’s works.
Nov. 28, 2011
With just a click of your mouse, you can travel to Brazil to view
“Othello,” watch “Hamlet” in Egypt, attend “King Lear” in England, or
see India’s take on “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
This virtual field trip is courtesy of Global Shakespeares,
a free, open-access video and performance archive of 300 and counting
Shakespeare and Shakespeare-influenced productions and clips from around
“It’s sort of a YouTube for Shakespearians and theater and film
enthusiasts, but with much better stability and scholarly foundation,”
said GW Associate Professor of English Alex Huang, co-founder of the archive.
A Shakespeare scholar, Dr. Huang created the archive along with Peter
Donaldson, Ford Foundation Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, and fully launched it online in 2010. He came
to George Washington in 2011 from Pennsylvania State University, where
he taught for seven years.
The performances highlighted on Global Shakespeares can bring a
breadth and depth to understanding the Bard and his work, said Dr.
“Great ideas transcend historical and cultural boundaries and can be
articulated in many different forms and languages,” he said.
“Shakespeare lends himself to translation—many directors believe that
Shakespeare in translation is more effective, more sexy and spicy than
in his original text.”
Dr. Huang added the cross-cultural interpretations can challenge
assumptions about Shakespeare’s most famous plays. “Encountering these
plays through refreshing performances in new contexts can reinvigorate
our dulled senses,” he said. “Shakespeare in translation doesn’t take
away from the Bard. Instead, it makes his work more relevant to a
The video archive first began 10 years ago as a collection of tapes
from field research trips in Dr. Huang’s office at Stanford University,
where he earned a doctorate in comparative literature and a joint
doctorate in humanities. As his collection grew, colleagues began
requesting the videos to expose their students to Shakespeare
performances from around the world.
Mailing the tapes back and forth quickly became unmanageable and new
technologies for the production and distribution of digital video were
rapidly becoming more accessible to educators, so Dr. Huang decided to
bring the collection online.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we take advantage of what is available
technologically today, and really transform digital video to make it an
integral part of the study of Shakespeare performance and a project to
promote cross-cultural understanding?’” he said.
Global Shakespeares has been recognized as a valuable research source
for scholars. It has been reviewed in major journals and newspapers,
including Shakespeare Quarterly, the British Shakespeare Association’s
Shakespeare and Asian Theatre Journal. The archive has also been indexed
by the Modern Language Association’s bibliography, World Shakespeare
Bibliography and other scholarly databases.
Each video on Global Shakespeares is posted with permission, is
thoroughly researched and properly annotated, and contains subtitles
when needed, said Dr. Huang.
Faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Boston
University; MIT; and universities in the United Kingdom, China,
Switzerland, Korea and Brazil are using the project in their courses.
Analytics show Global Shakespeares has visitors from more than 88
countries—and these visitors used more than 55 languages to access the
site, which features a dynamic map on which users can plot the
trajectory of a touring production, interactive historical timeline,
tabbed browsing and a variety of search options.
“You can find Shakespeare in places you might not even think of,”
said Dr. Huang. Almost every continent is represented on the site,
including Asia, South America and Europe.
One of the most interesting aspects of Global Shakespeares is that
users can view the same play performed in different countries to see
firsthand how different cultures interpret and perform pivotal scenes.
One example is a scene from Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, “Titus
Andronicus,” where Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, is raped and her hands and
tongue are cut off. How should actors perform this scene on stage?
“If you do it literally, you run the risk of diminishing
Shakespeare’s tragedy into parody. Too much violence can become comical
and it’s unreal,” said Dr. Huang. “Too little and you fail to convey the
weight of the tragedy.”
One director from Japan had a solution. Director Yukio Ninagawa used
red silk streamers to portray blood flowing from Lavinia after the
“It’s beautiful and eerie at the same time,” said Dr. Huang. “This is
one example of how different interpretations can transform our
understanding of the play.”
There are also performances on Global Shakespeares that challenge
widely accepted interpretations of Shakespeare’s better-known plays. For
“The Merchant of Venice,” Dr. Huang said plays from Japan and China
focus more on the question of justice in a capitalist society and
Portia—the beautiful heiress disguised as a male lawyer—than on Shylock
and anti-Semitism, a theme that post-Holocaust and particularly
post-9/11 Western versions usually emphasize. The play is often retitled
“The Woman Lawyer,” “A Bond of Flesh” or “A Pound of Flesh” in Asia.
And Dr. Huang noted “Othello” is a study of jealousy in many
countries—and not of race. “Shakespeare as a global author has taken
many forms since the building of the Globe in London,” said Dr. Huang.
“That’s the blind spot that our traditions can cast on us,” said Dr.
Huang. “When you look at Shakespeare in a global context you realize
Shakespeare is much more capacious and profound and plays a very
important role in the cultural life today.”
Global Shakespeares is not only a cultural resource but also a
teaching one. Using VITAL—Video Interaction for Teaching and Learning, a
video-centric course management system connected to Global
Shakespeares— Dr. Huang’s students use performances on Global
Shakespeares to create their own video clips and illustrate their own
interpretations. Dr. Huang teaches two Shakespeare courses in the
Columbian College of Arts and Sciences this semester.
“With VITAL, students play the role of a curator with films and video
clips by critiquing them, circulating their film essays and commenting
on one another’s video collections and essays,” said Dr. Huang.
“Once they make their first video clip, they’re hooked,” he said,
adding that VITAL allows students to “slow down” by defamiliarizing the
plays. “When students experience a speech such as Hamlet’s ‘To be or not
to be’ in radically new performance styles or in a foreign language,
they can approach it without prejudice or learned reverence,” he said.
Dr. Huang, a member of GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Institute in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the Sigur
Center for Asian Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs,
holds a position as a research affiliate in literature at MIT. He is
widely published in the field of Shakespeare and early modern studies
and has appeared on a number of media outlets, including the BBC, to
talk about the fields of digital humanities and global Shakespeare. In
spring 2012, he will be a fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Although many Shakespeare scholars prefer more traditional
productions, Dr. Huang said the more creative, out-of-the-box
interpretations of Shakespeare plays are actually the ones that end up
revealing the most about the Bard.
“The reason Shakespeare is still alive today is because he’s able to
thrive in so many different environments,” he said. “No other playwright
from any other culture has this ability.”