Triumph of the Will

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am

China has a love-hate relationship with Old Man Sha, better known beyond the mainland as the Bard, William Shakespeare, and travellers had best be ready to argue whether it really is better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and by opposing end them, or just go with the flow.

Despite being purged during the Cultural Revolution, Shakespeare underwent reconstruction and is known to the mainland's many English students as a working-class hero who mocked the elite and wrote for the people.

Few in the academic industry built on the greatest of all English writers would dispute that his target audience 500 years ago was the seed-spitting pit. As for the rest? Well, that's why we have scholars.

It is perhaps no irony to learn that the Royal Shakespeare Company's near-definitive William Shakespeare - Complete Works, arguably one of the most ambitious publishing and literary exercises ever undertaken in the history of the written word, involved the mainland, and perhaps its legacy of communist verbosity.

A single volume was sought (the finished product runs to 2,576 pages, weighs 2.2kg and is 6.8cm thick) and publisher Palgrave Macmillan turned to CTPS in Dongguan, with its enormous, German Kolbus casing inline press and proven expertise in handling huge works. It is one of the world's leading producers of Bibles.

'What was needed was not just the ability to print so many pages, but to be able to fold the paper then bind it in one volume,' said Steve Maginn, Macmillan Education's executive director for East Asia. Palgrave Macmillan, which handles the British and Commonwealth markets, has sold 45,000 copies so far, with CTPS trucking 99 tonnes of the Bard to Hong Kong for export. Random House has the US market. A paperback edition is due for publication next April.

Editors Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen decided at the outset of the five-year-plus project to try to work from the actors' folios, and it's their ambition that the text in this volume will become the new starting point for understanding and interpreting Shakespeare.

Bate said editorial decisions ranged from the broad to the minute, from the layout of the text and the minimum weight of paper to which of the surviving texts best represented Shakespeare's intent and what could be included. What didn't make the cut has been spilled over onto

As a playwright and poet, Shakespeare is indubitably the greatest writer in the English language. His plays, although written in a then-emergent tongue he did much to invent and popularise, have been universally embraced.

Bate, a Shakespearean scholar, says: 'One of the things that keeps Shakespeare alive is that his plays speak to current circumstances.

'We were keen to make Shakespeare accessible to people for whom English is not their first language,' he says, adding that a further objective 'is to persuade publishers to use this as the basis for translation.'

From China's perspective, Shakespeare was a communist. Marx and Engels quote from him and both refer to The Life of Timon of Athens, not one of his better plays, in their writings on class struggle, which conferred - at least initially - a degree of acceptability on the Bard after 1949.

'At the same time there were politically subversive productions, a way of criticising the government and the Party,' says Bate.

A major conference to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth hosted by Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, was to have been held in 1964, as the Cultural Revolution loomed, but was abruptly cancelled. Old Man Sha was no longer in favour, his works deemed feudalist, capitalist and revisionist.

Times change, and former president Jiang Zemin was noted for his love of Shakespeare and his ability to quote him, although the source was Timon and had to do with the harmful effects of worshipping money. 'To a large extent modern China has not met Shakespeare on his own terms, but rather has used him to forward a national political agenda,' writes Murray Levith in Shakespeare in China (2004).

Shakespeare is credited with having revitalised traditional forms of Chinese theatre and opera, and perhaps this new edition, filled with notes on differing interpretations, will help redress the decade-long drive for 'Shakespearean studies with Chinese characteristics'.

William Shakespeare - Complete Works

(Palgrave Macmillan, HK$395)