Introduction: One Thousand Hamlets

When I met with my Chinese tutor on Tuesday to brush up on my Mandarin, she looked at me and said, ‘We know Hamlet in China.  When I was a little girl we learnt at school a famous saying: yi qian ge ren yan li you yi qian ge Hamuleite; there are one thousand Hamlets in one thousand people’s eyes. We learnt this to tell us there are different points of view.’  She didn’t learn anything more about Shakespeare or Hamlet at the time, it appears, but it is this way that Shakespeare, and particularly that most canonical play of his, not only travels but goes native that lies at the heart of my research.  What I want to say about this, I am not yet quite sure!  (‘This is all very interesting,’ my supervisor says, ‘but what is your research question?’) But if I can begin to unpick three or four of these thousands of Hamlets, maybe I will find some answers to ‘why Hamlet?’  There are issues of cultural imperialism that perhaps lie behind the fact that this tragedy is often the first to be translated into a new culture, either because it has been imposed by a Western colonial education system, or because it has been taken up by the indigenous scholars and artists of a country as part of their mission to ‘modernise’.  This was true of both Mainland China and Egypt in the early 20th Century and late 19th Century respectively. However, in both Chinese and Arabic culture Hamlet has been appropriated to speak about what it is to be Chinese or Arab at the turn of the Millennium.   Lian Zhaohua’s 1989/90 avant-garde stage version broke all the conventions of Chinese Shakespeare.  Gone were the blonde wigs and prosthetic noses (Li, 2003), the traditional ‘white-face’ acting that emphasised the Other, the foreigner, in huaju spoken theatre.  Instead, Lin made his Hamlet and Gertrude et alia to be Beijingers in contemporary dress.  It was no longer a play about the Danish court or Shakespeare’s England, but (perhaps) about Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and the uncertainty that follows the death of an ideology.  And apparently, in the English-Arabic Al-Hamlet Summit, Ophelia becomes a suicide bomber…  These new revisionings seem to me to be doing just the same as Shakespeare when he first began to play around with his source, whether it was an Ur-Hamlet or Belleforest’s Renaissance take on Saxo’s Viking deeds. There are one thousand Hamlets in one thousand people’s minds.

4 thoughts on “Introduction: One Thousand Hamlets

  1. I think that might be a Chinese saying only, because I’ve never heard it in English, but my Chinese friends all know it.


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