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What does Shakespeare mean around the world?

Ohio State professor explores differing interpretations

Amrita Dhar first encountered the works of William Shakespeare in India, where she was born and raised. From the beginning, she felt an ownership over the works of Shakespeare. Reading his plays in her native Bengali or watching Bollywood film adaptations in Hindi, she had no idea the author was from halfway around the world and four centuries prior.

“Shakespeare has always been mine,” said Dhar, an assistant professor of English at The Ohio State University. “I didn’t encounter Shakespeare as a child first in his language, I encountered him first in my language. It wasn’t until later that I learned he’s an English author who worked in 16th and 17th century London.”

A scholar of early modern English, Dhar said she is not the only person who feels this way. Shakespeare is read all over the world and has been for generations. In countries that were colonized by the British, like India and Nigeria, Shakespeare was studied while the nations were under imperial rule. But what about after the colonists had left?Amrita Dhar

“I started to wonder about what Shakespeare was doing in so many parts of the world that had once been under political colonial rule,” Dhar said. “And now that that empire nominally does not exist anymore, what does the presence of Shakespeare in all these places mean?”

Dhar is exploring this question through a podcast entitled “Shakespeare in the ‘Post’Colonies.” Each episode pairs Dhar or another member of the project team with a person who engages with Shakespeare through a postcolonial lens. While “post-colonial” refers to a period that happens after colonization, “postcolonial” is not time oriented but a capacious critical lens.

“It refers to a critical dimension,” she said. “Now we’re talking about a critique of any kind of colonial thinking at all, irrespective of whether that colonial thinking created empire. Anything that could result in empire can be critiqued by postcolonial thinking.”

Since the project started in 2022 (the podcast launched in the fall of 2023), Dhar has spoken with fellow professors, actors, novelists, playwrights, translators, and dancers, all of whom feel strongly about Shakespeare. Many of them also hail from former British colonies.

“[We discuss this] inheritance as persons of post-colonial upbringing, geography, culture and history,” she said.

To recruit interview subjects, Dhar had to make several cold calls. She was surprised by how enthusiastic people were about participating.

“The most amazing thing to me was how eager people were to talk about ‘their’ Shakespeare,” she said. “Not one person said no. Every single person I asked had a substantive, generous, candid and thoughtful conversation with me.”

With her guests, Dhar combs through ideas about colonialism and race in Shakespeare’s work, as well any other impacts made by the notion of empire.

“As another senior colleague says, ‘“Was Shakespeare racist?” is not the end of the conversation. That’s the beginning of it’,” she said. “Why wouldn’t Shakespeare be racist? He is writing when England is at the cusp of empire. This is the air he is breathing. What is interesting, however, is that the man is also interrogating what he’s hearing. His characters are exploring these ideas from multiple facets.”

Though Dhar and many of her interviewees have academic backgrounds, the podcast is for everyone, she said.

“So many of us have been subjected to Shakespeare at some point or another,” she said. “Many have been scarred for life. I think this is a great way to be unscarred. And it’s a great way to have fun. I want this work to be as widely accessible as possible.”

Dhar hopes that listeners will share the podcast with friends and learn together.

“What makes Shakespeare what it is today is this sense of intellectual community, which is now 400 years old,” she said. “This is how learning happens. This is how knowledge happens across the world.”

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