This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and that anniversary has been marked assiduously around the world. China has a particular love of Shakespeare and his anniversary celebrations have been in full swing since the start of the year. The celebrations will culminate at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre in November with the performance of a Chinese version of Henry V developed in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. As a teacher in Hong Kong for 19 years I had the wonderful task of teaching Shakespeare to local 17 and 18 year old students who were eager and excited by the prospect of studying the plays of the Bard. The enthusiasm Chinese students have for Shakespeare sometimes surprises people but there are reasons for it and the purpose of this essay is to elucidate some of them.
One of the advantages of teaching Shakespeare in China generally is that students have a very strong sense of family and fealty. These qualities connect usefully with plays like King Lear and Macbeth. While I was brought up to think of King Lear as a failure of kingship, a Chinese student will often view the play more as a failure of family – of a father to manage his household adequately, of daughters to tender appropriate respect to their parents and of the absence of a moderating motherfigure. When Lear claims that he is “a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (King Lear, III.ii.59-60), the family angle puts a whole new spin on the argument and has led to some thoughtful debates. Equally, Macbeth is often read as a breach of what may be called a generational code.