November: Richard III and the Chinese Language

Towards the end of 1592, Londoners were entertained by the staging of The Life and Death of Richard the Third. William Shakespeare had written the play shortly after the trilogy of Henry VI Parts I, II and III with which he had begun his career as a playwright. Richard III registers an advance on Henry VI although Richard, a villain who delights in his wickedness, has moments when he shows his modelling on Vice, the figure from the old morality plays.  

Professor Gary Taylor tells us in The New Oxford Shakespeare (published in October 2016 to mark the Shakespearean Quatercentenary) that Shakespeare was doing something remarkable in these history plays: they might have links back to the old moralities, but they were in themselves a new form. The ancient division of dramatic genres had been into tragedies and comedies.  After Shakespeare, we have to talk in terms of tragedies, comedies and histories. After Shakespeare and after Christopher Marlow, that is. Gary Taylor also makes the claim in The New Oxford Shakespeare that Marlow was Shakespeare’s collaborator in the Henry VI Trilogy.  That claim has caused a stir, but the Oxford Shakespeare has a tradition of reworking the Shakespeare canon every time it is republished.

The character Richard opens as Richard, Duke of Gloucester. He is not yet Richard, King of England. His brother, King Edward, is dead. Richard is waiting his chance to murder his nephews and take the crown. Richard enters the stage alone speaking directly to the audience, setting the scene for his villainy. It is one of Shakespeare’s great openings:

          Now is the winter of our discontent
          Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
          And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
          In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

               (Richard III Act 1, Scene 1)

Late in the play, when Richard has become Richard, King of England, Shakespeare gives him a lengthy speech in which King Richard explains to Queen Elizabeth why he has had to kill her children and how he will make it up to her. He proposes to marry her daughter and so make a queen of her. That way, he will give the daughter the kingdom the sons have lost. In addition, he will give Queen Elizabeth grandchildren by way of her daughter and so compensate Queen Elizabeth for the children she has lost. These are a psychopath’s gifts:

          Look, what is done cannot be now amended:
          Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes,
          Which after hours give leisure to repent.
          If I did take the kingdom from your sons,
          To make amends, I’ll give it to your daughter.
          If I have kill'd the issue of your womb,
          To quicken your increase, I will beget
          Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter
          A grandam's name is little less in love
          Than is the doting title of a mother

                (Richard III Act 4, Scene 4)

The discovery of Richard III’s bones under a car park in Leicester in September 2012 led to grumblings about Richard’s having been maligned by history. Stories about his being born with teeth and a full beard were, it seems, not true. Shakespeare was blamed for the grotesque reputation of England’s last Plantagenet king. Shakespeare had no brief for the Plantagenets, but few did in Elizabethan England. It was best not to show partiality for any dynasty other than the Tudor.

Henry Tudor had defeated Richard and had his body despoiled. Henry Tudor had made just that kind of dynastic match that Richard outlines so cynically to Queen Elizabeth. Henry Tudor had married Elizabeth of York, united England, and provided the name to be given a granddaughter. That granddaughter became a new Queen Elizabeth in 1558. By the 1590s, she had become the Old Queen; she ruled royally; she was not to be provoked. But Shakespeare was a playwright not a propagandist. His characters owed more to the theatre than the history book. Shakespeare’s Richard was a model Machiavel, and his glee in his wickedness made him the most popular of Shakespeare’s villains.

The Life and Death of Richard the Third has attracted the greatest of strutters and fretters upon the stage. Lawrence Olivier was perhaps the greatest of all, but Antony Sher has bid fair to be so considered. A mark of their Richards is their displays of cripplement. They have paraded Richard the hunchback, the crouchback king.  

But that is not the only way to play the part. A Chinese actor at the London Globe in April 2012 showed another way to do things. And Zhang Dongyu, playing Richard, did away with the hunchback: ‘This lithe Richard is not misshapen,’ said Angie Errigo in her review, ‘and there is no reference to deformity, although his twisted psyche, envy, malice and sardonic humour are clear for all to see, Zhang fingering his blade impatiently, contorting in spasms of rage and smirking delightedly at his own ruthless cunning.’ The performance ended with Zhang kissing the boards of the Globe before standing to bow to a wildly applauding audience.

That kissing of the stage, that gesture of respect for the spirit of Shakespeare, had been anticipated in the previous year when, says The Guardian, China's Premier Wen Jiabao paid a visit to Shakespeare's birthplace. Wen made it clear that the journey to Stratford was not something arranged by his public-relations officials. It was something he did for himself - out of ‘his boyhood love of Shakespeare’.

The Chinese premier and the Chinese actor show that William Shakespeare is a figure of consequence in China. How much so is asserted by He Qixin of Beijing Foreign Studies University. Shakespeare, says He, ‘attained the same prestige as Karl Marx, the great teacher of ideology to the Chinese in the 20th century, and this is the most enthusiastic praise the Chinese have ever given to a man of letters outside China’.

If Shakespeare became a great figure in twentieth-century China, it was only in the twentieth century that Shakespeare had come to China at all. The Chinese knew little or nothing about Shakespeare, He says, until 1903 when a translation of ten of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare was made into Mandarin. In 1922, came the first translation of a complete Shakespeare play, perhaps inevitably Hamlet. Since then twelve more translations of Hamlet have been made. Today, all of Shakespeare's plays have been translated into Chinese, some many times over.

Shakespeare arrived late but then with a rush in the world’s largest linguistic community.  But what kind of a linguistic community is that? While it is now common to talk about Englishes in the plural, it is not common to talk about Chineses, but it might be right to do so. People speaking Cantonese or Hakka cannot make themselves understood in Beijing where people speak Putonghua. There are eight forms of Chinese, and they are as different from one another as Dutch is from English.

John DeFrancis, author of The Chinese Language, says that the Chinese language is ‘an abstraction that covers a number of mutually unintelligible forms of speech.’ However, linguists are reluctant to call these different forms different languages because China has considered itself one country for over two thousand years and for almost all that time has shared a single culture, philosophy and form of government. In nineteenth-century Europe, the joke went that a language is ‘a dialect with an army and navy’. Languages in Europe were and remain the foundations of nationalisms. By contrast, Chinese linguistic differences, says DeFrancis, ‘have never possessed the disruptive power they have had in many other areas of the world.’

But there is something more that unites the mutually unintelligible forms of Chinese speech: a unique writing system. 700,000,000 Chinese people speak the version of Chinese called Putonghua. Putonghua means ‘Common Speech’, and Putonghua is what Westerners call Mandarin. Mandarin could be said to mean ‘Educated Speech’, and it is written in the world’s oldest active writing system. It is a system that uses signs to represent words. When Chinese children are taught to read, it is word characters that they learn, and the characters are common across China. That means that even if a Shanghai businessman cannot understand his Beijing taxi driver’s speech, both can understand a written note. 

Written Mandarin has some wonderful strengths, but they come at a price. The Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese lists 7000 characters. The Great Compendium of Chinese Characters lists 54,678. The Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form lists 106,230. You can make do with 3000 - but that is still two orders of magnitude larger than the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. And each character requires a minimum of seven strokes not the one, two or three strokes with which English letters are formed.

Some Chinese characters require fifteen strokes to write; however, there is a logic to the strokes. By their position and number, the strokes build additional and connected meanings. And there is more than logic to those strokes. There is beauty. ‘Although elsewhere in the world,’ says Mark Kurlansky, ‘people drew first and learned to write later, in China, the reverse was true. First you learned to write beautifully, and then you painted. After mastering those twin skills, you could move on to writing poetry, but many chose to remain just calligraphers, a highly appreciated art form in China’.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Chinese scholars, says BBC News, are retranslating his complete works ‘so the poetry of his original words can be fully appreciated in Chinese.’ And what can that mean, what will that mean when ‘his original words’ are represented in 100,000 characters? It is wonderful to think about but difficult to appreciate the additional richness that Chinese calligraphy can bring to the Western poet that the Chinese have placed on a level of respect with Karl Marx. 

Towards the end of 1592, Londoners were entertained by the staging of The Life and Death of Richard the Third. William Shakespeare had written the play shortly after the trilogy of Henry VI Parts I, II and III with which he had begun his career as a playwright. Richard III registers an advance on Henry VI although Richard, a villain who delights in his wickedness, has moments when he shows his modelling on Vice, the figure from the old morality plays.  

 

Professor Gary Taylor tells us in The New Oxford Shakespeare (published in October 2016 to mark the Shakespearean Quatercentenary) that Shakespeare was doing something remarkable in these history plays: they might have links back to the old moralities, but they were in themselves a new form. The ancient division of dramatic genres had been into tragedies and comedies.  After Shakespeare, we have to talk in terms of tragedies, comedies and histories. After Shakespeare and after Christopher Marlow, that is. Gary Taylor also makes the claim in The New Oxford Shakespeare that Marlow was Shakespeare’s collaborator in the Henry VI Trilogy.  That claim has caused a stir, but the Oxford Shakespeare has a tradition of reworking the Shakespeare canon every time it is republished.

 

The character Richard opens as Richard, Duke of Gloucester. He is not yet Richard, King of England. His brother, King Edward, is dead. Richard is waiting his chance to murder his nephews and take the crown. Richard enters the stage alone speaking directly to the audience, setting the scene for his villainy. It is one of Shakespeare’s great openings:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

(Richard III Act 1, Scene 1)

 

Late in the play, when Richard has become Richard, King of England, Shakespeare gives him a lengthy speech in which King Richard explains to Queen Elizabeth why he has had to kill her children and how he will make it up to her. He proposes to marry her daughter and so make a queen of her. That way, he will give the daughter the kingdom the sons have lost. In addition, he will give Queen Elizabeth grandchildren by way of her daughter and so compensate Queen Elizabeth for the children she has lost. These are a psychopath’s gifts:

Look, what is done cannot be now amended:

Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes,

Which after hours give leisure to repent.

If I did take the kingdom from your sons,

To make amends, I’ll give it to your daughter.

If I have kill'd the issue of your womb,

To quicken your increase, I will beget

Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter

A grandam's name is little less in love

Than is the doting title of a mother

 (Richard III Act 4, Scene 4)

 

The discovery of Richard III’s bones under a car park in Leicester in September 2012 led to grumblings about Richard’s having been maligned by history. Stories about his being born with teeth and a full beard were, it seems, not true. Shakespeare was blamed for the grotesque reputation of England’s last Plantagenet king. Shakespeare had no brief for the Plantagenets, but few did in Elizabethan England. It was best not to show partiality for any dynasty other than the Tudor.

 

Henry Tudor had defeated Richard and had his body despoiled. Henry Tudor had made just that kind of dynastic match that Richard outlines so cynically to Queen Elizabeth. Henry Tudor had married Elizabeth of York, united England, and provided the name to be given a granddaughter. That granddaughter became a new Queen Elizabeth in 1558. By the 1590s, she had become the Old Queen; she ruled royally; she was not to be provoked. But Shakespeare was a playwright not a propagandist. His characters owed more to the theatre than the history book. Shakespeare’s Richard was a model Machiavel, and his glee in his wickedness made him the most popular of Shakespeare’s villains.

 

The Life and Death of Richard the Third has attracted the greatest of strutters and fretters upon the stage. Lawrence Olivier was perhaps the greatest of all, but Antony Sher has bid fair to be so considered. A mark of their Richards is their displays of cripplement. They have paraded Richard the hunchback, the crouchback king.  

 

But that is not the only way to play the part. A Chinese actor at the London Globe in April 2012 showed another way to do things. And Zhang Dongyu, playing Richard, did away with the hunchback: ‘This lithe Richard is not misshapen,’ said Angie Errigo in her review, ‘and there is no reference to deformity, although his twisted psyche, envy, malice and sardonic humour are clear for all to see, Zhang fingering his blade impatiently, contorting in spasms of rage and smirking delightedly at his own ruthless cunning.’ The performance ended with Zhang kissing the boards of the Globe before standing to bow to a wildly applauding audience.

 

That kissing of the stage, that gesture of respect for the spirit of Shakespeare, had been anticipated in the previous year when, says The Guardian, China's Premier Wen Jiabao paid a visit to Shakespeare's birthplace. Wen made it clear that the journey to Stratford was not something arranged by his public-relations officials. It was something he did for himself - out of ‘his boyhood love of Shakespeare’.

 

The Chinese premier and the Chinese actor show that William Shakespeare is a figure of consequence in China. How much so is asserted by He Qixin of Beijing Foreign Studies University. Shakespeare, says He, ‘attained the same prestige as Karl Marx, the great teacher of ideology to the Chinese in the 20th century, and this is the most enthusiastic praise the Chinese have ever given to a man of letters outside China’.

 

If Shakespeare became a great figure in twentieth-century China, it was only in the twentieth century that Shakespeare had come to China at all. The Chinese knew little or nothing about Shakespeare, He says, until 1903 when a translation of ten of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare was made into Mandarin. In 1922, came the first translation of a complete Shakespeare play, perhaps inevitably Hamlet. Since then twelve more translations of Hamlet have been made. Today, all of Shakespeare's plays have been translated into Chinese, some many times over.

 

Shakespeare arrived late but then with a rush in the world’s largest linguistic community.  But what kind of a linguistic community is that? While it is now common to talk about Englishes in the plural, it is not common to talk about Chineses, but it might be right to do so. People speaking Cantonese or Hakka cannot make themselves understood in Beijing where people speak Putonghua. There are eight forms of Chinese, and they are as different from one another as Dutch is from English.

 

John DeFrancis, author of The Chinese Language, says that the Chinese language is ‘an abstraction that covers a number of mutually unintelligible forms of speech.’ However, linguists are reluctant to call these different forms different languages because China has considered itself one country for over two thousand years and for almost all that time has shared a single culture, philosophy and form of government. In nineteenth-century Europe, the joke went that a language is ‘a dialect with an army and navy’. Languages in Europe were and remain the foundations of nationalisms. By contrast, Chinese linguistic differences, says DeFrancis, ‘have never possessed the disruptive power they have had in many other areas of the world.’

 

But there is something more that unites the mutually unintelligible forms of Chinese speech: a unique writing system. 700,000,000 Chinese people speak the version of Chinese called Putonghua. Putonghua means ‘Common Speech’, and Putonghua is what Westerners call Mandarin. Mandarin could be said to mean ‘Educated Speech’, and it is written in the world’s oldest active writing system. It is a system that uses signs to represent words. When Chinese children are taught to read, it is word characters that they learn, and the characters are common across China. That means that even if a Shanghai businessman cannot understand his Beijing taxi driver’s speech, both can understand a written note.

 

Written Mandarin has some wonderful strengths, but they come at a price. The Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese lists 7000 characters. The Great Compendium of Chinese Characters lists 54,678. The Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form lists 106,230. You can make do with 3000 - but that is still two orders of magnitude larger than the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. And each character requires a minimum of seven strokes not the one, two or three strokes with which English letters are formed.

 

Some Chinese characters require fifteen strokes to write; however, there is a logic to the strokes. By their position and number, the strokes build additional and connected meanings. And there is more than logic to those strokes. There is beauty. ‘Although elsewhere in the world,’ says Mark Kurlansky, ‘people drew first and learned to write later, in China, the reverse was true. First you learned to write beautifully, and then you painted. After mastering those twin skills, you could move on to writing poetry, but many chose to remain just calligraphers, a highly appreciated art form in China’.

 

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Chinese scholars, says BBC News, are retranslating his complete works ‘so the poetry of his original words can be fully appreciated in Chinese.’ And what can that mean, what will that mean when ‘his original words’ are represented in 100,000 characters? It is wonderful to think about but difficult to appreciate the additional richness that Chinese calligraphy can bring to the Western poet that the Chinese have placed on a level of respect with Karl Marx.