Why is Argentina engaging with Shakespeare? How is Shakespeare used to comment on post-dictatorship and post-colonial society? What does Shakespeare ‘mean’ in Argentina? What does that say about Argentina, and what does that say about Shakespeare?
Argentine society is still recovering from the collective trauma of the human rights violations committed during the last dictatorship (1976-83). Since 1983, Shakespeare’s plays have played a role in securing a new democratic culture. Directors will emphasize deception and corruption in Richard III, Iago, and other villainous characters in order to criticize existing political problems. Political turmoil and economic problems are key features in Argentine Shakespeare productions. Alternatively, a director may present a play set in a world free from Argentina’s political problems, such as the utopian forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare is present in all aspects of the public sphere in Argentina. Politicians, journalists, film and television makers, actors, educators, academics, theatre directors, authors, radio broadcasters, cartoonists, sculptors, festival organizers, and graffiti artists all use Shakespeare. Recent translations of Shakespeare into Argentine Spanish (published by Norma Editorial) suggest that Shakespeare’s inclusion in Argentine society will only increase. Archival research and audience response questionnaires have revealed that the plays most often studied and performed in Argentina are Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and King Lear, and, often for children, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare is used across the political spectrum in modern media. Página/12, a daily newspaper, includes Shakespeare-based political satirical comic strips by famous Argentine cartoonist Rep (Miguel Repiso). Clarin, the largest newspaper in the country, regularly features articles that criticize the corruption, hypocrisy, and manipulation of politicians in Argentina through comparisons with Shakespearean characters. During my PhD fieldwork in Argentina, from January to July 2017, I heard many people refer to the political power-couple of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner (President in 2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (President in 2007-2015), as ‘Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.’
In Argentina, Shakespeare helps to discuss the question of identity, acts as a unifying cultural icon, and provides a forum in which to debate dictatorship narratives. Sergio Amigo’s work with Shakespeare highlights this. He left Buenos Aires in the 1980s for London, where he acted in and wrote plays about Argentine identity, which he says, ‘is always connected to the dictatorship.’1 For these, and other reasons Shakespeare is an outlet for a nation whose capital, Buenos Aires, is considered to be “the psychoanalytic capital of the world with twice the number of therapists per head than New York.’2
The alternative theatre-makers in Buenos Aires, in particular, have ‘cannibalized’ Shakespeare and created a new form of Shakespearean theatre, combining European literature with Latin-American traditional theatre aesthetics and politics, such as Commedia dell’arte, Yiddish theatre, and Uruguayan circus influences. For example, Gabriel Chamé Buendia’s Othelo, which first premiered in 2013 at La Carpintería theatre, Buenos Aires, is a clown version of Othello, full of dark comedy and jokes that criticize William Shakespeare’s plot choices.
After World War I and the Spanish Civil War, Argentina welcomed many immigrants. Today’s society includes many third-generation Spanish and Italian families, as well as descendants of both Holocaust survivors and Nazis. Argentina is enjoying its longest ever period of democracy: 34 years. Along with immigrant experiences, dictatorship is a common theme throughout family histories. Jorge Eines, one of many directors exiled from Argentina during the dictatorship, staged Ricardo III in Madrid in 2001. It was set in a Nazi concentration camp and included some speeches in German. Audiences reported that this production left them with a sense of powerlessness and distress.
In the medium of film, Argentina’s most prominent Shakespeare director, Matías Piñeiro, has produced a series of Shakespeare-inspired films, which he calls ‘Las Shakespeariadas.’ These Shakespearean rehearsals portray Piñeiro’s generation’s experience of the dictatorship as the inheritors of a legacy of trauma, and the films explore the ways in which they can recover as a community.
There are many ways in which the Latin American perspective can enhance Anglophone understanding of Shakespeare. Most importantly, Argentina is no stranger to oppression, and through Shakespeare, Argentina finds methods of resistance. In this time of wall-building, nationalism, and division, cross-cultural engagement, international collaboration, and open communication are more necessary than ever.