Some More Shakespeare in Korea

On the occasion of posting a link to my 2009 article on Lee Youn-taek’s Hamlet and Shakespeare in Korea in general, I noted that a lot has happened in the English-language research on Korean productions of Shakespeare. Indeed, compared to when I started researching for a seminar paper (which ultimately became the origin of my article) way back in the summer of 2008, the situation has diversified. In the following, I will share a few bibliographical notes, the usual links here and there, and a short overview of a few papers that I found quite interesting.

FIRST, just for the sake of completeness, the homepage of the Korean Shakespeare Society (한국셰익스피어학회) where abstracts of articles from the quarterly Shakespeare Review can be found—for fulltexts, membership is necessary.

SECOND, since 2009, a number of edited volumes and special issues of academic journals dedicated to Shakespeare in Asia have been published, some of which contain articles on Korean productions. (also, note Yeeyon Im’s theoretically elaborate 2008 article on “The Location of Shakespeare in Korea”, which I address in my paper)

Re-Playing Shakespeare in Asia (c) Routledge 2009

(c) Routledge 2009

Kim Moran, “The Stages ‘Occupied by Shakespeare’: Intercultural Performances and the Search for ‘Korean-ness’ in Postcolonial Korea”, in Re-playing Shakespeare in Asia, eds. Poonam Trivedi and Minami Ryuta, New York 2009: Routledge, 200-220. 

(see the publisher’s homepage for a table of contents of the volume and a “look into the book”-function, also see the review by Sonia Massai, editor of World-Wide Shakespeares [2005], in Theatre Research International—if you can access it.)

Kim Moran’s paper is—apart from Yeeyon Im 2008 (see above)—the only English-language study I know of that in-depthly discusses the post-colonial condition of contemporary Shakespeare productions in Korea. Focusing on Oh Tae-suk’s hallmark Romeo & Juliet, she is more concerned with the discourses that surround the production, rather than with the actual actions on stage. Some brief discussions of the opening scene, the stage design etc. serve mostly as examples for points she makes about the outspoken intentions of the director and the criticism by theatre scholars and journalist. That’s alright, because her analysis is both striking and helps understand the cultural climate in Korean theatre in a way that goes beyond Oh’s specific production.

After providing the background of her argument with a review of Shakespeare’s reception in colonial times, Kim states her main thesis: that the “Korean tendency to allow universal value to Shakespeare or Western culture” (200), an effect of the ‘indirect reception’ via the colonizing power Japan, still lingers on and is ‘re-played’ in contemporary ‘Koreanized’ productions, most notably by Oh Tae-suk.

While Oh’s first attempts at staging Romeo and Juliet, dating to 1972 and 1995, are rather faithful to the original text, the 2001 version ‘koreanizes’ both the setting and the theatrical means by introducing “Korean indigeneous elements” (205). This does not only include props and scenery, but also the omission of speech, based on the “belief that a play should ultimately be created in the minds of the audience” (209) or, more generally, “an affirmation of Korean indigeneous plays […where] the spectators are welcomed as mutual creators of the dramatic fiction” (ibid.).

However, Oh’s perspective on the relation between Korean theatrical tradition and Shakespearean culture is, according to Kim, an ambiguous one: While his explicit reliance on ‘Korean’ methods put his productions in contrast with Western theatre, the overall goal is to match “Shakespearean grammar” (211). “On the one hand, he claims ‘Korean-ness’ for the license to conflict with Western theatre forms including Shakespeare; on the other hand, he claims it for its ability to present ‘authentic’ Shakespeare, even challenging the common classificatory ‘wisdom’ of a logocentric Western theatre and a stylized and ritualized Eastern theatre” (213).

In this sense, To Be East or To Be West is not the question here. Interestingly, the critical responses to Oh’s Romeo & Juliet mirror those to Ahn Min-su’s Hamyeol Taeja (함열태자, “Prince of Hamyeol”, 1976), famous as a “pioneering Korean-style adaptation of Hamlet” (214) and as the first Korean (Shakespeare?) production presented in the U.S. and Europe. Western critics hailed the guest performance–as well as Oh’s Romeo & Juliet some twenty-five years later (the eternal orient…?), for its visual and emotional appeal; in Korea, scholars of theatre and journalists criticized both for their extensive (and unannounced) use of ‘Japanese’ elements such as white make-up or white masks, respectively.

Oh’s—likewise ambiguous—reaction to such criticism (on the one hand promoting cultural appropriation as a means to create new culture, on the other denying inspiration by Japanese theatre) indicates for Kim both “an obsession about cultural purity” and “anxiety about cultural pollution” (215), two sides of one coin. She notes that “[s]uch a deep-rooted fear of Japanese culture as a polluter is is in striking contrast to the general Korean tendency to interpret Shakespeare liberally.” (216)

All in all, Kim Moran is somehow in line with Yeeyon Im’s critique of “complicit postcolonialism” that (according to Im) is responsible for “the mirage of interculturality” but bases her conclusions on the historically peculiar situation of Korea, namely “domination by an Asian master” (200). In my approach, in turn, I stressed the autonomy provided by individual (re-)readings of ‘confusing’ scenes—thanks to “the merits of semiotic ambiguity”, which I found in Lee Youn-taek’s Hamlet. This multitude of possible meanings seems to be characteristic of Oh’s Romeo & Juliet, too (Kim notes the “juxtaposition of various elements and intended discords”, 205), which makes me all the more excited to see it with my own eyes. As much as I would opt for a perspective that takes the performance and the various impressions, feelings, and reactions it provokes in situ, in its own right—and not only as a medium for discoursive arguments—, I still see the need to analyse these discourses. Kim Moran does this in a very convincing way.

Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace (c) Purdue Univ. Press 2009

(c) Purdue Univ. Press 2009

Meewon Lee, “Hamlet in Korea”, in Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace, eds. Alexander C.Y. Huang and Charles S. Ross, West Lafayette/IN 2009: Purdue Univ. Press, 129-138.

(see the publisher’s homepage, the e-version at google books, and a review by Rose Elfman in Asian Theatre Journal)

Meewon Lee’s rather short piece provides not much less—but also not much more—than what the title promises: an overview of “Hamlet in Korea”, from the colonial period to the 1990s. After about one page on translations and occasional stagings of scenes from Hamlet in colonial times, the second half of the 20th century is covered decade by decade, usually focusing on key productions: the ‘artful’ (i.e. Western-style) Korean premiere of Hamlet by the Sinhyop Theatre Company in 1951 (dir. by Haerang Lee); only slightly different productions for the opening of the Drama Center in 1962 and the bard’s 400th anniversary in 1964; adaptations between Western avantgarde and traditional theatre in the 70s, e.g. by Ahn Minsoo (Hamyeol Taeja, see above); a continuing examination of Hamlet by Kukseo Ki (1981–90) who turned the play into “a series of political confrontations” (135); finally Lee Youn-taek’s ‘multicultural’ production (1996) that was “neither solely Korean nor authentic” (137).

All in all, the paper does not offer much new—due to space limitations, the discussions of the various productions cannot go into detail nor is there any ongoing argument that links them together. While Lee quotes, besides Shin Jungok’s Korean reference work (『셰익스피어 한국에 오다』, 1998), historical newspaper articles and (auto-) biographical works of actors and directors, the text does not aim for more than anecdotal evidence. As a result, the conclusion is not very daring: “starting from imitation of English productions in the 1950s and 1960s, Shakespeare in Korea has reflected a variety of domestic and international influences. His works have inspired many directors to produce Shakespeare as an expression of their own situations and cultures…” (137)

For productions of the 70s and 80s, Kim Dongwook’s unpublished “descriptive study” of Hamlet in Korea (PhD-dissertation, Michigan State Univ. 1990; Proquest offers merely an abstract) provides more in-depth discussions of the productions Lee mentions, plus several others.

Asian Theatre Journal (c) Univ. of Hawai'i Press 2011

(c) Univ. of Hawai’i Press 2011

Lee Hyon-u, “Shamanism in Korean Hamlets since 1990: Exorcising Han”, Asian Theatre Journal Vol. 28 No. 1, special issue on “Asian Shakespeare 2.0”, guest-ed. Alexander C.Y. Huang, Honolulu 2011: Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 104-128.

(see the paper at Project MUSE and the table of contents of the special issue at U of Hawai’i’s blog)

Lee Hyon-u’s paper follows a straight thesis: Hamlet, the most popular of Shakespeare’s dramas on Korean stages, bears a special relation to Korean modern history. Lee argues that “there is some fellow-feeling between Hamlet and the Korean people with their painful experience of Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, military dictatorship, the IMF monetary crisis, and so on.” (105) More concretely, he considers the famous “To Be or Not To Be” (first translated as “살까 죽을까 하는 것이 문제로다” in 1915) as “a proposition for survival” amied at Korean audiences. In the course of his text, Lee tries to substantiate this thesis by discussing various productions of Hamlet since the 1990s, a period he describes as a “Shakespeare boom”.

Between 1990 and 2008, almost every fourth production of Shakespeare was a production of Hamlet (45 out of 210). Also, Lee notes, most of these Hamlets use ‘Koreanized’ styles or themes, generally relating in one way or another to shamanism (cf. 105). The seven productions he chose for analysis, some of them revived in varying versions over the years, all feature scenes were rituals are enacted on stage or characters are possessed by spirits. They are as follows:

  • Hamlet, dir. by Kim Jung-ok, Groupe Jayu《햄릿》김정옥 연출, 극단 자유, 1993.
  • Ophelia: Sister Come to My Bed, adapt. by Jo Kwang-hwa, dir. by Kim Kwang-bo, Cheong-u Ensemble《오필리어》조광화 작, 김광보 연출, 극단 청우, 1995)
  • Rock Hamlet, adapt. by Jo Kwang-hwa, dir. by Jun Hoon, Seoul Musical Company (《락햄릿》조광화 작, 전훈 연출, 서울 뮤지컬 컴퍼니, 1999)
  • The Problematic Man: Yunsan, adapt. and dir. by Lee Youn-taek, Street Theatre Troupe《문제적 인간 연산》이윤택 작, 연출, 연희단거리패, 1995.
  • Hamlet, dir. by Lee Youn-taek, Street Theatre Troupe《락햄릿》이윤택 연출, 연희단거리패, 1996–.
  • Crazy Hamlet, dir. by Kim Min-ho, Cheong Yeon Theatre Company《미친 햄릿》김민호 작, 연출, 극단 청년, 2002–06.
  • Hamlet Cantabile, dir. by Bae Yo-sup, Performance Group Tuida《노래하듯이 햄릿》배요섭 연출, 극단 뛰다, 2005–.

Lee distinguishes two kinds of approaches towards Hamlet and shamanism: productions of the 1990s which give Ophelia a more prominent role, and productions of the 2000s which turn the focus back on Hamlet, depicting his struggle as a form of ritual.

Productions of Hamlet from the 1990s generally put Ophelia in the center of attention, often by presenting the character as “a medium who is possessed by a ghost.” (106) Whether it is played out in the form of ‘shamanist’ interpretations of Shakespeare’s play or overall adaptations to Korean cultural contexts, Lee interprets this trend as “reflect[ing] cultural patterns of Koreanization and feminism in Korean society.” (114) Feminist theatre, according to Lee, in the 1990 “was eager to emphasize the importance and value of feminiity overwhelmed by the patriarchal world, and so looked for answers in the spiritual world […] rather than in reality.” (115) The Ophelia-character acts as a medium between life and death, possesses spiritual and maternal qualities.

While the role of Ophelia was used to give Hamlet a shamanistic twist in the 1990s, productions of the new millennium tended to make the performance itself a shamanistic ritual (gut / 굿). Interesting for me was the fact that Lee illustrated this trend with the ongoing changes in Lee Youn-taek’s Hamlet, the production my own paper was concerned with (though I focused on an early version and did not take later developments into account). Lee Hyon-u argues that Lee Youn-taek’s change in the staging of the final scene—the arrival of Fortinbras, who turns out to be identical to Hamlet—, transforms a “Jan Kottian ending” into a ritual of purification: In performances after 2000, dead Hamlet as well as the whole stage is covered with white cloth by Fortinbras’ soldiers, then his spirit (the actor, now nude) emerges, “as if being born again” and fades away in a bright light. In a later version, “he [Hamlet] takes the white cloth completely covering the stage with him as he goes, almost as if this sacred figure is purifying the whole world of its sins as well as his own.” (115)

Some of the post-millenial Hamlets are more openly political, e.g. Crazy Hamlet, which is set in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, making the rotten state of Denmark an allegory of the divided peninsula and the performance “a service for the Korean people, who are still suffering the pain of the division of the country” (119). Meta-theatrical productions like Hamlet Cantabile, where shaman-clowns retell the story of Hamlet found in a diary, can also be interpreted as “an appeal to the audience to let go of worldly agonies like Hamlet’s and leave the theatre in a free spirit.” (123)

Lee considers all these interpretations of Shakespeare’s play, of his characters and settings, as a way to address collective feelings, namely an emotion called “han” (한 / 恨), which he defines as “a sentiment of pains and regrets that have never been released but simply endured over a very long time.” (124) Identifying han as a “national sentiment” or “the archetypal nature of Korean people”, and, as a consequence, Hamlet’s agony as “a metaphor of the Korean people’s painful modern modern history”; he follows Choi Sang-jin’s book Psychology of the Korean People (최상진,『한국인 심리학』, 2000) According to Choi, “han is sublimated through indirect methods such as play, gut, humor, music, and literature.” (124) In this sense, shamanism acts as a catalyst for unresolved han and—in turn—Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” acts as a “magic spell to exorcise han” (123)

Democratization and globalization in Korea, which are a characterising feature of the 1990s, “has led to a greater concern for women who have traditionally lived more difficult and less privileged lives, and have therefore borne a greater share of han, than their men.” (124) As the “social focus in the last decade has moved from women to the Korean people as a whole” (ibid.), productions of Hamlet have turned their focus from Ophelia (as a representative of Korean ‘womanhood’) to unmarked Hamlet himself (as a representative of all Koreans). Considering ‘shamanistic Hamlets’ as an “exorcism for their souls”, Lee closes with the suggestion that “Korean people, with their ongoing agonies and han, will keep loving Hamlet.” (124).

While Lee’s attempt at a social historization of recent Hamlet-productions in Korea is interesting and definitely worth considering, his hypotheses, especially concerning the underlying desires of Korean society, are rather unsupported, based on general, sometimes even common-place ideas about ‘the Koreans’ rather than distinct scientific research. His analyses of productions are also a bit under-developed—maybe a more detailed focus on fewer key productions (or a broader inclusion of numerous representative productions)—would have helped making his argument more convincing. Although his conclusions certainly bear some truth, at times they seem too simple to be convincing. The last two decades of Korean history are far more complicated than even the most mind-boggling play by Shakespeare.


Although the following two anthologies on “Shakespeare and/in Asia” do not include articles specifically related to Korea, they might be of further interest to anyone engaged in the field:

Shakespeare in Asia (c) Cambridge Univ. Press 2010

(c) Cambridge Univ. Press 2010

Shakespeare in Asia: Contemporary Performance, eds. Dennis Kennedy and Yong Li Lan, Cambridge 2010: Cambridge UP. (see the publisher who provides the first chapter by the editors who pose a good question: “Why Shakespeare?”, google books, and a review by Kathy Foley in Asian Theatre Journal)

Shakespeare and Asia, special issue of Shakespeare Yearbook Vol. 17, eds. Yang, Lingui,  Douglas A. Brooks, and Ashley Brinkman, Lewiston/NY 2010: Edwin Mellen Press. (see the publisher)

THIRD, another English-language volume completely dedicated to contemporary Korean Shakespeare has been published in Korea:

Glocalizing Shakespeare in Korea and Beyond (c) Dongin Publishing 2009

(c) Dongin Publishing 2009

Glocalizing Shakespeare in Korea and Beyond, eds. Lee Hyon-u et al., Seoul 2009: Dongin Publishing, 267 pages.

Table of contents (via koreanbookcenter):

Acknowledgements / Lee Hyon-u
Preface 1 / Shim Jung-soon
Preface 2 / Kim Dong-wook
Introduction / Lee Hyon-u

Part Ⅰ. Korean Shakespeare in the Global Age

1. Shakespeare Studies and Hamlet in Korea / Kim Dong-wook
2. Populist Shakespeare in Democratized South Korea / Lee Hyon-u
3. Dialectical Progress of Femininity in Korean Shakespeare since 1990 / Lee Hyon-u

Part Ⅱ. Representative Korean Directors and Shakespeare

4. Female Trance in Han Tae-Sook’s Production of Lady Macbeth / Shim Jung-soon
5. Glocalizing Hamlet: A Study of Lee Yun-taek’s Productions from 1996 to 2005 / Kim Dong-wook
6. British Responses to Oh Tae-suk’s Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican Centre / Lee Hyon-u

Part Ⅲ. Foreign Views of Korean Shakespeare

7. Cross-cultural Fields: Korean Shakespeare Productions in Global Context / Maria Shevtsova
8. Intercultural Shakespeare from Intracultural Sources: Two Korean Performances / Brian Singleton
9. Forcefulness of Love on the Korean Stage: Oh Tae-suk’s Romeo and Juliet / Ravi Chaturvedi
10. Inside Out: Dreaming the Dream in Contemporary Japan and Korea / Daniel Gallimore
11. Going Beyond the Boundaries: The Cultural Translatibility of Asian Shakespeares / Kobayashi Kaori


Originally, I bought the book to write a review—I guess it’s too late now, anyway Kathy Foley did one for the Asian Theatre Journal last year (see also the Korea Times).

The eleven articles mostly focus on well-known and -discussed “brand productions”, “koreanized” adaptations that have toured the world like Oh Tae-suk’s Romeo & Juliet (by Mokhwa 목화), Han Tae-sook’s Lady Macbeth (by Moollee 몰리) or Yang Jung-ung’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (by Yohangza 여행자). While I would have loved to read more on rather unknown productions, the choice fits the theme of the book—and I shouldn’t talk since I did the same. Some parts have appeared elsewhere before, e.g. chapter 4 in New Theatre Quarterly the same year; chapter 1 and 3 in conference proceedings from 2006; chapter 5 in Shakespeare Review, the journal of the Korean Shakespeare Society (see above), in winter 2008.

In fact, all three Korean authors are well-known  in the Korean world of Shakespeare studies. All of them are English professors. Kim Dong-wook (김동욱, Sungkyunkwan Univ.) focuses on Hamlet (see an abstract of his dissertation at Michigan State Univ., 1990) and also works occasionally as a translator and dramaturg (e.g. for Lee Youn-taek’s Hamlet), Lee Hyon-u (이현우, Soonchunhyang Univ.) has also published some translations and worked as an actor as well as an director.

Shim Jung-soon (심정순, Soongsil Univ.) might be called the grande dame of Korean theatre studies—former President of the Korean Theatre Studies Association (한국연극학회), her work focuses on feminist issues (she did a PhD on “Images of Women in Modern American and Korean Drama” at Univ. of Hawai’i in 1984).
She is very active internationally— and has published some articles in English-language journals such as New Theatre Quarterly or Theatre Research International (e.g. “Female Trance in Han Tae-Sook’s Production of Lady Macbeth“The Confucian Difference: Yin/Yang Feminism in Korean Women’s Dramas”“The Shaman and the Epic Theatre: the Nature of Han in the Korean Theatre”)

As a collection of scattered material, partly unavailable to readers, a certain lack of connection and formal inconsistencies between the different texts are obvious but, in my opinion, forgivable. While it adds to confusions in transliteration (e.g. of titles), I like the fact that some “foreign” voices—scholars from India, Japan, England, and Ireland—are included and add some perspectives.

Because the book makes a rather scattered, sometimes confusing read, it is not the best introduction to Shakespeare in Korea (that would probably be Jong-hwan Kim’s essay “Shakespeare in a Korean Cultural Context” [1995] that is based on his—unpublished and rather meticulous—PhD-thesis from 1992) and might frustrate reader’s looking for hard facts (such as performance dates, statistics etc.) or a comprehensive, detailed overview (those would have to turn to Sin Jeong-ok’s monography Shakespeare Comes to Korea: 신정옥, 『셰익스피어 한국에 오다』, 백산출판사 1998).

Although one should not expect a too in-depth discussion of the theoretical implications of the underlying concepts, Glocalizing Shakespeare provides some interesting discussions—for example on the irritations of well-read British spectators facing re-translated surtitles for Korean adaptations that do not match with “their” Shakespeare—and re-unites a decent body of work on the subject matter, as well as a lot of pictures of the productions discussed. Still, because the works mentioned as more systematic (though both rather descriptive) alternatives are more or less out-dated (both works end in the late 80s, early 90s), a new full-length study about the changing tides of “Shakespeare in Korea” is due, whether in English or in Korean.

FOURTH, some of the discussed productions (as well as a few others) are available in full-length as videos in online video archives on Shakespeare in Asia:

The trilingual site Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive (A|S|I|A) features videos with various subtitles and commentaries, images, and downloadable brochures of the following productions (free registration necessary):

  • Romeo & Juliet by Mokhwa, dir. Oh Tae-Suk (〈로미오와 줄리엣〉, 극단 목화, 연출 오태석, 2005–)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Yohangza, dir. Yang Jung-Ung (〈한여름 밤의 꿈〉, 극단 여행자 2002–10, )
  • Romeo and Juliet by the National Changgeuk Company, dir. Park Sung-Whan (〈로미오와 줄리엣〉, 국립창극단, 연출 박성완, 2009–10)
  • King Uru by the National Theatre, dir. Kim Myung-Gon (〈우루왕〉, 국립극장, 연출 김명곤, 2000–04)
  • Hamlet by the Street Theatre Troupe, dir. Lee Youn-taek (〈햄릿〉, 연희단거리패, 연출 이윤택, 1996–)
  • Coriolanus by Hwadong, dir. Lee Hyon-u (〈코리올라누스〉, 극단 화동연우회, 연출 이현우, 2005)
  • Othello in Noh Style by Ku Na’uka Theatre Company (Jap.), dir. Miyagi Satoshi (〈オセロー〉, ク・ナウカ, 演出 宮城聰, 2005–06) — this production was revived as a co-production by Miyagi and Lee Youn-taek, with additional Korean actors and stage elements, and presented in Seoul and Tokyo in 2008 and 09, respectively.

While Shakespeare Performance in Asia (SPIA) does not provide any material related to Korea at all, its sister-site Global Shakespeares (link) has some general information on ten Korean productions, as well as

  • full video and English translation of the script for Mokhwa’s Romeo & Juliet,
  • script only of Yohangza’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,
  • an introduction on “Shakespeare in Korea” by Hyon-u Lee.
(see an introduction to these two sites by the omnipresent Alexander C.Y. Huang—yes, he is also guest editor of a special issue of the magnificent web-publication Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation on Indian and Chinese movie adaptations of Shakespeare…)

All in all, like most of the research mentioned above, these ressources focus on internationally acclaimed productions—a dog that bites its own tail—and the quality of the video files is of course not comparable to master tapes. Still, the interface is fine, interesting sections can be marked and saved, and the mere possibility to see more of a production that just glossy stage photos is just amazing. And in any case every initiative that allows for more material-oriented research is more than welcome. Hopefully, these archives will expand in time and have a bright future.

— Sept. 2011 / May 31 2010


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Readings in Secondary Literature and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Some More Shakespeare in Korea

  1. There is a lot of fascinating information here. Thank you! I thought that you might be interested to know that the Seoul Shakespeare Company is performing and English language Hamlet this season. They can be found on Facebook, if you would like to learn more.

  2. Pingback: Foundlings: Shakespeare Readings in 19th Century Korea (Theatre and Globalization 3) | Seoul Stages

  3. Pingback: The Bard in Korea #ShakespeareWeek | Seoul Stages

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