Foundlings: Shakespeare Readings in 19th Century Korea (Theatre and Globalization 3)

The Independent (독립신문 영어판), Thursday, 16 Dec. 1897, page 3

The Independent, 16 Dec. 1897 (click for full page as PDF)

Browsing old newspapers (고신문) at Media GaOn (미디어 가온) for the first assignment of the Coursera class on “Theatre and Globalization”, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of information in the column “Local Items”. According to The Independent (독립신문), a reformist paper with an English section (영문판),

There will be a Shakespeare reading in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union to-morrow afternoon at 5 o’clock. It is desired that all readers be there promptly at that hour. Mrs. Alex. Kenmure [?] will serve tea at 4 o’clock.
The Independent, Thursday, 16 Dec. 1897, page 3, column 2, PDF via Media GaOn

Some more browsing yielded a few more announcements of similar readings:

The fourth Shakespeare reading will take place in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union to-morrow afternoon at 5 o’clock. Dr. Cutler and Miss Rothweiler will serve tea at 4 o’clock.
The Independent, Thursday, 13 Jan. 1898, page 2, column 2, PDF

The fifth Shakespeare reading will be given in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union at five o’clock to-morrow afternoon. “Julius Caesar” will be read. Mrs. S. F. Moore will serve tea at four o’clock.
– The Independent, Thursday, 27 Jan. 1898, page 2, column 3, PDF

There will be a Shakespear [sic] reading in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union to-morrow afternoons at 5 o’clock. Mrs. O. R. Avison will serve tea at 4:30 o’clock.
– The Independent, Thursday, 3 Feb. 1898, page 2, column 3, PDF

In total, these are the supposed dates of the Shakespeare-readings at Seoul Union I could find in The Independent, all of them on Friday afternoon, 5 pm:

X. 1897-12-17
4. 1898-01-14
5. 1898-01-28
6. 1898-02-04

Obviously, not all readings have been announced. Although the dates suggest a bi-weekly meeting, with a possibly omitted Dec. 31, the sixth (?) reading took place only one week after the last. I suppose that readings had taken place earlier in Nov. 1897, too. On the other two Fridays of the month, other entertainment events seem to have been held at the Seoul Union.

I did some research on the early reception of Shakespeare in Korea when writing a paper for the German Shakespeare Society back in 2009 (here you can find some follow-up notes). Jong-hwan Kim (김정환), my main source for the historical introduction, is quite clear with regard to the first mentioning of Shakespeare:

It was […], in 1906, in a magazine called Joyangbo, that the name of Shakespeare appeared for the first time in Korea. His name was written not as Shakespeare, however, but as “Saygusbeea,” reflecting the influence of the Japanese way of pronunciation. (p.38)

– Jong-hwan Kim, “Shakespeare in a Korean Cultural Context”, Asian Theatre Journal, 12.1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 37–49 (JSTOR).

I cannot recall any mention of the readings, neither in Kim’s more detailed dissertation (“Shakespeare in Korea. 1906–1989”, Univ. of Nebraska, 1992) nor in Sin Jeong-ok’s major book on the reception of Shakespeare in Korea (신정옥, 셰익스피어 한국에 오다, 백산출판사 1998, “Shakespeare Comes to Korea”), that I used for factchecking.

Given that the readings were announced in The Independent, they can certainly be considered public events. The Seoul Union was “a social center for foreign residents”, where in 1900 the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society would be founded (see Brother Anthony’s chronology of the RASKB’s early days). But it seems that people from the wider world of theatre were not attending—or at least the influence of these readings must have been minimal.

Kind of an early “dead end” in the reception of Shakespeare and therefore probably unimportant within a wider history of theatre in early modern Korea, these readings are nevertheless quite interesting. They testify to rather simplified deterritorialized practices (readings, maybe by several persons?, instead of stagings) that were taken to “the colonies”, although the British were not the de-facto colonists here in Korea. While colonial centers like Shanghai, Singapore, or Tokyo offered touring acts by ensembles from Britain and elsewhere, Seoul seems to have been a bit of the track (but wait, there’s more from the old newspaper archive to come…).

– 22 Feb. 2015 (日)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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3 Responses to Foundlings: Shakespeare Readings in 19th Century Korea (Theatre and Globalization 3)

  1. violamuse says:

    Thanks for useful link, 미디어가온. I have found many news articles in NAVER (뉴스 라이브러리), and I didn’t know other websites. Interestingly, I could find few articles in the 미디어가온, and I wonder why it was much fewer than NAVER. I doubt if my manner of search does not adequate. I just put some keywords like ‘베르디’ or ‘오페라’ which was sufficient at NAVER. Actually there is just one article at 매일신보 from 1940-1950, when I put ‘베르디’ in search box. weird….
    I cannot find my problem. Plz some comments if you have any tips and knowhow.
    And if you don’t mind, please let me know how I can send ‘personal’ messages in this area, not reply to your posting. I want to ask questions about some technical things when I write a post in my blog, but I think it seems not a good way I write my question at your postings. :)

    • i’ll look into the 미디어가온 search engine. feel free to contact me by email (jan.creutzenberg [at] on technical matters — not sure if i can help, but i’ll give it a try!

      • violamuse says:

        Thank you for your quick response and kind words.
        I am just in a nascent phase of my dissertation, so I am envious of your postings whenever I visit here ;) I am trying to visit here regularly to get motivation….!!!

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