Shakespeare in Sweden

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Caliban as a buzzed up grunge metaller, Lear as a red-nosed clown, Olivia as the owner and Malvolio the manager of a down-sized tire factory whose workers belt out rock ‘n’ roll classics and roar onto stage on a Harley Davidson, Othello played by a frail but feisty twenty-something white woman… Swedish theater is not afraid to show its love for Shakespeare with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek attitude.

More straightforward productions also abound. According to one of the daily Swedish newspapers Svenska dagbladet, Shakespeare has been the second most frequently produced playwright in Sweden in the past five years (Strindberg was first, no surprises there). Romeo and Juliet was produced nine times and Twelfth Night six (SvD, March 29, 2012). Somewhat surprising is that Hamlet didn’t top the list but it is also often played, currently in a production called “Pre-Study for Hamlet”, a kind of anti-Hamlet.

Swedish film productions are much rarer but one unusual version shown on Swedish television a few years ago was Macbeth in Sami, the language of the ethnic group also known as the Lapps. This film was granted the Best European Minority Film Award in 2004. A trailer can be seen here.

In other words, Shakespeare the playwright is alive and well in Sweden. So is Shakespeare the author, though perhaps somewhat less so. A search on Bokus.com, one of the largest online bookshops in Sweden, shows 5,701 hits on a search for “Shakespeare William”. However 5,248 of them are in English and only forty-nine of them are in Swedish. All but a very few are translations of the plays or sonnets. Two of them are editions of the single book in Swedish about Shakespeare and his times, written by one of the board members of the Swedish Shakespeare Society, Kent Hägglund. It was interesting to note that in a very recent issue of the other major daily, Dagens Nyheter, there was a big spread about Kent Hägglund in honor of his 65th birthday. The article emphasized his work with Shakespeare.

A new translation of the sonnets was published just a few months ago to wide acclaim. However, a Complete Works of Shakespeare in Swedish is not to be found except possibly in used book stores in the version translated in the 19th century.

Swedes who aren’t theater-goers or readers of Elizabethan literature are nevertheless introduced to Shakespeare early on. He is to be found in schoolbooks on literature both for English classes and Swedish classes and no Swede can graduate from the equivalent of high school without having read some Shakespeare, at least in Swedish.

It can safely be concluded that Sweden, with its population just somewhat more than that of London, likes Shakespeare. From simple amateur productions of the plays in the the depth of the Swedish countryside to elaborate professional productions at the Royal Dramatic Theater in the capital city of Stockholm, from Easy Reader versions of the plays to books of literature analyses at the tidy price of over a hundred euros, Shakespeare is everywhere. Swedes have only to reach out to find him.

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Author:Ruby Jand

Ruby Jand has an MA in English literature and history from the University of Stockholm. She teaches history and English at grade school and high school level at the Sundbyberg School of Adult Education in a suburb of Stockholm. Her interest in Shakespeare has emerged recently, developing within the last year into an ongoing project on the blog Shakespeare Calling.

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