How does one translate “All the World’s A Stage” into the ancient language of Khmer?
Once again I have found myself teaching Shakespeare in an unusual environment. Last year in Boston, I explored the elements of the story with 6th graders and probed the emotional transformation of the bard’s characters with teenagers. The year before, at a Thai university, our focus was the adaptation to a South East Asian setting.
Here, in the Kingdom of Cambodia, reading, listening, writing and speaking Shakespeare with Khmer college freshman and sophomores, our focal point has been the language.
In past years, I relied upon my childhood favorite – Macbeth. But here, I am surrounded by empowered young Khmer women working to break the stereotypes of the role of women in Cambodian society. When it comes to choosing an appropriate Shakespeare play, there is an obvious choice.
What better play than “As You Like It”?
The play is a stark contrast to the romantic Khmer soaps my students are always watching, where woman are always seen weeping or imploring their men to return.
Rosalind does not weep and she certainly does not beg. Instead she stands up to her uncle, dresses as a man to protect herself and her cousin, establishes a life for herself in the forest of Arden, and does not wait for any man to rescue her.
And so we began.
“All the world’s a stage,” proclaims the melancholy courtier Jaques. And in the dusty city of Phnom Penh, the streets and roads, but most particularly our dorm, became our stage.
The transformation took less than a week
These young women took Jaques’ words to heart. They practiced in their rooms and in the hallways and in the kitchen. They repeated their lines on their Motos en route to school.
Within a week they were quoting their lines to each other – saying good bye with a joking “I do desire we be better strangers” or “Goodbye Signior Love.”
Our Khmer Orlando embraced her role so fully that she altered her Facebook name to reflect her Shakespearean name.
To understand the full story we watched a movie adaptation. Whenever a student’s character walked on screen the particular student would correspondingly blush, or nod in agreement, or tease the others.
To introduce iambic pentameter I hung sonnets throughout the dorm. I found students studying the sonnets in the bathrooms and the kitchens, trying to read them out loud and decipher their meaning.
Mostly we practiced. We deciphered meanings of words and phrases: what does it mean when Rosalind charges her cousin to “take the cork out of thy mouth that I may drink thy tidings?” We practiced pronunciations :“she” particularly challenging to Khmer speakers: Shepard Shepard Shepard.
“O Rosalind!” the girl playing Orlando exclaimed from the dorm balcony, causing at least one neighbor to turn from their laundry to look up.
After a month of exploration it was time to perform.
We selected costumes and reviewed blocking. And then, one Sunday afternoon, we drove to the other dorm for a leadership seminar with all 80 young women, 20 recent graduates and 20 visiting Americans.
The girls changed into their costumes – pants, “manly” shirts, sneakers, some wore hats to hide their hair. The girl playing Touchstone (the fool), drew a curly mustache and fake beard on her cheeks.
And then they were walking out on stage, my roommate inspecting audience members before pronouncing in a loud clear voice: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players.”
Be it in inner-city Charlestown MA, the mountain city of Chiang Mai or the dusty capital of Phnom Penh, Shakespeare has captured the fascination of my students. Yes, Shakespeare is extremely difficult. Yes, the language sounds weird and the meanings are complex.
I love teaching Shakespeare because I believe that it is challenging but also empowering. These nine women rose to the challenge and I believe that these young Khmer women, who I have had the honor of living with and teaching, are all modern Rosalinds.
I look forward to watching their individual performances in the years ahead.
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer in Cambridge, MA. She has taught, among other things, Shakespeare and critical thinking to college students in the Cambodian Capital of Phnom Penh and the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Closer to home she has taught math and Shakespeare to 6th graders in the Boston inner city. She has written for the Boston Globe Magazine and keeps an education blog, Chalk Dust: http://jessicalander.blogspot.com