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The Tempest: A Korean Take on Shakespearean Language

The Tempest, by the Mokwha Repertory Company, at the Edinburgh Festival 2011

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A Shakespearean play without English? Don’t worry! Comprehension is not as impossible as it sounds in the Mokwha Repertory Company’s enjoyable performance of The Tempest.

It is one thing to understand a play through words, but there is a deeper connection to understand a play through the body language and emotional expressions of the actors.  Play director, Oh Tae-Suk, breaks the language barrier as he takes audiences back to fifth century Korea in his dramatic rendition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest mixed with ancient Korean folklore using traditional dance, music, and costumes.

With the theme of performances from the East, the Mokwha Repertory Company makes a lovely, if not ironic (with their English-based production of The Tempest), addition to the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival. Tae-Suk’s play, fully fitting with the Eastern theme, focuses its performance on the themes of family, love, and revenge all encompassed under traditional Korean values.

For example, after Miranda and Prince Ferdinand have been married, and Prospero has come face to face with the King of Naples, there is a scene that focuses on the Korean honor of suicide for a deep wrong. This is an additional scene not in Shakespeare’s version of the play, Even though the scene is mixed with comedic relief, as neither character carries through with death, it seems to emphasize the importance of forgiveness for wronging someone, and forgiveness from wanting revenge.

The stage is set with bare-minimum props, placing all the attention on the actors. This not only sets the tone for the barrenness of the island, but also makes the audience rely on the characters to bring Shakespeare’s play to life.

For example, opening scene of the storm and fire aboard the King of Naples’ ship is staged as a dance with long white scarves to form waves, which only become more vigorous and exaggerated as the storm gets stronger. The scarves are then replaced with bright orange fans to conjure up images of fire. This dance eliminates the need to understand the banter in this scene.

Musicians standing to the sides of the theater play the drums and traditional Korean instruments such as the zither to provide the perfect “enchanted air” to captivate the creatures and characters on Prospero’s island. Again, the tone of the music sets the stage for the tone of the scene to provide an easy understanding to the feelings of the characters.

The spoken language of the play is formatted in a three-four or four-four rhyme scheme used in a type of ancient Korean poetry called Sijo. This provides a unique, song-like rhythm, that also provides to the exotic, and enchanting musical setting of the island.

The characters are dressed simply in traditional Korean style. The clothes are plain and without pattern, and the hair of the characters- particularly of Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban- is wild and appropriate to having been stranded on a deserted island.

One of the most notable changes of character is in Caliban, who has become a two-headed monster in constant disagreement with himself. In this play, Caliban is a more humorous and light-hearted character that helps provide comic relief. At the end of the play, Caliban is granted freedom by sawing himself in half. Whether or not this is a symbolic splitting of North and South Korea, as has been argued by some, leaves much to be debated.

Another notable change in Tae-Suk’s performance is that Prospero’s magical staff- replaced with a Korean fan- instead of being broken at the end in a final, isolated soliloquy is given to a member of the audience. This is the ultimate breaking of the fourth wall, and allows for an open interpretation of Prospero and Miranda’s life after the island.

While there is something to be said about the loss of Shakespeare’s language and word choice (after all, his language is a major reason for his fame), the production does an excellent job in expressing the themes of revenge, love, and family in a traditional display of Korean culture in congruence with Shakespeare’s play. Overall, Tae-Suk Oh’s production of The Tempest is a performance and cultural experience worth seeing.


Katherine Knapke is a second year nursing student at The Ohio State University. In her spare time she enjoys being outdoors, cooking, and traveling. 

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This guest post is one installment of revised student reviews of plays watched on the MIT Global Shakespeares digital archive

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