In the Shakespeare class I teach to college-level international students, we discussed Hamlet, and more specifically the character Claudius: his jealousy of his brother, his desire, his need for power. One of my students, a young Vietnamese woman named My (pronounced "mee"), could not fully understand the words. Nonetheless, Shakespeare's feelings infiltrated her. They caused her to raise her hand high when I offered up the role of Claudius to the class.
"I am Claudius," she said.
"Madness in great ones," I told her, "must not unwatched go."
My smiled and began to read.
My loved the way Claudius lied, the way he killed. His anger and passion infected My, and gave her strength to speak aloud in a way she never had before in class. The bad news was that she could barely read the Shakespearean English. She read every sentence slowly. We held onto our desk-tops, hoping she would hurry up. But when My spat out, "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go," you would have trembled.
Many of my students come from Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia, Mexico, and Russia. Not only do they have a tenuous relationship with spelling, grammar, and syntax; they don't know our idioms. "The cold shoulder" and "Going cold turkey" usually get mixed up to produce a sentence where a girlfriend has given a boyfriend the "the cold turkey."
Yet despite this vague notion of the English-language world, every semester I teach Shakespeare. How else will they get the information that they need to be human on this planet? Hamlet. Othello. The Merchant of Venice. Resolute and stubborn, I cold-shoulder on, knowing that Shakespeare belongs to all of us. Maybe not in English. But the ideas, the feelings, the topics—they are the world's.