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Highlands University Professor Donna Woodford-Gormley Publishes Book about Shakespeare in Cuba 

Portrait photo of Donna Woodford Gormley

Donna Woodford-Gormley

January 28, 2022

Donna Woodford-Gormley, an English professor at New Mexico Highlands University, has published “Shakespeare in Cuba: Caliban’s Books” and will be giving a reading as a part of the Highlands Speaker Series and in conjunction with the Highlands Gender & Women’s Studies Brown Bag Lecture series at 12 p.m. on Friday, March 4 on the third floor of Donelly Library. Attendees who wish to attend via Zoom can do so here: https://nmhu.zoom.us/j/95621509544 

The publication of “Shakespeare in Cuba: Caliban’s Books” in 2021 is the culmination of Woodford-Gormley’s many years of research and travel to Cuba. Woodford-Gormley said she first got the opportunity to travel to Cuba in 2004 just before she was hired to teach at New Mexico Highlands University. The confluence of attending a conference session about the intersection of Shakespeare and communism in China, and an invitation to chaperone a student trip to Cuba, inspired Woodford-Gormley to secure grant funding to study Shakespeare in Cuba.  

“I wrote up a proposal for my research project to see if there was anything being done with Shakespeare in Cuba,” said Woodford-Gormley. “I went down there for a week and discovered that there was just a gold mine of information. There was lots of interesting stuff being done with Shakespeare in Cuba, and nobody else was researching it.” 

This first trip in 2004 sparked Woodford-Gormley’s subsequent research and writing about the ways Shakespeare is performed and adapted in Cuba.  

“The theoretical framework that I use is cultural anthropophagy, sometimes called literary cannibalism,” said Woodford-Gormley. “People who have been looking specifically at global Shakespeare adaptations have really worked to find different theories to approach this and struggled to find ways that didn’t put Shakespeare up on a pedestal so that anybody who was adapting him was in a dependent position.  

Woodford-Gormley said she appreciates the framework of cultural anthropophagy because it is an inclusive theory that began in Latin America. According to Woodford-Gormley, the theory allows for flexibility in the interpretation and a blurring of boundaries between the self and other. In Cuba, Woodford-Gormley said, Shakespeare is not reproduced as it would have been performed in 16th century England; Cubans make it culturally and geographically relevant to their lives. 

“If a lion eats a lamb, the lion doesn’t turn into a lamb; it takes the parts of the lamb that it needs to nourish itself, and it discards what isn’t useful,” said Woodford-Gormley. “Also, I’m not Cuban, and because it’s an inclusive theory, it gives me a way to enter into this exchange.”  

On her trips to Cuba, Woodford-Gormley was able to collect texts and view performances and ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. She said it can be tricky to do research in Cuba and that she often discovered performances by being in the right place at the right time. The adaptations Woodford-Gormley encountered, that she writes about in her book, encompassed a broad range of interpretations and mediums.  

“Some of them are pretty faithful, although obviously there have to be changes because they’re changing the language, or in the case of a ballet, they’re changing the medium,” said Woodford-Gormley. “And some of them are really radical departures that are adaptations of Shakespeare.”  

In her book, Woodford-Gormley writes about some of these adaptations of Shakespeare, including adaptations of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Othello’ set in 20th century Havana, and an adaptation of ‘The Tempest’ that centers on Caliban’s character and also brings in characters from different Shakespeare plays.  

“I organized the book by looking at some particular plays and adaptations,” said Woodford-Gormley. “I wrote a chapter on ‘The Tempest’ that looked at ‘Otra Tempestad’ and one of the most famous Cuban adaptations, which is an essay by Roberto Fernández Retamar on Caliban.”  

Woodford-Gormley said Fernández Retamar celebrates Caliban’s character as being symbolic of Latin America.  

“He says, this is our story, this is our person—somebody who had his culture taken away from him and his language taken away from him,” said Woodford Gormley. “Whereas in ‘Otra Tempestad,’ the playwrights have said they were trying move beyond either the colonizer speaking to the colonized, or the colonized speaking back to the colonizer. They were trying to create a third language where everybody could speak with each other.”  

In another chapter, Woodford-Gormley writes about “Romeo and Juliet” adaptations, including one version with a happy ending that functions like propaganda for the revolution. According to Woodford-Gormley, the play is interesting for many reasons, including the way that it incorporates Cuban theatrical practices.  

“There have been periods, especially right after the revolution, where Cuban theaters really tried to involve the public and the audience,” said Woodford-Gormley. “Some Cuban theaters would do some research into a particular social problem—like maybe there was a problem with sexism in a particular town or factory—and they would stage a play about sexism and ask the audience members to have a debate afterwards.”  

Woodford-Gormley said that many playwrights in Cuba adapt Shakespeare because his work is widely known, but that referring to Shakespeare as “universal” can often be problematic because it imposes Western culture on a particular place.  

“Education and literacy are highly valued in Cuba, so they’re using Shakespeare as a way to establish their literacy and their cultural literacy,” said Woodford-Gormley. “At other times it’s a useful tool that allows them to make a point by connecting it with something familiar. And sometimes it’s particularly to explore a problematic issue and Cuban culture.” 

For the lecture on March 4, Woodford-Gormley said she will be discussing her book and her experiences conducting research, as well as sharing information about some of the performances she has seen and written about that demonstrate how Shakespeare is reinterpreted in Cuba.