Shakespeare Remains A Hit, A Very Palpable Hit!!!
Its been nearly four centuries since the great Bard shuffled off this mortal coil, yet William Shakespeares words echo in time and enchant us to this day. His plays are continually being staged everywhere sometimes in unconventional forms; Hollywood has produced hundreds of movies and documentaries, including a fictional account of the Bard in love; in the literary canon his works are perched solidly at the top; he is the subject of more books and articles than any author in history; and his words and phrases not only dominate our vocabulary but provide common references for those with seemingly nothing else in common.
What explains Shakespeares enduring appeal? Why does his work stand the test of time in ways that no other author has even come close? FDU Magazine looks for answers from three devoted Shakespeareans: Stephen Hollis, director of Fairleigh Dickinsons theater arts program and assistant professor of visual and performing arts; Harry Keyishian, professor of English; and June Schlueter, BA70 (R), provost and Charles A. Dana Professor of English at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.
The Plays the Thing Hamlet
For many scholars and fans, Shakespeare first charms the ear with rhythmic lines, riveting images and extraordinary patterns of sound. Harry Keyishian recalls being initially captivated as a youth by Shakespeares language. It was richer and riper and nobler than anything I had spoken or heard in my daily life, he recalls. It had a Biblical resonance for me. To memorize Friends, Romans, Countrymen! gave me an eloquence I could not get on my own, and I definitely liked it.
Keyishian further remembers watching an eighth-grade classmate, one not academically talented, become transformed into a noble creature through a dramatic delivery of a Macbeth speech. Keyishian and his friends were waiting with bated breath for a tale told by an idiot, but instead were regaled with a moving soliloquy. Such is the power of Shakespeare. We thought the teacher had picked the wrong guy. We were amazed. Today, I am even more amazed at Shakespeare.
An artisan with words and master of the theatrical, Shakespeare left an unequaled legacy of dramatic achievement. His plays are so splendidly crafted, says FDU alumna and trustee June Schlueter, who is co-editor of Shakespeare Bulletin. Shakespeare had an ear for good story material and a talent for restyling his sources into compelling drama. Shakespeare knew the rises and falls of dramatic structure, and he knew how to sustain interest from one beat of a play to the next.
More than any other playwright, she adds, Shakespeare knew how to use language and pull together the words, words, words that Hamlet reads into iambic pentameter and prose lines that are poetic, pointed and, in many cases, eminently quotable: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day (Macbeth); To be, or not to be, that is the question (Hamlet); Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (Henry IV). One cannot read or hear a Shakespeare play without admiring its craft.
Rhyme and Reason
In Hamlet, the queen urges Polonius to speak More matter with less art. Shakespeares art, while lofty, has never outweighed his substance. His plays include comedies, tragedies, histories and romances, and it is hard to think of a human problem or major theme he left untouched.
There are truths in Shakespeares plays that speak with authenticity to human experiences, Schlueter says. For example, she points out, Although our identification with Macbeths situation has limits, we recognize well the lust for power that moves him beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Although the young lovers of A Midsummer Nights Dream are a source of amusement, we agree how changeable affections are and, with Puck, acknowledge, Lord, what fools these mortals be! Although Lear may strike us as a foolish man well into his dotage, we do not scoff at his death or the need we share to hear our children declare their love.
Stephen Hollis, director of Fairleigh Dickinsons theater arts program, in which students study Shakespeare in his homeland, observes that while many playwrights were successful in a particular time, their works often have trouble translating to different eras. Not so with Shakespeare, primarily because he wrote about the human condition, he wrote about what it is to be a human being.
Probe further into what Shakespeare is saying about the human condition, says Hollis, and it boils down to the conflict between passion and reason. Shakespeares works ask, Do we conduct ourselves according to our passions, or do we conduct ourselves according to our intellect? The answer of course is both, but in Shakespeares plays those people who are slaves to their passions come to unfortunate endings. For example, Macbeth is a victim of his ambition, Othello is a victim of his jealousy, Lear is a victim of his need for importance, and Hamlet, too, ultimately falls to his passion.
Hamlet in fact sums up the desire for reason, says Hollis, when he says, Give me that man/That is not passions slave, and I will wear him/In my hearts core, ay, in my heart of heart.
The need for revenge, of course, is a dominant theme in Shakespeare, and, as Hollis points out, it appears in almost every one of his plays. Keyishian thought the subject so fascinating it became the focus of his book, The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare. He points out that, in Shakespeares works, Characters seek revenge to feel empowered, repair damaged self-esteem and restore a sense of justice. However, revenge often leads to counter-revenges and a self-defeating cycle of retaliation.
As Hollis says, The question becomes do we forgive or do we punish? Knowing human nature, says Hollis, Shakespeare has Prospero in The Tempest comment, The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.
Keyishian, who coordinates an annual Shakespeare Colloquium at FDU, adds that the more he has studied Shakespeares contemporaries, the more he has realized how much Shakespeare borrowed insights from others and how representative he was. If Shakespeare is timeless, it may be in the ways he is ordinary rather than the ways he excels. He shares insights about human behavior with lots of writers.
His Infinite Variety
In Shakespeares Antony and Cleopatra, a character describes the beautiful Egyptian queen as follows: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety. These words could just as easily refer to Shakespeare and his ageless works that have produced an endless number of interpretations and variations. Or, to alter another phrase of the Bards, whats done can indeed be redone ... again and again and again. As Schlueter says, Shakespeare needs not be staged in Elizabethan or Jacobean times, with men in doublet and hose and women in farthingaled skirts and corset-tight bodices. Though numerous productions have elected that time period, many have given free reign to the directors imagination.
The adaptations indeed have stretched the imagination. Schlueter recalls, Peter Brooks landmark 1970 production of A Midsummer Nights Dream turned the Broadway stage into a white box with trapezes and circus paraphernalia. She adds, In the recent Macbeth at the reconstructed Globe in London, everyone, from Lady Macbeth to the Weird Sisters to the Porter, wears a tuxedo. I have seen Shakespeare staged in the powdered wigs of the Restoration, in stiff upper-lip Victorian jackets, in hippie blue jeans and in post-apocalyptic survival gear.
Schlueter further describes seeing a Zulu Macbeth, a Georgian (the Republic of Georgia) King Lear, a Titus Andronicus in Zagreb that connected the Serbian-Croatian war with that of Roman times, and a Christian Romeo and Muslim Juliet who were inspired by the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Indeed, everywhere stories are being told, Shakespeares plays have been fit into contemporary contexts.
Worldwide, whether the context is post-colonial, post-communist, post-modern or the renewal of the classics, Shakespeare, like J. Alfred Prufrock, has become deferential, glad to be of use and directors have responded to the invitation, she says.
Keyishian and Hollis likewise point to the adaptability of Shakespeare as being a significant factor in his continuing appeal. Under communism, Keyishian says, Shakespeare was often produced to convey some anti-regime message. In the 1960s, experimental Shakespeare productions were used in England and America to protest the Vietnam War and reflect youthful rebellion.
Schlueter says she used to be a purist who would not accept alterations of Shakespeares work but has since been converted. I now happily attend even the most revisionist stagings of Shakespeares plays, and I discover something new every time.
Hollis does believe that there are some instances in which an attempt to update Shakespeare belittles the greatness of the play. For example, he says, If you need a modern parable for Macbeth you might pick a number of subjects, such as a Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega, but then the story is about that specific person. Whereas, if you do Macbeth properly, the story becomes about all past, present and future dictators.
Hollis maintains, however, that no matter how misguided the modern effort may be, you cant harm Shakespeares plays. Everyone can have a go at trying to make them more accessible, but the originals are still there, and you can always go back to them.
Shakespeare on Screen
Still, some shiver at the twists and turns that Shakespeares works and now with Shakespeare in Love his personal image have taken. Particularly in film there have been some interesting versions. Romeo and Juliet brought to the city streets (West Side Story) was one thing, but more recently it was taken to a hip modern suburb with Leonardo DiCaprio. Othello was shifted to the college hoops scene in the movie O; Macbeth was set on the high school gridiron in Near in Blood and in rural Pennsylvania in Scotland, PA.; and The Taming of the Shrew was moved to a high school prom in 10 Things I Hate About You. The list goes on and the versions get even stranger than that.
Hollis says that while not all adaptations work very well, they serve a purpose in broadening Shakespeares reach. I didnt like Leonardo DiCaprios Romeo and Juliet, but it wasnt made for people like me, and it brought a lot of young people into the cinema to see Shakespeare.
Especially recently, it seems there has been a flood of releases with credit to Shakespeare the screenwriter. The 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love, which brought the Bard to life and into Gwyneth Paltrows bed, garnered seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and spawned nine films based on Shakespeare the following year (the biggest year for Shakespeare movies since 1912).
But with the recent emphasis on Shakespeare in Hollywood, its easy to forget that hes always been a star in Tinseltown. In fact, Shakespeare even dominated the silent screen, with about 400 productions done without one spoken word. Through the century, the natural attractions (Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Orson Welles), and the not-so-natural selections (Mel Gibson, Robin Williams and James Cagney) have taken a stab at major roles, with the popularity of films ebbing and flowing.
The recent interest in producing Shakespeare on the screen, says Keyishian, is largely due to the acclaimed actor and director Kenneth Branagh. When he made a film version of Henry V in 1989, he was challenging the stirring 1945 version directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.
Described by Keyishian as this upstart from Belfast, Branagh, still in his 20s, was taking on one of the great actors of the century. The result, he says, was a vivid, tough movie that makes Oliviers version look like a schoolboy pageant.
Branagh followed with a Much Ado About Nothing that was also pure genius, says Keyishian. Branagh continued to focus on Shakespeare and other filmmakers followed in haste. Keyishian notes that Branagh has since succumbed to celebrity casting too much for my taste, but Im glad he made a Hamlet well worth discussing [a four-hour version with all subplots included].
Keyishian adds that most actors and actresses want to tackle Shakespeare; hes the gold standard. When they get the chance, they usually jump at it. Some actors are wise enough to stay away from Shakespeare which is good both for them and for Shakespeare but at this point, few will doubt that Shakespeare could be good for a career, and the box office, too.
A King of Infinite Space Hamlet
Shakespeares popularity on the screen has only added to his incomparable influence. Shakespeare is in fact so pervasive in our world that he has become a common reference point for people from widely different backgrounds. As Keyishian says, Outside of the top-rated television shows, Shakespeare is one of the few things students from around the country and the world have in common. Put young people from Kansas City, Kyoto and Cairo in a room together, and they will have in common Mel Gibson movies and the plays of Shakespeare (in the case of Gibson as Hamlet they have both together).
Keyishian adds that Shakespeare has lots of whats called, A cultural presence. You can count on others catching references to Hamlets indecisiveness, Macbeths despair or Romeos passion.
And Shakespeares insights are true no matter the culture, adds Schlueter, Different cultures may have different customs, but Shakespeare reaches below them to a kind of deep psychology that crosses cultural lines. Shakespeares plays may not say the same thing to all cultures at all times, but they always have something worth saying.
Til Crack of Doom Macbeth
In a recent nationwide vote, Shakespeare was named Briton of the Millennium. Hollis goes a step further, I cant think of anyone outside of the religious context who has had a bigger impact on the world.
Bold praise certainly, but what of the future? Will Shakespeares messages continue to resonate? I cant imagine why they wouldnt, says Hollis, who believes that Shakespeares thoughts on the human condition will remain relevant basically as long as we remain human. The more I work on classical plays and period plays, the more I feel that, while people might wear different hats, and they might have different customs and speak different languages, were all basically the same and that goes for people from the past and the future too.
Hollis adds, People are driven by the same needs and experience the same range of emotions that Shakespeare probed 400 years ago. So Shakespeare will continue to speak to us, most likely as long as we exist to probe the human condition. And we seem destined to continue admiring this great player, who shined in his hour upon the stage and then is heard again and again; forever cherishing the tales told by this genius, full of insight and beauty, signifying everything.