Among the First Folios and rare quartos and historic theatre costumes at the British Library’s recently opened exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, there’s a book. About the size of a modern paperback, it’s neither particularly old—it’s from 1907—nor is it particularly rare. But what is interesting about it is that, unlike many of the other pieces on display, this book is about how awful William Shakespeare is.
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was not a fan of Shakespeare, professing himself in this book, Tolstoy on Shakespeare, to be in “complete disagreement with this universal adulation”. When he read Shakespeare, he said, “I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium”, and wondered whether he was just wrong to see “works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad”, or if the civilized world was just mad. He read them all, and now, as “an old man of seventy-five”, he could look back and say with honesty that all he ever felt was “repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment”.
“The contents page of the book is wonderful because he lists everything he thinks is wrong with Shakespeare,” said Zöe Wilcox, curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts. It is an exhaustive list, including that Shakespeare’s characters speak “the same Shakespearian, pretentious, and unnatural language, in which not only they could not speak, but in which no living man ever has spoken or does speak”. And it’s refreshing evidence that not everyone has always loved Shakespeare.
But this April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and, Tolstoy notwithstanding, we celebrate the Bard as the best the world has done and could ever do as a playwright; even broadsides fired by angry Russian writers have done little to damage a reputation carved in stone and held in place by the vast industry devoted to it.
But exactly why do we still care about Shakespeare, a playwright who died before the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, several major wars, and the advent of the technology that dominates our lives today? We barely even speak the same language –what makes him relevant? Why do we still perform his plays?
Ironically, it’s Tolstoy—the man left positively ill after reading Shakespeare’s works—who may have the answer, or at least part of it. What frustrated Tolstoy the most was how Shakespeare neglected to furnish his characters with clear reasons for their actions, how he left a play’s meanings and intentions ambiguous. “From a novelist’s perspective, he felt that Shakespeare wasn’t good because he didn’t explain his characters’ motivations properly,” says Wilcox.
But those blank spaces have been filled, time and time again, with interpretation. Says Wilcox, “[Tolstoy] criticized Shakespeare for having stripped those things away, but the ambiguities have led people to be able to adapt the plays in so many ways, and that’s really a strength.”
There’s even reason to believe that Shakespeare built in that ambiguity on purpose, to enable players, often actors he knew personally, to craft their own interpretations. “We have to remember that Shakespeare was an actor. We have to remember that he knew that every character was to going to be filled in by the man or the boy who played that part,” says Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, co-founder and mission director of the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., one of the US’s most significant hubs of Shakespearean study and performance. “He also knew that it would be filled in by the audience.”
How Shakespeare’s plays have been performed and, crucially, adapted in the last four centuries has necessarily changed according to cultural context, regard for Shakespeare’s reputation, and technological capability; some contexts have transformed the plays almost beyond recognition. Over the century after his death, Shakespeare’s reputation was positive, but his plays were also considered old-fashioned and in some cases, problematic.
Restoration audiences, in the years after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 following the brutal Commonwealth years, didn’t like everything they saw and a number of Shakespeare’s plays were completely re-written to better suit the time. King Lear, for example, the story of a king driven mad by his bad decisions and poor treatment of the only daughter who truly loved him, was too sad, and its characters’ motivations too inscrutable to be left alone. Nahum Tate, who would later become England’s poet laureate, rewrote the play entirely in 1681, ditching the Fool and furnishing virtuous Cordelia with a love story and the whole play with a happy ending. The few stalwart critics went unheeded, meaning that it was Tate’s version of Lear that audiences saw up until 1838, when the Victorians decided they liked their Shakespeare “original” (although given that the sources Shakespeare lifted his story from actually did have a happy ending, perhaps the Tate version was more accurate). Now, playing Lear is what brilliant male actors—Ian McKellan, Laurence Olivier, Michael Gambon, John Gielgud—do when they approach retirement age; the play, as Shakespeare wrote it, routinely ranks as one of his best.
Shakespeare’s version of The Tempest, the story of sorcerer Prospero shipwrecked on an island of spirits with his daughter, was also “fixed”, or, perhaps more accurately, transformed into an over-burdened spectacle. In 1667, the play was re-written and re-titled The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island by John Dryden and William D’Avenant; simplified in parts, and plumped up in others—Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, gains a sister, as does the enslaved Caliban, and the new version made liberal use of advances in stagecraft technology. The Enchanted Island, like Tate’s Lear, became the dominant version for nearly 200 years, culminating in Charles Kean’s bloated 1857 staging in London that lasted five hours and needed 140 stagehands to execute. Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish fable writer, was in the audience and later proclaimed the experience exhausting, noting, “Everything was afforded that machinery and stage direction can provide, and yet after seeing it, one felt overwhelmed, tired and empty.”
“Throughout the history, you just see what is going to be popular with audiences, so directors are just going to bring out what’s going to be a big hit at the box office. The Enchanted Island made a fortune, it drew in crowds all the time,” says Wilcox. “It wasn’t just in that period that directors are kind of taking what is going to be popular about Shakespeare, that’s obviously something that we’re doing now.” And it is: The exhibition also includes a movie poster from West Side Story, one of the more famous adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, but there probably wasn’t enough space for My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V), Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew), Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), O (Othello), or Ran (King Lear), or any of the other dozens of modern adaptations of old stories. The words change, but the heart of the stories remains the same.
“Which goes to show, it’s such a cliché, but Shakespeare really is the poet of human nature,” says Dr. Cynthia Lewis, professor of Shakespeare at Davidson College in North Carolina. “There are some things about human nature that, though cultural impulses shift, they just take on different incarnations. You know, a grieving son is a grieving son in some ways.” The current of what Shakespeare taps into in Hamlet runs through The Banquet and The Lion King, of course, but also, as Lewis wrote in a recent essay for literary journal Shenandoah, in NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s bewildered grief in the wake of the death of racing patriarch Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001.
But we don’t only adapt his plays to fit our current cultural and social forms—we also continue to perform his plays as he wrote them, word for word. So what Shakespeare excelled at was not only finding and polishing the rights stories, but also expressing them. “He just has a ear for how we speak,” says Cohen. “Not just how we speak, how we listen, how we respond, when we fail to speak, he just had an ear for that…. He was a great poet, but he was a great mimic, too.” In other words, it’s not just that he rendered humans poetically—he made them feel real.
That language, however, can be lost on the page, when we only hear it in our own heads. Perhaps Tolstoy’s biggest problem was that he was reading Shakespeare—Shakespeare, scholars and actors alike say, is meant to be performed. “It’s still difficult, we don’t understand every single word, but there’s so much that an actor can bring in the meaning and the sense, it just naturally falls into place once they’re performing it,” says Wilcox. Cohen, who has directed Shakespeare for most of his life now, explained that one of the joys of his work is watching audiences discover Shakespeare through performance. Often, they’ll approach him after a show with congratulations: “My favorite is ‘How great! Who translated it into modern English?’ and we go, ‘We didn’t touch a word.’”
So the plays are still relevant because we perform them, not the other way around. It’s not so much that each production breathes new life into a character or a play, but rather that they keep these plays breathing, in and out, sustaining them.
It’s also about who is playing Shakespeare now. The fourth act in the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition is the advent of women on the stage in 1660, when London’s newest playhouse—built in a converted tennis court—saw the role of Desdemona in Othello played by a woman for the first time. Her name was not recorded, but a prologue was read out before the play, assuring the audience that Desdemona was indeed a real woman because, the actor was meant to say, “I saw the lady drest.” Women on stage opened up new avenues of interpretation and meaning for the plays, but also revenue streams: Audiences swelled when, for example, women played male roles because male theatre-goers so enjoyed the sight of their legs in tights.
The London exhibition also has a section that focuses on Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on the British stage in 1825. Aldridge was an American who left crushing racial prejudice in the States to forge an acting career in England; though he faced racism throughout his career in Europe, he also played roles from many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Shylock from Merchant of Venice, Richard III in Richard III and Lear. While Aldridge’s career didn’t spark a sudden revolution in casting, it did pave the way for later generations of non-white actors; “color-blind” and multi-cultural castings and staging of Shakespeare’s plays became increasingly popular throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. “It brings home the relevance to us now: If we didn’t see people like ourselves performing those plays, then we might not be as interested in them any more,” notes Wilcox.
Now, adaptations of Shakespeare on stage and in the theatre are increasingly challenging, for lack of a better word; while they are by no means uniformly good or even coherent, they are non-traditional, different. The last act in the exhibition is the New York-based Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet, in which the actors are performing with a projection of the film of Richard Burton’s famous turn as the tortured prince as the background. The production has an eerie choral effect when the Wooster actors actually speak with Burton delivering his lines, reinforcing the production’s acknowledgement of the weight of 400 years’ worth of performing Hamlet.
But that we can do weird, exciting things with Shakespeare’s plays stems from our deep familiarity with his stories; as Cohen says of Hamlet, “It’s in the DNA of the world so much that we all love Hamlet, we’ve all seen Hamlet.” Wilcox agreed, noting, “The familiarity leads to the infinite possibilities to re-interpret in various ways; we can compare it to previous interpretations, and that text and those characters.”
But familiarity also breeds contempt and Shakespeare today could be mistaken for as much a product of his own genius as a product of the industry that keeps crowing about his genius. “I have mixed feelings about it because the industry keeps Shakespeare current and performed,” says Lewis. “But there’s a downside to it, there’s a side to it that can make you cynical, in which the agenda is about revenue and commodifying Shakespeare and fragmenting him into so many key chains and T-shirts and mugs and junk, Shakespeare kitsch.”
Cohen acknowledged that the industry around Shakespeare can be powerful, but that there’s a reason for it that goes beyond simple revenue. “I do think Shakespeare is one of the great miracles,” he says, with a laugh and noting that he also appreciates many other playwrights. “But no one who’s in anything doesn’t talk himself too much into believing these things.” Still, he continued, “I don’t think it’s an industry that can survive on self-delusion, it just couldn’t.
Bardolatry aside, these plays do mean something to us. We like them. Some of us even love them. “The simple answer to the question of why we perform Shakespeare’s plays,” says Lewis, “would be that they seem to feed us.”