As England plays host to the largest Shakespeare festival in history, are the Bard’s works wholly relevant in this modern age?
The title of this article will no doubt have many people moaning about the resurrection of such an age-old question. I definitely hear you. The monotony and circular motion of these debates has definitely numbed many people’s interest in the question, so I’ll offer an answer that will hopefully leave many relatively satisfied.
Four hundred years since the writing of his plays, it is difficult to deny that Shakespeare and his works still spark debate and passion in the literary, dramatic and social spheres of our lives. This year, as an almost dramatic prologue to the Olympics, many of us will witness the largest selection of Shakespeare productions at any one time. A plethora of the writer’s plays will have been performed throughout the country, ranging from his most well-known to the more obscure.
Sex, lies and betrayal hardly seem unfamiliar to the morning headlines, yet can we really say that in constructing his plays around them, these themes were a pre-emptive suggestion from Shakespeare that our society (and lives) will forever be dominated by such things?
When confronted with events and issues that seem alien through their atrocity or scandal, there is something quite comforting about being able to feel as though ‘it has happened before’. Indeed, the Bard’s plays were enjoyed by those in all walks of life, ranging from peasant to monarch, who revelled in seeing on stage those held up to folly that were not necessarily the typical targets of such scrutiny. Where the man succeeded, was in his ability to offer comedy, tragedy, history, criticism of government, murder, sloth, vanity, madness, depression, reconciliation – to name a few.
It irritates me when you get someone sat high up in their ivory tower proclaiming that Shakespeare represents a time-gone-by. It’s definitely the ‘done’ thing to say today that what our schools, theatres, and bookshelves need is more contemporary ‘stuff’, more relevant ‘stuff’. My response to these kinds of people is, when you look at Shakespeare’s writing, you are seeing something that can be forever relevant and applicable to anyone if it is perpetrated properly.
Yes, the copious amounts of “thee” and “thou”, and the fact that every word seems to end with “-eth” can make the writing appear archaic. However, the plots and themes within each play are generally very easy to follow. You have to bear in mind that Shakespeare wrote for a vast range of people, many of which couldn’t even read or write.
I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that I have been exposed to Shakespeare from a young age. My mother was insistent that I experience as much as I can of a writer who has, without exception, played the most influential role in our artistic culture thus far. I admit I found much of it tedious. As a 12-year-old on a school trip to The Crucible in Sheffield, sitting through a four-hour long, unabridged rendition of Hamlet definitely isn’t the way to entice someone into Shakespeare.
Fortunately, shortly after, I was taken to the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s brilliant adaptation of all the writer’s plays in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). The Today Show claimed of this comedy “If you like Shakespeare, you’ll like this show. If you hate Shakespeare, you’ll love this show!” It was watching these three actors perform all 37 plays in 93 minutes that made me realise just how accessible this writer can be.
It is difficult to pick a Shakespeare play that, when performed, cannot offer scenes of familiarity. Let us take Coriolanus for example, whose boycotted leader was most recently interpreted in Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant 2012 production, starring himself as the eponymous solider alongside Gerard Butler who plays his nemesis-come-ally-come-backstabber, Aufidius. Now, attribute that to conflicts in Africa where a militaristic leader is overpowered by an opposing force in the best interests of the nation. Sound familiar?
If you can, head down to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon around August and see Gregory Duran’s production of Julius Caesar. Set in modern Africa, you’ll witness an exceptional performance of a classic that deals with those same issues.
If you’re still not convinced, let us consider Al Pacino in his portrayal of the oppressed Shylock in Michael Radford’s 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice where, despite being set in 16th century Venice, the connotations of the vicious anti-semetism of the mid-1900s appears to dictate the directorial path of Radford’s artistic wand.
The fact is, where we are hammered by reports of atrocities that only ever ignite the all-too familiar flame of history, we search for something in which we can find reconciliation and understanding. The reality is, we need theatre and film to inform us as well as alleviate an inevitable pessimism that would no doubt descend upon us all if we were to let it.
As many an actor or English fanatic will tell you, the brilliance of Shakespeare lies in his creation of a simple plotline and allowing it to evolve into a layered and complex story through his employment of language. The beauty of it is, as in his time and now, his plays can find relevance for anybody who is watching; be it in the past, present or future.
I think it will be fascinating to see how the next generation and indeed the subsequent generations consider this great writer. While there is a tendency to dismiss classic writers, many young people today will have seen an adaptation of Shakespeare without even realising it as well as using every-day phrases coined by the Bard. I would sincerely hope it’d be hard to find a room full of people where none of them had seen nor heard of The Lion King, 10 Things I Hate About You, or West Side Story, or used the phrases “all of a sudden” and “too much of a good thing”.
The endless possibility to adapt Shakespearean plays to suit a contemporary audience is one that stands as a testament to the versatility and depth of his writing. The legacy left by this great writer is one that reaches into all aspects of our culture. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a world without him. Whether he is the bane of your English classes at school, the reason you look forward to the new theatre listings every season, or simply that we are now living in a golden age of film and television whereby this poet/dramatist/genius, is now, and will forever be, accessible to all.
Tagged in: film, literature, poetry, Shakespeare, theatre, William
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