Re-writing Shakespeare

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The Royal Shakespeare Company currently has no plays by Shakespeare in its Stratford repertoire. Well, if you’re a text purist they haven’t. Leaving aside the debate over the provenance of Cardenio, Michael Boyd’s Macbeth has replaced the witches with children, both on stage and in the text, and in The Merchant Of Venice Rupert Goold has replaced all references to three thousand ducats with three million dollars for its relocation to Las Vegas. The RSC commissioned and endorsed Jonathan Bates’ Palgrave Macmillan complete works edition which is based on the First Folio but in performance it is the directors, not academics, who decide what is said on stage governed, not by scholarship, but by the mise en scene.

The RSC championed the teaching of Shakespeare-as-dramatist rather than Shakespeare-as-writer through their Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign. They post excellent schools lesson plans online, free of charge, including recent updated for both Macbeth and The Merchant Of Venice based on three principles; do it on your feet, see it live and start early. But there are signs of a backlash. Shakespeare is still taught in the UK as part of the English literature syllabus, not as drama, and in March this year Professor John Jowett, the incoming Chair of Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Institute, mischievously titled his inaugural lecture Sit Down For Shakespeare In his lecture Professor Jowett re-asserted Shakespeare’s status as a writer whose work is mediated for a contemporary readership, not by performances of the plays, but by editions of the text.

Shakespeare’s text has never been static, read the footnotes of any good edition and you’ll see countless variations, not just between the Quarto and the Folios but between subsequent editions. But who should have the last word, an academic with a lifetime of scholarship behind them or a theatre director at the forefront of contemporary performance? Or are the two forms entirely separate now and the whole point in going to the theatre is to see something different from the published text?

In a recent interview Stanley Wells said, ‘I don’t object to occasional substitutions of words for clarity’s sake [but] I don’t like the idea of modernising the language to any serious extent.’ So where do you stand? Do the references to children and dollars in Macbeth and The Merchant bring a fresh perspective or is it yet another example of how the auteur director has displaced the writer at the heart of British theatre?

 

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England

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  • Anonymous

    Yet again I, happily, learn much from your more informed perspective of theatrical trends. I do very little of any background reading in this field, so my perspective is always as a paying punter. SBTs blogs and web presence is making it much easier to feel part of the discussion without being an academic. In discussing the rights and wrongs of text revision and interpretation, the perspective that feels to be missing is that of the actor. The physical and emotional experiences of growing into and through the text are, presumably, of a different order than that of the reader, academic and spectator….are there new coherences, disjunctures that work for actors… in one production or over time? Are there other trends (directorial ticks) that sit awkwardly on their practice?

    On your second point – you are of course absolutely right about the appalling lack of social mobility – my household consists of those who benefited from the ‘best of times’ in the 70s – working class kids going to university -including oxbridge!  So I return to the wider ripples implied by my very first comment; we seem to have rather too much in common at present with the turbulent times of shakespeare – following periods of expansion and the emergence of new ‘classes’ of people creating new ideas and ways of doing things we find ourselves faced with rampant growth of economic and social divisions, a sentimental militarism (very worrying), subtle concentrations of command and control into fewer hands and, worst of all, rhetorics of liberty and freedom which mask and bizarrely encourage our passive acceptance of mechanisms of censorship, surveillance and suppression…. All very Shakesepearean… or is it just me?

  • Thanks for that Glynis. I think in my own mind I associated the text revisions in Macbeth and The Merchant Of Venice with similar changes in last season’s Antony And Cleopatra so it was starting to look like a house style rather than one-off directorial interventions. Terry Hands said in an interview that the RSC ‘tried to do each production so well that no one would go near the play for five years.’ but, apart from The Globe, most other companies have dropped out of the race so the RSC is competing with its own track record. I saw Greg Doran’s Antony And Cleopatra in 2006 and Michael Boyd’s in 2010 and I saw Greg Doran’s Dream in 2008 and I’ll see Nancy Meckler’s later this year. Apart from alternating between period and contemporary dress how far can they go to vary successive productions if they don’t bend the text a little? But there’s no perfect balance, as you comment above, if you’re too text-bound it becomes a lifeless museum piece but if you re-write the text then whose play is it?  

    I also agree with you that other genders, ethnicities and class are no more authentic than white, male, public schoolboys but I would argue that they are as authentic and have as much right to be heard, particularly in public-funded institutions. Class mobility has declined since the 60s and 70s, the gap between rich and poor has widened, we have Oxford graduates running politics and Cambridge graduates running the arts who, I am sure, don’t feel their interpretation of Shakespeare is conditioned by their upbringing but in my opinion, how can it not be?

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, that is interesting, you speak from a position of much greater familiarity with theatrical trends, I couldn’t comment on the trajectory of the RSCs directorial styles. But your comments here and the linked blog,  about how the more general political narratives have fanned out over the last generation do seem to ring true..I slightly surprises myself though, as – like you I’m a bit of a dyed in the wool leftie and 70s feminist- that I don’t think I’m particularly bothered that the white, male oxbridge directing hegemony still exists (I think the real cultural gatekeepers are probably elsewhere). Although widening the voices we hear should be a constant effort, I have never thought that the gender, class, sexuality etc.of a writer, director, actor automatically provides a more ‘authentic’ perspective – it might, but its not guaranteed. I was trying to argue against such appeals to ‘intrinsic essences’ in my first comment too. My irritations – and fears -are with a creeping religiousity and outright worship of a mythologised ‘Shakespeare’ which often seems to be bizarrely intertwined with otherwise excellent scholarship. Knowing Santa Claus doesn’t exist has never stopped me enjoying a magical christmas.

  • Thanks for your comments, Glynis, which open up the conversation to a much wider question of who owns our culture. I completely agree with you that cultural gatekeepers use the arts to legitimise their
    own position and, as a high art cultural icon, it’s impossible to talk about Shakespeare without talking about class and power, which I blogged about here: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/whose-shakespeare.

     I was interested in what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be a shift at the RSC from an academic spirit of textual enquiry under Peter Hall and John Barton to a more director-led, performance-based artistic policy. I’m not sure the change removes the cultural gatekeepers though, Peter Hall and Rupert Goold are both white, male, public school-educated Cambridge graduates so they belong to the same class but they make different use of the text.

  • Anonymous

    Its a shame, perhaps, that this is even a question worth rehearsing.Is there an absolute right or wrong in either of these approaches?  In 16th/ 17th century protracted arguments over who owned the right to interpret a text, or who asserted  that their unique view should prevail, were accompanied too often by bloody murder and tyranny.At some point between then and now we decided that priests, shamans and kings had neither the unique nor final word on what ‘the text’ meant to each of us. 
    We continue to seek the magic in, and of, Shakespeare, we find a deep pleasure in this (inter)national game.. Transforming a living magic into ‘sacred’ text where only chosen initiates are privy to the truth is not attractive, and, fundamentally, in these times such monotheism should be strongly resisted. 
    What is at stake in these opposing ‘postionings’? Is it perhaps only ego and senior common room cattiness?

  • Thanks Sylvia. You’re right, of course, but I think it’s the long shadow of Thomas Bowdler that makes me flinch at rewrites when I’m perfectly happy to accept cuts and transpositions. Purely by coincidence I was reading the chapter on Peter Hall in the Routledge Companion To Directors’ Shakespeare this afternoon which puts Hall’s unique contribution to British Shakespearean playing down to ‘his consistent denial of the widespread assumption among theatre directors of a necessary, self-preserving gulf between their productions and Shakespeare academics, as if scholars were some kind of inherent danger to theatre productions.’ 

  • Anonymous

    Hi Andrew, what an interesting post! Theatres have adapted Shakespeare in order to fit the fashion of the times since the 1660s, and it’s worth noting that in the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries the versions that passed as Shakespeare on stage were often markedly different from what Shakespeare wrote. The happy ending King Lear is the best-known example, but it’s far from being the only one. Charles Lamb was famously dismissive of actors and of the stage adaptations of the time, also making his oft-quoted comment that “I cannot help being of the opinion that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist”. Stage and screen producers have to be allowed to interpret and even rewrite when necessary, to keep the plays current, but I would always encourage theatregoers to go back to carefully edited and annotated texts with good introductions in order to really get to grips with the play.

  • That’s a fair point, Pete, and maybe I made the first line a little more provocative than necessary to catch your attention and encourage you to disagree with me! I think what interests me is where does authorship lie, in the text or the production? You refer to John Barton as someone who felt free to take liberties with Shakespeare’s plays in The Wars Of The Roses, which I agree he did, but he claimed authorship for the result which he described as ‘adapted from’ Shakespeare, not a performance of Shakespeare’s work. I’m used to directors cutting Shakespeare’s lines, moving them or even giving them to a different character but I’m intrigued by the phenomenon, which is certainly new to me, of the director writing their own text and performing under the name of the original, and conveniently out of copyright, playwright. 

    My own theory is that we are seeing the consequences literary structuralism, which separated the text from the originating author, and post-modern theatre, which demoted the text to just another sign system within a performance. Shakespeare’s words then become one more element, along with music, lighting and costume, which the director is free to change and the authored piece is the entire production, not the published play. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong, I liked Michael Boyd’s Macbeth and I loved Rupert Goold’s Merchant Of Venice, but it’s interesting.

  • Pete

    Interesting post Andrew – but surely the examples you’ve highlighted aren’t really significant enough to no longer claim the plays aren’t by Shakespeare? Every production has to make decisions in the transition from text to stage – cuts and transpositions, added words and business – there’s no such thing as an unmediated, “pure” production.

    Here, we’ve got children-for-witches and dollars-for-ducats – textually, these are actually quite insignificant changes, and pale in comparison to some of the most acclaimed productions of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Michael Boyd’s history cycle which radically rewrote certain scenes to fit the production’s presiding conceit, to Barton and Hall’s Wars of the Roses which featured large amounts of brand new “Shakespeare” written by Barton, to concept-driven productions from Peter Brook’s Dream to Tim Supple’s Dream.

    I do agree with your basic point, but I think we’ve got to be careful not to romanticise the idea of an “authentic” production. Shakespeare has survived this long because he is so adaptable, because artists have felt able to reshape and adapt the plays – and historically, it’s far more normal to prioritise textual fidelity on the stage nowadays than it was in, say, the 18th or 19th centuries. Compared to a lot of what can be seen elsewhere in the country, the RSC’s current season is pretty straight-down-the-line Shakespeare.

  • Pete

    Interesting post Andrew – but surely the examples you’ve highlighted aren’t really significant enough to no longer claim the plays aren’t by Shakespeare? Every production has to make decisions in the transition from text to stage – cuts and transpositions, added words and business – there’s no such thing as an unmediated, “pure” production.

    Here, we’ve got children-for-witches and dollars-for-ducats – textually, these are actually quite insignificant changes, and pale in comparison to some of the most acclaimed productions of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Michael Boyd’s history cycle which radically rewrote certain scenes to fit the production’s presiding conceit, to Barton and Hall’s Wars of the Roses which featured large amounts of brand new “Shakespeare” written by Barton, to concept-driven productions from Peter Brook’s Dream to Tim Supple’s Dream.

    I do agree with your basic point, but I think we’ve got to be careful not to romanticise the idea of an “authentic” production. Shakespeare has survived this long because he is so adaptable, because artists have felt able to reshape and adapt the plays – and historically, it’s far more normal to prioritise textual fidelity on the stage nowadays than it was in, say, the 18th or 19th centuries. Compared to a lot of what can be seen elsewhere in the country, the RSC’s current season is pretty straight-down-the-line Shakespeare.

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