When is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare?

Getting ready for the play
Getting ready for the play
This backdrop is supposed to tell us where we are. Can you figure it out?
This backdrop is supposed to tell us where we are. Can you figure it out?

 

There was a large crowd for the August 2 production of Lake Tahoe’s Shakespeare festival. As you can see a nice  crowed had gathered for a night of cultural entertainment. How can you go wrong with one of Shakespeare’s best well written plays? Some of Shakespeare’s best lines are found in this play. From the well known, “All the world’s a stage” speech to Touchtone’s witty comebacks, what the play lacks in plot more than makes up for it with very witty writing. One would have to try very hard to screw this up. Yet, as much as I enjoyed the performance of the actors, a question came to mind as I watched. When is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare?

I’m well aware that most modern productions of Shakespeare discard Elizabethan settings and dress in order to connect with their 21 century audience. Last year I saw a Midsummer’s night dream set in the 60’s; a time of free love and hippie spiritualism. It worked because the idea of woodland spirits and capricious love are found in both the play in the era of the Beatles. There was a lot of forcing of the action to fit the setting. But this year it was hard to imagine the connection between the era of the railroad barons and setting Shakespeare intended.

In the opening scene we see what appears to be railroad workers, both labors and timekeepers enter and exit the stage, for now apparent reason other than to illustrate the setting. Then Orlando, dressed as a lowly worker, appears with his servant Adam. Orlando, now changing his dirty cloths for clean cloths complains about his lot in life.

As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns,
and, as thou sayest, charg’d my brother, on his
blessing, to breed me well: and there begins my
sadness. My brother Jaques he keeps at school, and
report speaks goldenly of his profit: for my part,
he keeps me rustically at home, or, to speak more
properly, stays me here at home unkept; for call you
that keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that
 differs not from the stalling of an ox?

This speech indicates that instead of being allowed to become a well-bred man (educated) he is stuck at home with nothing to do. This is Shakespeare 101. The wordplay, on “unkept” means that his brother’s lack of attention is not in keeping with his father’s wishes. Yet on stage we see a dirty unkempt youth, washing grime from his face. It would seem his brother has given him something to do (work on the railroad lines we have to assume) and not kept him at home like an Ox in a stall.

The lines and the action on the stage do not match. We are not introduced to a youth so bored he decides to risk his life in a wrestling match. If he wins, he will be rewarded with money. Money that will allow him to leave his brother’s home and seek his own fortune. By showing him as a workingman, we are left to wonder why he doesn’t save his wages and become his own man?

Touchstone, the wise and saucy fool has some of the best lines of the play.

The more the pity that fools may not speak wisely when wise men do foolishly”.

When asked how he likes his new life as a shepherd, he says:

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.

These lines alone are enough to make us laugh. The audience is smart enough to get the humor, yet in this production Touchstone is a buffoon. His physical mannerisms and cartoonish facial features detract from the words. Saturday night’s audience did not laugh at the lines; they laughed at the shtick that accompanied them. His lines were lost, hidden behind the clownish mask.

Were it not better,
because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?

 

When Rosalind and Celia decide to flee the court, the two talk of disguises. Rosalind makes the observation that being tall for a woman she should dress as a man so the two can safely make their way to the Forest of Arden. But in this, Shakespeare made a mistake (or the writers of the first folio made it). In the beginning of the play it’s established that Rosalind is the smaller of the two. Yet in the course of the play she is described as tall. Folger fixed this problem years ago by changing the first reference. Rosalind is said to be the taller of the two. Thus, eliminating the confusion and making the disguise make sense. The point of the manly disguise is to fool would be robbers into thinking twice about messing with a tall man. And later, Rosalind will give advice to several characters. Yet this director of As you like it, chose to make her short and petite. When Rosalind as Ganymede steps on the stage the audience is confronted with a youth who looks 15. The audience is left wondering why anyone would take orders from or find wisdom in a teen.

These are just three examples of how this adaptation fell flat. I heard someone behind me ask, “What is this, Shakespeare the musical?” when we were faced with a third vaudevillian song and dance number. He wasn’t the only one to show his displeasure. Some people left during intermission never to return. When it was over, the crowed applauded (the actors had done a fine job) but did not rise and show overwhelming gratitude for what they had just paid to see.

So when is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare? When the director tries to conform the play to what he thinks his audience will understand. In this case, changing the play’s setting, action and physical characteristics. All this accomplished was a conflict between the action and the lines.

Why would one American railroad baron ask another, “So how goes it in court?” Why was Touchstone doing a soft-shoe number while reciting some of his best lines? Did the director think his audience to dense to get the original humor?

The first objective of a director of Shakespeare is to make sure the true spirit of the play comes through. Any changes should be done in order to make sure the first objective is met. Failing this, the play is not Shakespeare.

Let’s hope next year’s Tahoe Shakespeare Festival returns to the true spirit of Shakespeare.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

8 thoughts on “When is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare?”

    1. Exactly! Of course the actors are not just going to stand there and recite their lines, but between the songs and Touchstone’s antics, the story was lost. The wonderful words fell on deaf ears.

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  1. Authenticity has its dangers, too: do we want to see young boys playing all the female roles?
    Some adaptations I’ve enjoyed: the stylized “Titus” from 1999 and the 1930s-setting “Richard III” from 1995 are two examples. On the other hand, much as I wanted to enjoy it, and there were enjoyable scenes, the 1999 adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with its bicycles and late 19th century Italian setting failed because of the mud fight and the odd way Kevin Kline played Bottom, which part was rewritten to make him some sort of Everyman.

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    1. Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. When it is rewritten or re-imaged to fit a particular theme, then too much of the original is lost. You are so right, we do not need to to return to the original casting norms, but we must be careful not to make Shakespeare fit our ideal play. I agree the 1999 was awful. This is a good example of what we saw Saturday night.

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  2. Hi Sari – I have been reading some of your posts. Your blog is very impressive!

    I am a bit of a Shakespeare purist and could not agree with you more.

    I milder form of revisionism is the current trend to set the plays in the nineteenth century. Though i can live with that I prefer that the timeframe be kept as intended. I cringed, when about a year ago, I saw an otherwise decent production of Macbeth set in a post – apocalyptic future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Brian. I am pleased you like the blog.
      One of the things modern directors tend to forget is that by changing the setting, they ignore the norms and traditions of the original. Take your experience for example. By setting Macbeth in a post-apocalyptic future the killing of Duncan may be part of the “wild west” mentality of the time. Traditional values are thrown out in the dog eat dog apocalyptic world. But, to the medieval mindset, the killing of Duncan is all that more horrifying because one does not let any harm come to a guest in one’s home. Macbeth not only kills Duncan, he also “kills” the medieval honor code of hospitality.
      Shakespeare is a lot more complicated than many directors realize, and for us purists who do understand this, watching modern renditions can be maddening.

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