William Shakespeare? Enough, already. It’s been four centuries, for crying out loud!

We are pleased to welcome back R. W. Schneider with his admittedly heretical view on the Bard.

I plan to bury Shakespeare, not to praise him. The 23rd of this month marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. I propose to honor him with a stake driven through his heart. I hope this will be the end of Will.

R. W. Schneider

R. W. Schneider

Last month BBC television researchers using ground-penetrating radar concluded that Shakespeare’s skull is probably missing from his tomb. Even headless, however, he exerts undue influence on our theatre. As opposed to the theatre business, the Shakespeare business is doing alarmingly well:  festivals and dedicated companies everywhere. There’s a danger that Shakespeare’s become too big to fail.

What happens when a single author dominates? Look at ballet:  half of all professional ballet performances in America are now of a single work.  If you’re a classical dancer in America, half your pulled muscles and half the blisters on your feet are offered in homage to The Nutcracker.

If you think it can’t happen in theatre, you’re wrong.

Stacy Keach as King Lear and Edward Gero as Gloucester in the 2009 Goodman/STC production of King Lear

Stacy Keach as King Lear and Edward Gero as Gloucester, Goodman/STC production.

Joseph Marcell as King Lear in the Shakespeare Globe production (Photo: Ellie Kurttz.

Joseph Marcell as King Lear, Shakespeare Globe production (Photo: Ellie Kurttz.)

Irakli Kavsadze as King Lear and Ira Koval as Goneril (Photo: Graeme B. Shaw)

Irakli Kavsadze as King Lear and Ben Cunis as Goneril, Synetic Theater (Photo: Graeme B. Shaw)

Markus Kyd as Hamlet in Hamlet, the First Quartro (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Markus Kyd as Hamlet, Taffety Punk (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Alex Mills as Hamlet, Synetic Theatre (Photo: Koko Lanham)

Alex Mills as Hamlet, Synetic Theater (Photo: Koko Lanham)

Romeo (Elliott Bales) and Juliet (Claire Schoonover) in Unexpected Stage Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age by Unexpected Stage (Photo: Lew Lorton/Saul Peeter)

Romeo (Elliott Bales) and Juliet (Claire Schoonover) Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age, Unexpected Stage (Photo: Lew Lorton/Saul Peeter)

Erin Weaver as Juliet and Michael Goldsmith as Romeo (Photo: Jeffrey Malet)

Erin Weaver as Juliet and Michael Goldsmith as Romeo, Folger Theatre (Photo: Jeffrey Malet)

Guess what percentage of pre-20th century plays produced in America between 2000 and 2010 were written by Shakespeare? Before you guess, however, consider what “pre-20th century” means:  magnificent plays and magnificent playwrights, including Euripides, Marlowe, Moliere, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Wilde and Chekhov.

Yet when we produce from this period, 75% of the time it’s you-know-who. And when you-know-who is produced, we’re only talking about a dozen plays. Titus and Troilus are rarely touched.  A theatre that offers Cymbeline already treads the outer boroughs of Shakespeareland. (Although, to be fair, we must salute the Folger’s upcoming production of Timon of Athens.)According to Isaac Butler, Shakespeare’s work was produced 1,163 times during the first decade of our new millennium. The runner-up was August Wilson (who also wrote ten good plays) with 146.

Like any addiction, our dependence on Shakespeare becomes especially pernicious when it forces us to choose between our drug of choice and everything else, when it forces us to choose between Shakespeare’s sensibility and any nascent sensibility of our own. By outsourcing our observation of the world to a mind deceased — even an exceptional one — we lose sight of our own classical natures in our own classical times.  After four centuries we owe it to ourselves to at least contemplate theatrical life without Shakespeare.  Until he goes into the tomb and stays there, we’re not coming out of the cradle, theatrically speaking.

Harold Bloom claims that Shakespeare’s oeuvre constitutes “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.” Moreover, he continues, “libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or ‘spell of light,’ almost too vast to apprehend.” Isn’t this a good reason to stop trying? Why give ourselves the Willies? Why not produce something we can comprehend?

So I’m consulting with warlocks and exorcists:  what will it take to keep Shakespeare in the grave? Do I sacrifice a goat? Recite Macbeth backwards? Impale the first folio at a crossroads by the dark of the moon? Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.

Mind you, I ADORE Shakespeare. I yield to no one in my admiration for Lear’s passion, Rosalind’s’ wit, Othello’s rage or Imogen’s fortitude. I’ve taught whole semesters of Hamlet with zest and pleasure.  This fall I’ll offer a graduate seminar just on Twelfth Night. I love Shakespeare so much I no longer wish to see him produced by amateurs. Seeing Twelfth Night produced by amateurs is like watching a succession of flies land on a Boston cream pie. Every line flubbed, every bit of verse spoken badly, every moment misunderstood is another dark speck on a cherished play I was planning to enjoy.

For some reason this ghastly practice has become insanely popular. Amateurs are doing Shakespeare everywhere. We’re told that this is a good thing, that Shakespeare in the park is a “gateway drug” to hook the uninitiated on the glory of live theatre.  If so, it’s a drug of very poor quality. I’m convinced that most of the spectators are bored stiff, yet cowed into silence by Shakespeare’s redoubtable reputation. They’ve been told it’s good – or at least educational — so they grin and bear it.

When we pursue quaintness instead of passion, our integrity as audience members suffers along with our sense of theatre’s potential. We lose confidence in our own taste because we’re told we should like Shakespeare but we don’t. When we hear antique texts bent to modern mores and modern dress – as increasingly they are, since directors would rather be “relatable” than simply relate – our standards of credibility are eroded. When Anthony Skypes Cleopatra we don’t so much suspend disbelief as bid it adieu.

Subjecting young people to this treatment is abuse that should be banned in every state.  It robs students of their interest in theatre before they ever taste the genuine article.

Has anybody noticed that Shakespeare’s plays are written in a foreign language? Find a high school student who can parse early-modern English on first hearing and you’ve found a prodigy. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is at last translating the plays, or at least combing out the knots, but their effort comes too late.

We’ve become so attached to Elizabethan gobbledygook that we no longer care what it means; the word-music is enough. In performance everything resolves to primary emotional colors:  incomprehensible jokes are played as “funny.” Incomprehensible insults are “stern.” Incomprehensible rants are “tragic.” A manic and unmotivated boisterousness prevails. Actors who do a lot of Shakespeare adopt a matching visual style:  one third face-pulling and two thirds mime.

Other authors offer a similar verbal patina with different characters and less-familiar stories, but Webster and Ford, Otway and Congreve stay wallflowers while Shakespeare does his endless zombie dance across our stage. It’s not Shakespeare’s fault that he’s become a tale told by an idiot — the idiot is us. 

 Please! Let’s give the man a rest. There’s no point in gradualism, no point in merely cutting back or rationing ourselves; we’ve got to quit cold turkey.

It’s been four centuries, for crying out loud!

Seal the sepulcher!

Bury the Bard!

We can always toss in the skull when we find it.

————–

robertschneider2R.W. Schneider, a playwright, teaches dramatic literature at Northern Illinois University
and writes for Plays International Magazine.  His other provocative essays for DCTS have been “It’s Pretty, but is theatre any longer necessary?” and Life as Theatre.

 

Comments

  1. John Glass says:

    The critics doth protest too much! We all love Shakespeare, but – and it’s a Big But – the 5 act plays are over 3 hours long, contain inpenetrable language, with infinitely repetitive themes, and preposterous and derivative plots that leave audiences yearning for the door. That’s why directors cheerfully abridge (hack) the script – sometimes to nothing – and set the plays in far off lands and contexts. Unlike opera though, Old English does not sing when transcribed into modern keys. Let’s face it, Shakespeare’s a brand today that a heavily commoditized theater market is happy to exploit. The S tie-ins and partnerships spell seasonal box success. To Professor Schneider’s immodest proposal, I would add the stricture that the Bard be banned – not for an age but all time – in all but Elizabethan interpretations. RIP Will, you had a good run!

  2. Professor Schneider should consider the application of Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanations are generally the correct ones. Shakespeare is produced more than any other playwright simply because he is better than any other playwright. He is *incalculably* better; he is the Secretariat of playwrights. Not only was he brilliant; his best stuff is timeless. *Hamlet*, for example, is a meditation on the nature of knowing (if he didn’t know it was Polonius behind the curtain, how is he sure that his dead father is speaking to him?) *Macbeth* shows us how the masculine imperatives can lead to disaster. Does any of this have resonance in the modern age, in a way that, say, Thomas Middleton’s plays don’t? You bet it does!

    I suspect that Professor Schneider secretly agrees, since he admits to teaching a graduate-level course in *Twelfth Night*, and not, say, in Marlowe’s *Edward II*. Why would he do this if Shakespeare was nothing but “Elizabethan gobbledygook,” as he says at one point? If he wishes to teach a course in gobbledygook (I know several Universities which would welcome it) he need not reach back to Elizabethan times, as there are plentiful modern examples.

    Shakespeare did not write in a foreign language, as Professor Schneider hyperbolically claims. He wrote in our language, but he used some words that we’re not used to hearing. Google them, if you can’t understand them from context. Good literature challenges us to sharpen and expand our minds, just as viewing a Van Gogh sharpens our eyes, or listening to a Mahler concerto sharpens our ears. There’s nothing wrong with that, even for a professor (or a lawyer, as I am). And there’s nothing wrong when a high school student educates himself with a Shakespeare play. It has been a while since I was a student but I seem to remember that I was there to learn things.

    Professor Schneider suggests that the vast audiences for Shakespeare’s plays are composed of sheep, intimidated into watching a playwright they don’t understand for fear of being considered a dolt. Markets don’t work that way, Professor. If they did, Don DeLillo would outsell Stephen King. Again, apply Occam’s Razor: Shakespeare has a huge following because people recognize how good he is.

    Having erroneously concluded that Shakespeare’s audiences are cowed frauds feigning their enthusiasm, he then erroneously presumes that they do not comprehend the action in front of them. But we do; if the joke or the tragedy or the subtle combination of invoked emotions is not apparent from the text, the good companies make it apparent through their delivery. And, believe me, the audiences (some of whom have paid $100 a ticket, and come over and over again) get it.

    After insulting the audience, Professor Schneider turns on the actors. “Actors who do a lot of Shakespeare adopt a matching visual style,” he says. “One third face-pulling and two thirds mime.” One of the best Shakespearean actors in our town is Ed Gero. I have never seen him pull his face or mime.

    The Professor devotes some time to deriding amateur productions of Shakespeare. If you substitute “bad” for “amateur” (remember, some amateur companies are largely composed of former professionals who left the theater to make money), I would agree with him. But so what? I would not want to see bad Sondheim, or bad August Wilson, or bad Neil Simon either.

    And so on. Professor Schneider concludes with the preposterous suggestion that we ban Shakespeare. And so let me use the other part of the Macbeth quote with which Professor Schneider concludes his column: his proposal is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  3. Susan Galbraith says:

    Mr. S, surely you jest? Don’t you mean rather that life would be better without “bad” Shakespeare? I concur. I have seen too many badly spoken, hammily acted Shakespearean productions, and that’s professional as well as amateur. A large part of the problem, however, is the very thing your suggest — the “translation” of Shakespeare into modern English. I am aghast when I hear that high schools, from the Chesapeake Bay to China, and even colleges teach the plays with such watered down texts. So no one is learning how to speak the verse or for that matter use an Onions compendium! Theatre troupes tour schools bringing sword fights and slapstick scenes — forget the language! Renaissance “reenactments” treat Shakespeare as an excuse for “tits and tankards.” So let’s get back to the text.
    Let’s not forget that Shakespeare is for the ages, and for every age there is at least a handful of productions that excavate new meanings, sound a perfect resonance for the times. For this I am grateful.. Long live the Bard! As for his head or headlessness, leave the poor guy alone. He’s done his work. We should do ours!

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