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.
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.
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.
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.
R.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.