Swans Commentary » swans.com July 3, 2006  



Demise Of The Bard


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - July 3, 2006)   In the film version of Hamlet released in 2000, writer-director Michael Almereyda set Shakespeare's play in a bustling, modern-day, New York corporate world. The film followed the machinations of a yuppie Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), surrounded by hi-tech malefactors, as he attempted to regain his "crown," the directorship of Denmark Corporation.

A few seasons back, writer-director Billy Morisette's Scotland, PA. transplanted Macbeth into the American '70s with a scheming Mrs. Macbeth inveigling her husband into a plot to take over "Duncans," the roadside diner in which they were both employed; a scheme that predictably led to murder and mayhem.

Ten Things I Hate About You was clearly inspired by Taming Of The Shrew, albeit skewed into a direction that would never have occurred to its inspiritor, and Al Pacino's Looking Fot Richard used Richard III as a stimulus for examining the process by which the play is tackled by a contemporary band of actors and directors. And I understand that the rock group "Bare Naked Ladies" is currently "doing a number" on a forthcoming production of As You Like It. All that being the case, we may shortly be seeing Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson in an X-rated version of Antony & Cleopatra (studded with some tantalizing "wardrobe malfunctions") and if so, one has to wonder whether Paris Hilton's Lady Macbeth can be far behind.

Fanciful as all these Shakespearean riffs may seem to be, they are very much in a tradition which has a long history both in films and on the stage. In the late 1940s there was Joe Macbeth, in which Paul Douglas, as a small-time conniving gangster, tried to rub out the reigning "godfather" to become the mob's new kingpin. In the mid-1950s, Walter Pigeon was a Prospero-like-figure in Forbidden Planet, a sci-fi extrapolation of The Tempest. Kurasowa's Throne Of Blood retold the Macbeth legend from the standpoint of a medieval Japanese warlord that plotted to kill the emperor. On the musical stage, we have had Rodgers and Hart's The Boys From Syracuse ripped-off from The Comedy Of Errors, West Side Story, the Robbins-Bernstein finger-snapping version of Romeo And Juliet, Kiss Me Kate, a knockabout play-within-a-play' loosely based on The Taming Of The Shrew, Catch My Soul, a kind of rock concert rendition of Othello -- the list could go on endlessly.

The implication of all these Shakespearean spin-offs seems to suggest that what happened to Kyd, Belleforest. Whetsone, Cinthio, Hollinshed, Plutarch, and other authors who provided fodder for the Bard, is now happening to the Bard himself. He is being turned into raw material for the delectation and exploitation of contemporary scribes that view the canon as a great quarry from which they can hew out their own bric-a-brac.

Does that mean that we must abandon William Shakespeare, the celebrated Man of the Last Millennium, and admit that as the sweep of modernity makes certain artifacts obsolete, so the Collected Works will become known to us only in diluted, updated and digitalized versions?

This is an intolerable conclusion that enrages the bardolators as much as it consternates the leaders of such hallowed institutions as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. We know "there will always be an England" just as we know there will always be a Shakespeare to represent its greatest cultural flowering. Or do we? During the Restoration, Shakespeare was little more than an "also ran." Samuel Pepys mentions only fifteen performances of plays by Shakespeare whereas he lists seventy-six performances of Beaumont and Fletcher. It wasn't really until the 19th century that Shakespeare got, as it were, "rediscovered" -- and most of those plays were "doctored" to make them palatable to the tastes of a Victorian public.

The desire to appropriate, swallow, and regurgitate Shakespeare in new theatrical and filmic forms is an irresistible tendency on the part of modern artists. They recognize that the canon is a great storehouse of available myths which most people already have lodged in their mental database. It is a situation reminiscent of 5th century Greece when writers such as Aeschyles, Sophocles, and Euripides foraged the mythology of their own day to fashion plays on stories that most of their audiences already knew by heart. The tendency of culture is for it constantly to recycle itself, creating variations of old and established material which has settled into the collective consciousness. Is what is happening to Shakespeare anything more than New Brooms whisking away vestiges of The Old?

Are we in danger of immediately losing the plays of Shakespeare to the untrammeled avidity of contemporary playwrights and filmmakers? Will we in our dotage look back fondly to the days when we could regularly see beautifully-enunciated revivals of Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear or As You Like It? Will we tell our children who are watching rap versions of "The Swinging Prince of Denmark" or digital animations of the Hip Hop Thane of Cawdor, that we remember the works in which these pre-millennial characters first appeared? Will we try to convince them that these spinoffs, parodies, and remakes were once encapsulated in magnificent language actually spoken by live actors on a stage rather than Daleks in a DVD or electronic images in a Play Station? Will we have to explain to them there was once a William Shakespeare that many people believed was really a nobleman called De Vere, or an essayist called Bacon, or a prematurely murdered poof named Marlowe, and will all those tales of suspect identity only further subvert the reputation of an author whose appeal will have been eroded by time? The fear is not so much in forfeiting Shakespeare but in losing the narratives, characteristics, and données that made Shakespeare what he has been for over five centuries.

More fearsome still, will we simply accept these theatrical and filmic extrapolations of he who used to be respectfully referred to as The Bard of Avon, as the inevitable successors to the great personages we now shell out almost a hundred dollars a ticket to gape at in our commercial and publicly-subsidized theatres?

Shakespeare, like the Stock Market, has his booms and busts. Today, he dominates our popular culture but there have been many other superstars that changes-in-fashion have relegated to the bush leagues. There may not "always be an England," but will there always be an English-speaking public enamored of the classics we were taught to revere in school? Will the "fix" that critics, scholars, and professors instilled in us during our most impressionable years gradually come unstuck as new technological sights and sounds saturate our perceptions?

Or will we simply come to praise the canon as magnificent raw material out of which modern artists have fashioned even more imposing masterpieces? Will we, at some horrific time in the future, being approached by some old codger who extols the author of Hamlet, Lear, As You Like It and Richard III, blankingly ask: "Will -- who????"


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/cmarow50.html
Published July 3, 2006