The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0940  Monday, 5 October 1998.

From:           Justin Bacon <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 03 Oct 1998 02:56:35 -0500
Subject: 9.0859  Re: Editorial/Interpretational Practices
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0859  Re: Editorial/Interpretational Practices

[ My apologies for the delay in addressing some of these points. School
started and I have been preoccupied with all the activities associated
with that. ]

Scott Crozier wrote:

> In the end I think we have to decide whether we want performances of
> Shakespeare's works to speak to/for the audience watching or whether we
> want museum performances of his plays.

For my part, at least, I have no more interest in museum pieces than I
do in watching abominations. As I believe I mentioned in my original
post, there is a thin line between making the plays resonate with
meaning for modern audiences and radically changing the plays into
something they are not-and sometimes that line is nowhere near what you
think it might be.

Good examples of something edging towards that line, but not crossing
it, would be McKellen's R3-was-Hitler interpretation and the modern-day
film version of ROMEO AND JULIET. An example of where that line is
violated would be, for example, the interpretations of Hamlet painting
him as suffering from a Freudian Oedipal complex.

The line in question is the line over which the characters and plot
which you are presenting cease to be Shakespeare's and become something
else. You can dress Hamlet in blue jeans and a t-shirt, but this doesn't
mean that Hamlet becomes a 20th century gang member-Hamlet is still

> On the other hand, when I decide to direct a play by Shakespeare or
> Marlow or Behn or ... I do so because there are things in the play that
> I think need saying to an audience now.

I agree. But if the play you end up producing isn't the play which
Shakespeare or Marlowe or Behn or Jonson wrote, then why are you doing
their plays?

A question modern critics, directors, and actors should ask themselves:
If I did this to Tennessee Williams, would I be taken seriously? If I
twisted and warped A GLASS MENAGERIE in the same way that I twist and
warp HAMLET, would anyone take my interpretation seriously?

Indeed, if you watched the STAR WARS film trilogy and came up with an
interpretation wherein Luke Skywalker has an Oedipal complex with his
dead mother (remember that lengthy conversation with Leia in JEDI?), Obi
Wan wasn't really killed by Darth Vader (that was just Luke's delusion),
and the message of the movies is that Luke should endeavor to be exactly
like Han was at the beginning of the first film-would we be able to take
this interpretation seriously?

Hopefully the answer is no. But yet we hardly blink an eye when we are
told to consider seriously the possibility that Hamlet is Oedipal,
Claudius didn't really kill Hamlet's father, and the message of the play
is that Hamlet should be a rash, impetuous moron just like Laertes.

If a play has nothing worth saying to an audience today it indicates
that the play should not be performed, not that it should be butchered
into something which it is not.

Sean Lawrence wrote:

> That said, Q1 and F1 are obviously in a different category from (say)
> Tate's _Lear_ (which I just read, BTW), or Kurosawa's _Ran_, or a
> videotape of Cameron's _Titanic_, relabelled "Lear."

This raises an interesting corollary-I have nothing against alternate
versions of these stories (heck, Shakespeare's versions are *alternate*
versions to begin with). Two interesting examples:

1. RAN is an excellent film. I have read accounts, however, of a Gielgud
production of Lear which attempted to adopt an oriental motif-it
failed.  Why? Well, because Shakespeare's LEAR no more works in Japan
than Kurosawa's RAN would work in medieval Europe.
2. I have an interesting quote of Boris Aronson: "I don't understand
Broadway. The director says he will direct against the play, that I
should design against the play. The actors say they will play against
the lines. If they are all so against it, why are they doing it?"

Indeed, if you are not interested in doing *Shakespeare's* version of
HAMLET or OTHELLO or whatever, then why are you doing Shakespeare's
HAMLET or OTHELLO? There's no sin in finding someone to write the
version of HAMLET or OTHELLO which you want to tell. As a personal
example, I once wanted to do FAUST and felt that Goethe's version was
inadequate for the story and message I wanted to tell-I did not go in
and pervert what was there in an effort to make it "meaningful for
today's audience"... I wrote a new play based on the Faust mythos.

Gabriel Egan wrote:

> When students respond to a new theoretical
> perspective by invoking common sense and characterize the new
> interpretation as part of a critic's private agenda, I sense that they
> are reacting to having their mental boundaries pushed back, and that's
> good education. Of course, they are still free to reject the offered
> theory.

Oh come, how can I describe some of these outrageous theories as
anything BUT a part of the critic's private agenda? (I'm going to use
HAMLET again, mainly because this is the play where my blood first began
to truly boil at the absurdity of it all.)

1. HAMLET is a complex allegory of celestial models.
2. Hamlet, the character, is really a girl dressed in boy's clothing in
order to provide a seemingly legitimate heir to the throne.
3. Hamlet, the character, is suffering from an Oedipal complex.
4. Ophelia is a slut who has slept with everybody in the castle,
including the King.
5. Gertrude killed her husband.
6. The Ghost is a delusion of Hamlet's.
7. Claudius isn't guilty of anything.

I make none of these up. These are egregious interpretations with no
firm basis on the text. The prosper in an environment where we are
supposed to take everything in as a "valid interpretation"-our critics
(and we ourselves) seem to have lost the critical ability to distinguish
between rational interpretational license and rampant idiocy.

It has occurred to me that it is little wonder that "no one" can
understand HAMLET. Actually they can probably understand HAMLET just
fine, but are mystified into believing they DON'T understand it when
they discover that- indeed-the play they remember reading has apparently
no relation to the play they are SUPPOSED to have interpreted from it.

Drew Alan Mason wrote:

> I just staged an As You Like It recently that served as a comparison
> between the confining corporate world of today, and the freedom of the
> country life.  We used contemporary country songs during the show,
> danced the Achy Breaky, and had a slickly black-dressed Duke Fred (as a
> Bill Gates-Robert DeNiro in Devils Advocate type).  The production
> served fairly well, I think, to show the comparisons of these two areas
> of life, and also how Rosalind, Celia, Touchstone, Orlando and Oliver,
> gradually free themselves of the oppressive corporate lifestyle in favor
> of the freedom of the life of the country folk.  I think this very much
> speaks to a contemporary audience where doublets, hose, and gowns would
> certainly have no relation to life today.

An interesting interpretation-sadly mired by the mistake of altering
characterizations and adding country songs.

I could easily seen an AS YOU LIKE IT produced with courtiers in
business suits and country folk in blue jeans. It would emphasize the
message which was already there to begin with, without crippling the
structure of the play by altering it in ways it was not designed to

If you wanted to compare and contrast modern country life with modern
business life using country songs and whatnot, why not write a new play?
You crossed the line.

Shakespeare and his message is timeless-so his plays outlast his own
time remarkably well, but not if you saddle them with definite 20th
century commentary. Timelessness and timeliness are two concepts which
simply don't mix, and like oil on water you have something you can no
longer use as a fuel or as drinking water.

Dale Lyles wrote:

> If we take these kinds of "liberties" with a playwright who will be
> sitting in the second row, you can imagine the "liberties" we take with
> Shakespeare.  As I tell my casts, "The best thing about interpreting
> Shakespeare is that he's dead and we're not."

If I were a playwright who had not given express permission to have you
"flipflop" my words and radically alter my script, I'd crucify you.
(Obviously you do have such permission, however.)

That being said, the kind of liberties you are describing do not
precisely violate the line of which I am speaking. Have you radically
altered characters? The spirit behind the events? etc. I don't think so
from your description.

An analogous situation would be a staging of Hamlet I envision wherein
the first scene of the play is the last one, with Horatio's voice coming
over the sound system as he says his famous, summarizing speech ("What
would you hear?..."). Then cut back to the beginning of the play and
proceed forwards.

I have not, I think, violated Shakespeare's characters, his plot, or his
text. If I were to, instead, make Hamlet homosexual I would feel that
Shakespeare has been violated and I should look for a different play or
write my own.

Penelope Rixon wrote:

> Firstly, if you have ever written
> for a company of performers, even at the most basic amateur level, you
> realise how unreliable your written text might be.

I have, and the play has changed. However, I would not do to Tennessee
Williams' plays what I see done to Shakespeare's play merely on the
basis that Williams (or Shakespeare) has been willing to change his
plays in the past.

One is forced to wonder if these self-same Shakespearean interpreters
consider Disney's HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME to be a "stunning and riveting
alternative interpretation of Victor Hugo's novel designed to relate
such an antiquated work to a modern audience".

> There are good, bad, and indifferent interpretations of his
> plays, but the idea that somewhere out there is the definitive text or
> performance is fiction.

Nor am I suggesting there is. For example on textual fronts
(interpretationally I have already voiced my acceptance of many
alternative and borderline interpretations) I believe you can take many
different philosophies, but I also think those philosophies should be
justified and consistent. To use HAMLET again:

1. You may believe that Q1 is what Shakespeare originally wrote and that
structure should be preserved as best as possible, with text removed
from Q2 and F1 in order to bring back in Shakespeare's phrasing rather
than that of a bad copier.
2. You might believe that Q2 is closer to Shakespeare's original than
F1, which was most likely altered during the play's run at The Glob.
3. You might believe that F1 represents Shakespeare's evolving text in
actual performance, and should be preferred to Q2.
4. You might believe that either F1 or Q2 represents a closer version to
the original, but that for the sake of completeness passages omitted
from one should be included.

And any of these philosophies can (and HAVE) been justified in many
ways.  Personally I think any argument you string together for Q1 is
pretty weak no matter how you look at it, but that discerning whether or
not Q2 or F1 is "closer to Shakespeare" is an effort in futility.

However, to run willy-nilly over the text making decisions which are-for
all intents and purposes-random is just plain silly. To wander through
HAMLET's text and simply say "Oh, I like this portion from Q2..." and
then cover that up by adopting a scholastic tone and stating:

"The main concern of the passage is with Gertrude's lack of judgment in
her choice of a second husband, which her son finds utterly
incomprehensible, since she has reached an age when, in his opinion,
sexual passion is on the wane. The lines that disappear expatiate on and
amplify the connections between the judgment and the senses in a rather
academic fashion that comes close to being something of a catalog, but
do nothing to alter or modify the central concern. The speech gains in
strength and directness from their excision." (Textual Introduction by
G.R. Hibbard to the Oxford Shakespeare edition of Hamlet, 1987)

I'm sorry, but that's just silly. If the attitude you want to adopt is
"I'm picking the line readings I like best"-that's a fine philosophy to
have, just state it plainly in your introduction and move on.

> I think that 'concept' productions are what you
> call ones that don't work.

And the question I think we should ask ourselves is *why* these
productions don't work. (See above for my answer.)

Annalisa Castaldo wrote:

> Because Shakespeare is deeply embedded in all levels of our culture,
> because he is recognizable to practically anyone, it is necessary that
> the plays (and the author) be malleable and available for reinvention.
> That way, the plays will always be up-to-date, or, in other words,
> timeless (Shakespeare's characters thought/felt just the way we do).

I could not agree more-it is only at the point where Shakespeare's
characters CEASE to be Shakespeare's characters that I begin to wonder
what the person making those decisions was thinking.

Justin Bacon
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