The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0959  Wednesday, 7 October 1998.

From:           Janet Maclellan <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 6 Oct 1998 12:36:14 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Editorial/Interpretational Practices

Justin Bacon writes:

> 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 [snip]

And yet McKellen altered Shakespeare's text and the story it tells in
very significant ways. He eliminated Margaret entirely, a strategy
which-while it is a long-established theatrical tradition-radically
alters the balance of Shakespeare's play by removing the one character
who strongly opposes Richard throughout. He conflated Elizabeth's
kinsmen into one playboy brother who seems to spend most of his time
away from court, thus diminishing the political threat posed by the
Woodvilles to Richard and his cronies. He changed the body Anne mourns
over from H6 to his son Edward (taking away some of the public and
political ramifications of the first seduction scene) and he inserted a
scene of H6 at war, in which H6 (if I recall correctly) shows a quiet
competence highly surprising to readers of the H6 plays. He includes
Richmond in the action from the first scene on, showing him in a budding
romance with young Elizabeth (who in Shakespeare's version never appears
onstage), thus humanizing the final union of York and Lancaster, which
in Shakespeare's play is a purely political transaction.  Even his
slight changes had significant effects on our interpretation of various
characters: he took the phrase "poisonous bunch-back'd toad" from the
scene in which Margaret unleashes her invective on all the Yorkists, and
gave it to Queen Elizabeth to say in the middle of a dinner party, where
it conferred on her a degree of social ineptitude for which there is
little warrant in Shakespeare's play.

These changes did not announce themselves as loudly as did the film's
"Hitleresque" setting, but in many ways they did, technically, take the
film past "the line over which the characters and plot which you are
presenting cease to be Shakespeare's and become something else." Which
is not to say that I dismiss McKellen's _R3_ as an un-Shakespearean
"abomination" from which I have nothing to learn. It is only to say that
my "line" is not in the same place as Bacon's-nor would I expect it to
be, given that we are different people, with different histories,
valuing different aspects of Shakespeare's text.

There is a very old acting exercise, in which a number of pairs of
actors are given the same brief script to interpret (e.g. Performer A
enters.  Performer B: "You!"). The scene can be played a multitude of
ways, any one of which may seem "natural" to any one pair of performers.
Which is the "right" way? On a different scale, this kind of openness to
interpretation is one of the great virtues of Shakespeare's plays.
Lacking Naturalistic stage directions, we have to rely on the words on
the page (whether that page be quarto or folio) to tell us how to play a
scene or a character. And because those words usually contain the seeds
for completely opposing interpretations (is Cressida a whore or a victim
of the male game of war or both or something else? does _JC_ warn us
against dictatorship or democracy or both or something else?), what
seems "right" to one performer or spectator will depend on which
speeches he or she focuses on (which will in turn depend on any number
of personal and historical factors).

"Outrageous theories" certainly exist, but they are most effectively
refuted point by point. To lump them together and dismiss them out of
hand as not *Shakespeare* is dangerous, not only because it ignores
questions of degree (Shakespeare's text presents more evidence for an
Oedipal Hamlet than for a Ghost who is merely Hamlet's delusion), but
because it passes up the opportunity to learn from them (as there is
much to be learned from the tradition of identifying "female" qualities
in Hamlet).

Janet MacLellan
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