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To See or Not to See Shakespeare in the 21st Century?

Date: Apr 22, 2021

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things


Today's topic: After 400-plus years, do Shakespeare's plays still resonate?

William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous playwright ever. Even people who have never set foot inside a theatre can quote (or at least misquote) some of his famous lines. (How did, "Alas poor Yorick! I knew him well," get started anyway?) Many of his plays continue to be popular more than four centuries after they premiered thanks to their poetry and public domain status. But do endless revivals or even reinventions of the Bard's oeuvre continue to make sense? Or is it time he got out of the damn spot? Christina Trivigno, TDF's Director of Digital Strategy, and Tyler Riley, actor, director and TDF's Online and Dance Programs Manager, discuss whether parting with his productions would be sweet or sorrow.

Christina Trivigno: Do you remember your first introduction to the Bard?

Tyler Riley: I believe I was introduced to Shakespeare in middle school. We read Romeo and Juliet and watched Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film. It would be a few years before I performed Shakespeare. What about you?

Christina: Well, my mother claims I saw an abridged version of a Shakespeare play (she forgets which one) at a Renaissance Faire when I was about six, and that I sat there watching intently with my jaw on the floor. The first time I remember being introduced to Shakespeare was in sixth grade when my English teacher wanted us to put on Hamlet. I say wanted because it never happened. Our lead actor could not remember his lines. We tried to put the words to a beat to help him, but it didn't work. I think we stole that idea from the Danny DeVito movie Renaissance Man. I'm not an actor, so I was mostly involved in the costuming of that failed undertaking.

Tyler: Memorization is usually the trouble I have with doing Shakespeare because it's such an unnatural way of speaking. I find it very difficult to improvise iambic pentameter. But I have done Much Ado About Nothing so many times that I practically know that one by heart and I find that I really connect with the characters. Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?

Christina: Oof, that's a tough question. I think Hamlet or Othello, but the older I get, the more troubling I find those works. I'm not a fan of Romeo and Juliet, which is so often the first Shakespeare play students read in school. Why would a teacher show a bunch of adolescents a play where two horny kids fall in love and everyone dies a week later? That's strange to me!

Tyler: I think it's the gym teacher from Mean Girls logic. Something to the effect of, if you have sex you'll die, so don't. It's a cautionary tale depending on the lens you view it through. It's also a story that's been adapted so many times that it's good to learn the root of it all.

Christina: Isn't Coach Carr from Mean Girls actually sleeping with his students? Great lesson dude.

Tyler: I guess I forgot that part! But I stand by my point about the story's ubiquity. Way beyond West Side Story, it's been adapted so much.

Christina: Indeed. Shakespeare is so ingrained in our culture. Loads of common phrases even come from his work. Cold-blooded is my favorite.

Tyler: Like how we call people stock-fish as an insult?

Christina: Well, I can't say I've used that one recently, but yes, that's what I mean!

Tyler: Shakespeare certainly was creative—assuming he wrote it all himself. What do you think of the stories that he stole from other writers or published works by women under his name?

Christina: I love a good conspiracy theory. I do think his later plays feature more complex women characters than his early works. His second show was The Taming of the Shrew, not exactly a great feminist piece, despite my love for 10 Things I Hate About You.

Tyler: What's the most outlandish conspiracy theory you've heard regarding Shakespeare?

Christina: That he was a nobleman—there's actually a movie called Anonymous about that. But there are lots of other fun theories, including the possibility that he was a woman. But I don't think a female author would have had so many women characters commit suicide or go mad. Do you have a favorite modern adaptation of Shakespeare?

Tyler: I love Romeo Must Die. It's a mess, but it was such an exciting take on R&J for me and made it much more accessible. I used to love West Side Story until I did a production and saw how one-sided it is. I think the most recent Shakespeare adaptation I've seen is the TV series Empire, which borrowed heavily from King Lear at the outset.

Christina: Oh, I'm glad you brought up King Lear! Did you see the 2019 Broadway production with Glenda Jackson? As a person with a disability, I was thrilled to see an actor with a disability in it, Russell Harvard, who's Deaf and played the Duke of Cornwall. Shakespeare so often uses disability as an external manifestation of some inner failing—see Richard III. It's never incidental like it was in this King Lear, although he was still playing a villain.

Tyler: I missed the Glenda Jackson revival, but I heard a lot about it. And you bring up a great point about representation in his work and I think you are spot-on. Shakespeare has a glaring issue with how he portrays "others" and how they are spoken about by other character.

Christina: Yup, and he wasn't alone. I admit, it's hard to judge an Elizabethan guy by modern standards. It was totally normal to think someone's body was an outward reflection of their character at the time. I actually have scoliosis, the medical condition Richard III was thought to have, and all anyone would say now is that I don't sit up straight. It's a disability that certainly has varying degrees of severity, but I don't think anyone today would describe it in the demeaning way Shakespeare did. As a Black man, how do you feel about his writings in regard to race?

Tyler: That’s very true about standards of then versus now. I cohost a podcast called Amateur Detective Club where we discuss the books of Agatha Christie. We acknowledge the inappropriateness of some of her material and other mystery writers of that time, but we don't condemn the work. That's how I approach Shakespeare's take on race. He wrote what was arguably the first Black lead character, but the way Othello is so easily manipulated into violence is problematic. There are also gratuitous shots at characters of color in some of his other plays. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, at (400-year-old spoiler alert!) Claudio's second wedding, when he's presented with a new unseen bride, he vows to accept her no matter what, even if she were "an Ethiope," aka African.

Christina: I agree. I said earlier that Othello is one of my favorites, but Iago seems to hate the title character for vague reasons, just calling him all kinds of racist things along the way. The Merchant of Venice also plays into anti-Semitic stereotypes. I remember reading an op-ed in The Washington Post a few years back that called for an end to productions of that play.

Tyler: And yet I still know a ton of actors who want to play Shylock.

Christina: I think that's the struggle. Shakespeare wrote plays that actors want to perform and directors want to stage, so they endure. Did you read that HowlRound article last year that argues that the incessant promotion of Shakespeare is part of white supremacy?

Tyler: I did, and I agree with a lot of what the author, Madeline Sayet, had to say. We tend to place Shakespeare on a pedestal here in the US and we are exposed to so much of his work in school and through the media. I remember several TV shows I grew up watching having episodes revolving around the characters performing Shakespeare and learning to love and appreciate his work. We have been indoctrinated into believing that he is undoubtedly the greatest playwrights of all time. When studying theatre, I learned more about Shakespeare and his works than any other playwright.

Christina: And we start learning about his plays when we're so young! And we keep seeing and reading them over and over. Do we do it this way because that's the way it's always been done? Nothing more?

Tyler: I think you are onto something there. I don't really blame teachers because they have to follow set curricula, but I wish there was more pushback. Perhaps with the reckoning we're currently experiencing in our culture, that will come. I still think we can appreciate Shakespeare's plays, but we need to broaden our horizons. Do you think we'll see a shift?

Christina: I hope so, though I imagine that theatres that exist solely to honor him will continue to have a place. I wish I could have seen the original Rose theatre in its heyday. That's the theatre that's credited with mounting the first Shakespeare play, and it's featured prominently in the movie Shakespeare in Love. How do you feel about personifications of the Bard, like in Something Rotten?

Tyler: I think outrageous interpretations of him as a person are fun and an interesting juxtaposition to the seriousness with which his work is treated. I loved Christian Borle's rock star take on the Bard in Something Rotten because that's kind of how I imagine Shakespeare was in his time: a man who was cocky and loved being adored by those around him. I also enjoyed Rafe Spall's portrayal in Anonymous, but that was a far darker take on Shakespeare.

Christina: I loved Borle's interpretation, too. I especially like his big song "Hard to Be the Bard:" "There's lunches and meetings and poetry readings, and endless interviews. Gotta pose for a portrait and how I deplore sitting there for eternity." In truth, I think we probably give Shakespeare a lot more praise today than he received in his day, as is the case for so many artists. Which of our modern-day writers will stand the test of time? If they're writing in genres such as horror or suspense or action, will they receive the same esteem? If Shakespeare were alive today, would he even be writing plays? Or would he be a showrunner of, say, Game of Thrones?

Tyler: I think he'd be writing Marvel movies. I think money was a motivator for Shakespeare, so he would go for the blockbusters.

Christina: I think he'd still be drawn to writing about the human condition and all our ugly traits. I have a hard time picturing him writing sci-fi, but I do think he might have chosen a different outlet for his creativity than theatre. And, in doing so, perhaps not garnered the recognition he receives today. Maybe there's a sci-fi movie to be made about a Shakespeare with secret superpowers. Ha!


Christina Trivigno is TDF's Director of Digital Strategy. Tyler Riley is TDF's Online and Dance Programs Manager as well as an actor, voice-over artist and podcast host. He can be found on Instagram and on Twitter at @itstylerriley. Follow TDF on Twitter at @TDFNYC.