Features Essays Published 27 April 2018

Have we actually broken Shakespeare?

In Shakespeare's birthday week, Hailey Bachrach argues that there's nothing dull about recent reinventions of his work.
Hailey Bachrach

‘Pericles’ at the Barbican. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

We might have broken Shakespeare. Lyn Gardner makes some excellent points in her recent editorial for Shakespeare’s deathday/maybe-birthday: Shakespeare is and has been tool of imperialism and colonialism. Exported for centuries as a civilising influence, he is inextricable in many places from the worst of England’s history.

He’s also out of step with our current representational moment (though to be fair it’s hard to keep up with trends when you’re dead). His white, male casts in fact were not, as Gardner says, even reflections of Shakespeare’s own theatregoing society: we know now that women made up a much larger proportion of theatre audiences than they do share of characters, and Shakespeare’s London was far more diverse than either his plays or most of our own costume dramas would have you think. Class-wise, Shakespeare is dramatically less representative than many of his contemporaries.

But has our theatre culture done something still worse? Have we, as Gardner argues, just made Shakespeare boring? Hell yes, cries a chorus of schoolchildren. But I hesitate to lay the blame at the feet of compulsory study. In fact, I hesitate to say that we’re in a particularly dull moment for Shakespeare at all.

After all, there’s Cheek by Jowl’s Pericles at the Barbican, remixing Shakespeare by resetting and translating it, this time into French (and livestreaming it, too, further disrupting tradition). Michelle Terry’s socialist agenda begins this week as Hamlet and As You Like It, both created by a single collaboratively cast ensemble with no designated director, open her first Globe season. The Bridge Theatre’s buzzy Julius Caesar sparked conversations about politics, audiences, and managed to find some genuinely fresh takes on classic characters, particularly Ben Whishaw’s Brutus. Golda Rosheuvel will remake another iconic figure when she plays Othello as a lesbian at Liverpool’s Everyman.

And that’s just this April.

Beyond that we’ve got Emma Rice, who oversaw a series of irreverent, sometimes controversial, but consistently exciting takes on old Bill’s works. Phyllida Lloyd’s radical Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse, which already looks in retrospect like a turning point in this generation’s understanding of gendered experimentation with Shakespeare, will be broadcast on the BBC later this year; Andrew Scott’s Hamlet formed the centrepiece of many an Easter weekend by the same means. And the plays don’t need to be remade to be exciting: in the past few years, Blanche McIntyre, Lucy Bailey, Adele Thomas, and Simon Godwin (among others) have all directed fairly traditional productions that still unearthed a living, pulsing heart within each play.

There might be too much Shakespeare. Shakespeare might be crowding out new writers, reinforcing imperialist English hegemony, and boring generations of schoolchildren to death. But one can also argue that the implacable edifice of the Shakespeare industry is itself why the plays continue to prove so irresistible. Because of that crushing weight of history, Shakespeare can provide a rich and fruitful ground for interrogations of precisely the cultural forces that have wielded him as a weapon: Englishness, colonialism, whiteness, masculinity, patriarchy.

Shakespeare’s very ubiquity gives him a kind of blankness. He becomes a canvas to experiment on, or the dramatic building blocks most of us grew up with, which we can reform into increasingly complex and interesting shapes as we get older and learn to question what we’ve been taught. There are few other writers whose plays are laid open to experiments with race and gender the way Shakespeare is. For example, in both America and Britain, it is largely Shakespeare companies that have openly committed to colour-blind and 50/50 gender casting.

There are flaws here, of course. So-called gender- and colour-blind casting is almost never truly ‘blind’ (itself a term that has been critiqued as ableist): shows still get applauded for diversity when actors of colour are only playing spear carriers and maids. 50/50 gender casting still implies that there are two genders of actors for the roles to be divided between, thus erasing genderqueer and non-binary actors, not to mention the trans actors who in theory could fit into this split but in practice don’t get cast anyway. Characters’ genders get swapped, but rarely to permit a queer relationship (or, at least, not an unpanicked one; see: the multiple female Malvolios of late).

As playwright August Wilson proposed in his famous ‘The ground on which I stand’ speech, maybe dedicating ourselves to making space for marginalised groups within the edifice of white, male theatrical history is counterproductive: maybe the real radicalism lies in rejecting such works and insisting loudly and fervently and uncompromisingly on telling our own stories and honouring our own history. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

But isn’t there something delicious in laying claim to the icon that is Shakespeare? Why can’t Hamlet be black? Why can’t Hamlet be a woman? Or why can’t a woman play Hamlet as a man, because gender is just as much a performance as anything else about the role, and so to put on the mantle of ‘man’ is no more artificial or impossible than to put on the mantle of ‘Prince of Denmark’, and to grapple as an actor with what both of those highly unsettled categories will mean in this single instance?

I personally think there is power in forcing an audience to confront a new vision of what they think they know. Judging by recent responses, casting white women, or men of colour, or worst of all women of colour in places where audiences think they don’t belong seems to be one of the last sure-fire ways to provoke actual anger and controversy. This sounds glib, but I don’t mean it to be. I’m not suggesting that we do it because it makes people mad, like some kind of art trolling; I’m suggesting we do it until it stops making people mad, because it’s an anger that points to a deeper discomfort that maybe can begin to be eradicated through exposure. If Shakespeare is England, then it seems like a good time for a reminder that black women and Asian men and trans folks can lay claim to England, too.

After all, that’s what Hamilton is saying about America. Reclaiming the founding fathers for actors of colour is, on one level, problematic. For one thing, there is one historical person of colour in the entire narrative (assuming you count the one-line reference to an unspeaking Sally Hemings as a character); just like August Wilson feared, white history becomes all that exists. But George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and even the once-obscure Alexander Hamilton are more than their literal historical presences. They are myths, edifices, emblems of America. And Hamilton says: this is yours, too. This has always been yours. For England, that’s Shakespeare.  

It seems almost unfair now that finally, finally, people who aren’t white men are getting their hands on Shakespeare on the nation’s biggest stages, we’re going to complain that it’s all gotten a bit boring and maybe we should pack it in. Of course there’s boring Shakespeare out there, just like there’s boring Chekov and boring Brecht. But I don’t see how one can deny that there’s radical, energizing, reimagined Shakespeare happening as well.

Take issue with that omnipresence, if you like. Wish these fantastic artists were directing their energy elsewhere. Feel the experimentation and reclamation hasn’t gone nearly far enough. But don’t call it boring.  

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Hailey Bachrach is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine