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Musing about Shakespeare
michellcat
I am currently working with two directors doing two different Shakespeare comedies. Neither one of them is Oxfordian, nor is either of them sufficiently familiar with Shakespeare to really understand the authorship controversy.

Both of them proceed from the premise, "Shakespeare wrote for the masses." Which I could debate, really. Ben Jonson wrote for the masses. Wycherly and Webster wrote for the masses. Shakespeare wrote for himself, and for other Trojan War geeks. The masses still loved what he wrote, but they were not his main concern, nor was he a "hack."

No hack writes a six hour play, (Hamlet,) a play about succession law trivia, (Richard II,) or Timon of Athens. This guy wrote to please himself, and just happened to please a lot of others into the bargain. You can see the difference for yourself if you compare him with his contemporaries. It becomes apparent quickly which things are devices of the time, and which things are his own personal private axes to grind.

But the point these directors are trying to make is that Shakespeare wrote for the masses, and therefore isn't "sacred." You can cut or rewrite Shakespeare. I heartily agree. You can cut or rewrite Sondheim or Snoop Dogg, too--they're not "sacred." But would you really be improving the works, if you did so?

I think you really have to know what you're doing. It's not enough to just go through the script and change all the words you don't understand or that you think are too hifalutin'. Shakespeare is no more "sacred" than Tennessee Williams, but you wouldn't decide to cut all Blanche's lines about the "Varsouviana" just because people might not know what it is. You'd rely on context and your sound technician to get it across. And you'd encourage Blanche to familiarize herself with it, maybe do a few steps of it.

There's nothing wrong with cutting Shakespeare, provided you know what you're cutting. Nor is there anything wrong with adding things in. I've seen wonderful productions that relied on improvised bits.

That said, I think one director, who is steeped in Renfest and historical lore, did a fine job with his cuts and additions.  If you haven't seen the Barn's MidsummerNight's Dream, see it. It's one of the best versions I've seen.

The jury's still out on Comedy of Errors,  but my heart sinks a little lower each rehearsal, as I struggle with lines that have been corrected so that they no longer rhyme or scan, and are peppered with "you's" where "thee's" and "thou's" used to be. (Is there really anybody who's still confused about thee and thou? Those who don't have church and Bible have Freshman French and German, or Renfest Academy, right? What's hard about thee and thou? Of all the words in Shakespeare, these aren't the ones I'd cut.)

There is nothing worse than watching people who don't know what the words they're saying mean. Unless it's watching people who have changed those words to be "easier," and STILL don't know what they're saying. 

And when did it become an insult to the actor, to do table work? I cannot imagine anybody trying to do "Sordid Lives" without knowing who Tammy Wynette was, or playing Brother Boy without knowing any of Tammy's work. But try to tell someone that a capon is a neutered chicken or that a certain phrase comes from song or incident of Shakespeare's time, and you'll be accused of trying to do that actor's homework for him.

Nobody would be offended if the director told them, at a read-thru of  "Streetcar Named Desire," that flores para los muertos means flowers for the dead, or at a read-thru of "Fiddler on the Roof," if you told them that Mazel Tov is an informal blessing that basically means good fortune. So why are people so touchy about being told what Shakespeare's words mean? Is it because we're attached to the idea that Shakespeare's words can mean whatever you want them to mean?

Because we don't know so much of the language, I think a lot of people would rather use Shakespeare as a dramatic inkblot, reading what they will into it, than actually be bothered to find out what it's really about. Which is a pity, because to be honest, Shakespeare is funnier, more perceptive, and more honest than most people. He may not be "sacred," but he's probably more talented than you are, which is something to bear in mind when you go about re-writing his stuff. He deserves at least as much respect in that regard, as Sondheim or Snoop Dogg. His plays are verse, and if you're going to change them, at least do so in a way that's consistent with his rhyme scheme and meter.

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cut some 45 minutes out of Taming of the Shrew. I think it's fine to cut or make changes.

I agree about "updating" Shakespeare, although Robert Woodruff did so to good effect, in his all-juggling, zany rendition of Comedy of Errors in 1987.

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