"A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet"  Romeo and Juliet


The Issue of Adaptation - an ISE White Paper Draft

The proof of the resilience and continued power of William Shakespeare’s work is in the many adaptations that his plays have inspired. From movies that use the original dialogue to those that take Shakespeare’s situation as a springboard for contemporary characters, the number of Shakespeare adaptations is still growing.

At the end of this article, the reader will find a list of some of the more notable Shakespeare-inspired films around- as an offering to the "aurora borealis" that is William Shakespeare.

Meanwhile, however, readers who have come to this page may be seeking a discussion of the very heart of the matter; the issue of "Shakespearean adaptation" itself- the issues involved in the act of infusing into a Shakespearean play any interpretation or insight or staging or technique or acting strategy "not historical". 

And if you have come to this place seeking that discussion, then indeed you have come to the right place!  Read on and relish- and feel free to let us know what YOU think!



Lets face it.  Especially to the uninitiated, Shakespeare can be darn confusing.  To many modern tastes, he simply doesn't behave as we want him to.  In his tragedies, his is sure to insert the buffoonery of a Fool into a story of otherwise breathtaking poignancy.  In his most ethereal romances, he is sure to have some crazy, even ugly note - -like the head of an ass.  In his works, there are so many story lines that you probably need a scorecard.  And just when he is going in one direction - say into the tragic - he does an about face with some of the goofiest humor the planet has ever seen.  Plus, don't even get us started on all the blatent - even crude- sexuality, or the bloodlust which can riddle even his most sublime tale telling. 

So one of the first dangers when faced with a Shakesperean adaptation is the natural assumption of the newcomer that some sort of unexpected or even jarring note or another in a play is the fault of an adpation instead of a true manifestion of the Bard of Avon.  As if the adaptation did not take Shakespeare seriously.  But what if the reverse was true?  What if, when one takes Shakespeare seriously, one must confront some of the true perplexities not only in his writing, but in our human natures?  In fact, what if the following were true?  What if Shakespeare, for all his high-falutin (and well-deserved) reputation as "high-brow" were actually more like one of humanity's biggest "in-jokes" - what if the Shakespeare we THINK we know was not at all what he seems?

Let's explore that idea - let's consider a small journey into what, how and who Shakespeare really is.  Why not dive into a little scholarship about the man and his works?  We promise- we'll make the academic stuff as painless as possible - - and it'll be worth it.  Because after all: the sheer number and striking tradition of adaptations to Shakespeare's work illustrates, perhaps more than anything else, the power of Shakespeare's enduring stories.

Indeed, the diversity of Shakespeare's stories has led to many a beautiful musing on the work of the Bard, such as this glorius, evocative quote by Harold Bloom in his work Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

"Shakespeare is a system of northern lights - an aurora borealis visible where most of us would never (otherwise) go.  Libraries and playhouses (and cinemans) cannot contain him ... he has become a 'spell of light' almost too vast to comprehend". 

The uninitiated, however, may find Shakesperean adaptation puzzling.  "Don't we want to 'preserve' the Bard for posterity?" some ask?  Or perhaps there is the sentiment: "What's good enough for Shakespeare is good enough for me!".  

Unfortunately, these two sentiments -and musings like them- put an audience immediately into a false, unaware, and ultimately cruel dichotomy which ultimately cheapens and characterizes these works (and the genius of the Bard himself) into staid shadows of once former glory. 

For even in Shakespeare's own day, these works were simply NOT performed as today (at shallow glance) we often mistakely think they were performed - and in fact, even in Shakespeare's day the language and text of the plays almost assuredly were NEVER performed in the same way twice! 

That's because one of the reasons why Shakespeare is Shakespeare (and so endlessly fascinating) is that Shakespeare wrote EXACTLY at that point in human history when words and language was being invented apace [its not for nothing that we credit the Bard with having invented (yes, literally INVENTED!) so many words today part of our vocabulary as if they'd always been there! ] Yet at the same time there was no dictionary -nor even very many literate reading people- to corral the power of a word - - much less of a story- - into some stiffly starched "cannon". 

  • In fact, meditate on this startling fact: the original Shakespearean actors themselves likely had no usable script (and likely couldn't read one even if they did) - - -and so each night, the play would be changed at least a little- and would have been inevitably enlighted and enlivened by the artistic insights of its Actors and directors - and therein, lies a tale! 
  • For Shakespeare and "Shakespearean actors" even in Shakespeare's day didn't attempt to put the Bard in a box- and the implications that the historical reality has on how Shakespeare "came to be Shakespeare" have the type of extraordinary implications for us to day that literally make Shakespeare what he has come to be today:

In sum, you can't have it both ways.  You can't have Shakespeare in a box without illumination and not endanger the illumination of the human condition which these stories provide. You can't blithely assume that one is somehow "preserving" the Bard without putting the Bard in danger of becoming increasingly obsolete (especially to increasingly modern audiences).

And you can't even do so-called "historically accurate" Shakespeare with any confidence whatsover - or without what is all too often a whole lot of uninformed blarney- because of the one shimmering, golden, beckoning, enticing, delicious fact which makes Shakespeare Shakespeare: 

That these plays are stories - - stories of the human condition - - and stories different from literature or poetry or any other medium because these artistic works were stories MEANT TO BE PEFORMED! 

Reading Shakespeare without being completely, richly and exuberantly cognizent of that fact is to cheapen and to loose the very Shakespeare that we seek.  On the other hand, being exquisitely, artistically and in sophisticated manner open and sensitive to the fact that EACH different actor and EACH different director rightfully has the capacity as a human to illuminate the human qualities of these immortal stories - - well... THAT is what makes Shakespeare "Shakespeare" - and THAT is what has stood the test of time- not some dusty folio otherwise sitting moldering on a shelf. 

What do we mean by all this?  See the work below of some of the most well-respected linguistical and dramaturgical scholars working today - and see what YOU think about "keeping Shakespeare "Shakespeare"!  We promise:  you will be fascinated!



(An ISE White Paper in draft form)


The mission of the Iowa Shakespeare Experience is to be


the Premier Provider of classic theatre programming in Central Iowa,

preserving and honoring classic theatre

through the creation of historically appropriate

as well as fresh and bold theatric interpretations of classic works,

opening these works towards the diversity of American culture,

fostering regional economic development and measurable educational outcomes,

using Shakespeare as our standard and inspiration.*

*Based on Mission Statement of Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Thus, the work of The Iowa Shakespeare Experience starts from the premise that classic theatre—notably Shakespearean theatre—is important because it remains dynamic and relevant: its captivating narratives, distinctive language and colorful characters not only give us windows into understanding the past, but its themes and values impart important lessons for modern and future audiences.


And thus our work—and our promise—is to constantly strive for innovation and excellence. AND YET to constantly strive to respect the history and traditions of those who have gone before us- most especially the history and achievements of one William Shakespeare.


Now, the interesting thing about William Shakespeare is that he was, of course, a PLAYwright.  Mr. Shakespeare lived within the art of theatre - and art form that ever in its history, is among the least static art form of any of the arts.  In fact, there is nothing more fragile than theatrical art- put in a new actor, and you change the very nature of the artwork- by design.  By definition.  Therefore, it has been a long tradition of theatrical art that theatrical artists bow to that reality- and in fact, relish it!

A good theatrical artist seeks to add to the Canon - realizing that regurgitation of a piece not only is boring- but quite frankly, impossible and in the end, doesn't give the art form its due.  Theatre is all about bringing the exquisitely human INTO a work - and theatrical artists at their best reach deep inside themselves to illuminate the exquisitely human elements of a story or a motivation or a relationship - and by defination, the depths of humanity being as vast as they are- in good theatre, there is never staid repetitive interpretation - there is in fact, constant change.

So  with regard to innovation, in each production we undertake, and typically in any and each production staged by any good theatrical company, a theatre artist wants to add something new to the art form of theatre.

Or, to put this another way more specific to the topic at hand of Shakespeare: especially since Shakespeare has been performed for hundreds of years, theatre artists are in the business of adding to the Shakespearean Canon- not just regurgitating it.  By the very definition of our art form.

We do not want to duplicate traditional staging or previously done artistic interpretations. Rather, be it with an Elizabethan-style setting or with another interpretation of Shakespeare entirely, we always take a progressive approach by creating productions that address the tastes, values and interests of modern audiences while serving Shakespeare the playwright. 

What does this mean for the works of William Shakespeare?  That question is the subject of this white paper (and the reader will note this paper is currently merely in draft form- a work in progress - yet we share these ideas even before they are fully ready for formal publication because the ideas are indeed well worth sharing.)

  • You see, as a relatively new player on the national Shakespeare scene, we at the ISE have always been aware that we enter our contributions to the Shakespearean canon at a distinct point in human history.  As good theatre artists everywhere, it is the goal of our work to expand the canon, and we make decisions about direction based on cultural needs as they exist in our world at this point in time. 
  • Our perception of what the needs of the culture are (and therefore where our work needs to go,) are based on multi-disciplinary artistic study of works from all throughout the arts- with an Artistic Director gifted across multidisciplinary art forms as well as extraordinarily enamored of theatre. we are inspired by work in the fields of linguistics, history, the humanities, dance, music - - and of course from the complete spectrum of the wonderful world of theatre.  For one of the hallmarks of human culture today is cross-cultural pollenation.  The world has become smaller - different cultures rub off on each other and with today's unprecedented access to information of all sorts (visual, auditory and narrative), in today's world different art forms and different media rub off on each other with unprecedented ease.
  • It is THIS cross-pollenated, mutli-disciplinary world into which Shakespeare's plays now (and will forever more) come- and there is no going back. 
  • It is to THIS world that Shakespeare must now speak.

So the world again can't help but ask- as it has asked many different times throughout history- who IS the playwright William Shakepseare - what DO his works of hundreds of years gone by have to say to modern audiences? 

Where to start with this question?  Well, as theatre artists, we start with the world of theatre.

The Induction:  The World of Theatre

The world of theatre has much to say about Shakespeare the playwright, Shakesperean tradition - and the works of William Shakespeare as plays.  For with even the most cursory study of the real history and the real reality of Shakespearean work the following startling fact quickly emerges: 

  • Shakespearean plays were for "the people" - these works were written for a distinctly wide range of tastes and quite quite deliberately, had "something for everybody".  These works were both written and staged for Royalty, yes- but ALSO at the very same time for the Groundlings (quite "plebian" souls who were the salf of the earth folk otherwise known as "the common people" who in fact, comprised the vast majority of the audience.) And the Groundlings didn't sit- they stood down in front- and they most certainly didn't sit stiffly and watch a performance from on high.  Instead, people ate, drank and talked throughout the performance. 
  • Indeed (-and anyone seeking to "preserve" the "real" Shakespeare must firmly keep this in mind-)  in Shakespeare's day a theatrical event was more akin to our contemporary phenomenon of a "rock concert" that anything else.  These were public entertainments in the first degree, often far more ribald and bold than anything we glean today from what often erroneously seems to us to be "refined" languge.  The works were full of puns and sexual references to a startling degree- or took on a "slasher" element of thirsty bloodshed that gives us pause even today - - and the metaphor of a "rock concert" populist event even holds true in the aspect that Shakespeare himself inserted contempoary music right into his own plays. 
  • Additional differences between today's theatre and theatre in Elizabethan times abounds- and will be discussed more fully below.  But for starters, men played all female roles always, and plays were performed in natural broad daylight- never at night.  Scenery was sparse to non-existent (hence Shakespeare verbally describes scenes to set the stage.) And although Shakespeare saw theatre grow more reputable in his lifetime, theatre during the time of Shakespeare went from being banned as disreputable to becoming more of an accepted entertainment- but primarily in places like "Bankside" (an area of London which also houses brothels and bear-baiting pits.
  • Even our contemporary convention of costuming did not really exist much in Shakespeare's day.  While there are exceptions that will be discussed more fully below, often as not the Actors merely wore their own contemporary clothes.  This has an incredible amount of significance to the types of questions a modern Director must ask when making artistic choices!
  • So when we discuss "preserving Shakespearean theatre" we need to be aware that perhaps there is much we don't intend to preserve by that statement!
  • In fact, we need to be aware that preserving strictly Shakespearean theatre is almost a total impossibility.  Because we do not HAVE any of Shakepeare's plays as originally written. The oldest versions of what Shakespeare wrote were merely Folios (a collection of his plays- but a collection that was created and edited by two of Shakespeare's actors who were likely focused on creating a work that would help their colleagues PERFORM plays - not read them, as at least 80% of the Elizabethan population could not read.  Now, this puts us immediately at odds with new editions of Shakespeare's works, which are also heavily edited - because since that time, editors have gone back into to try to re-edit the Folios to read more like literature.  This editing can be severe and can include switching speeches between characters! 
  • So from the begining, any discussion of preserving "the original Shakespeae" should be recognized as almost a totally lost cause- what we have of Shakespeare today is a pastiche- a patchwork quilt of lines which certainly arose from his work- but how, who when where and even why is sheer conjecture.  Reference:  Ben Crystal (Shakespeare on Toast.)

So taking all of this together, lets recognize that preserving original Shakespeare is NOT what is going to happen under anyone's artistic choices.  And as to the stylistic elements of a directors choices, lets have none of this "I don't think music has a place in a Shakespeare play" unless of course, we want to take on the arrogance of editing and reworking Shakespeare himself when HE wrote music into the plays.   (Yes no kidding- he even wrote some musical scores!)

Instead, lets honestly explore exactly what WAS going on in "historical" or "traditional" Shakespeare- lets explore reality a bit- and we'll see how perspective on all these issues emerges on the other side of true scholarship and true respect of the work of the immortal Bard.

The following information provides an overview of some of the seminal thinking currently applicable to the field of Shakespeare- thinking which has taken root in the ISE approach to Shakespearean interpretation.

In the above induction, this white paper kicked off this discussion with a reference to the mission statement of The Iowa Shakespeare Experience and this was not by accident.  Because with any quick glance at our mission statement, the reader will notice one clear reality: our mission presents two opposing concepts, with the duty to contribute to the Canon inherent in both. 

Because The Iowa Shakespeare Experience seeks to present a complete, full spectrum of Shakespearean interpretation- from the “historic” to the “contemporary” – and we have a quite carefully considered idea of precisely what this vision means.

Therefore, this essay – an effort to articulate the genesis of the rich Artistic Vision of The Iowa Shakespeare Experience- must address two key questions:

1.) What does it mean to create historically appropriate Shakespearean work?


2.) What does it mean to open those works to fresh and both interpretation?

None of these concepts are as simple as they may seem!

In Section One of this essay, let’s first address item (1), the genuine interest of the ISE in creating historically appropriate work. 

(Our tandem interest in creating bold new contributions to the cannon will then be presented in Section Two, below.)

Section One:

The ISE seeks to create historically appropriate Shakespearean work

In discussing the interest that all who revere Shakespeare –including the ISE- have in paying homage to the historical works of the Canon upon which the entire Shakespearean tradition rests, we find most helpful the work of the Lue Morgan Douthit, as presented in work published by the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival - arguably one of THE leading producing Shakespearean authorities in America. (For the complete article plus terrific photographs that document the changing nature of supposedly “historically-correct Shakespeare”, see www.osfashland.org/_dwn/news/producingshakes2.pdf)

In her piece entitled

“Producing Shakespeare: Is There a “Traditional Tradition?”

Ms. Douthit notes a startling fact,

a fact quite seminal to the work of The Iowa Shakespeare Experience in approaching our productions:

In 400 years of Shakespeare productions,

 the concept of a single (production) standard is a moving target.”

Douthit goes on to explain that everyone has a different conception of what "traditional" Shakespeare is - and she discusses this conclusion, as follows: 

What is "traditional" Shakespeare?

 Douthit says: "My introduction to Shakespeare was in middle school, attending performances at what was then called the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and a production of Hamlet at the Cleveland Play House. I must confess that I don’t remember much about any of those productions, but one that did stick was the Franco Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet I saw in my freshman year in high school. How he told that story left such an impression on me that every production I have seen since is put up against it. I guess you could say that film represents my “traditional” Shakespeare.


What I mean by that is everyone has a sense—in their mind’s eye—of how Shakespeare should be produced. Mine was initially based on those first productions I saw. It wasn’t until later in my theatre-going practice that I learned there were ways to produce the plays other than in Elizabethan costuming.”


So here, we come to the heart of the pivot points which are at the foundation of the ISE approach to Shakespeare.  For Douthit carefully notes something very important to anyone claiming to have a handle on so-called “traditional Shakespeare”!.  Douthit points out the following seminal fact: “What is (often) defined as “traditional” means essentially something (more properly) called “original practice”—costumes and settings that strive to accurately replicate those of Shakespeare’s time.

And how “historically accurate” has been defined in the 400 years since the first Shakespearean productions is the subject of this article.

But in truth, it’s hard to say.”

Intrigued?  Read further, and more of the ISE’s artistic aesthetic grounding as related specifically to Shakespeare will quickly be brought to light.

Theatre practices in Shakespeare's time:  little to no historical costumes

Douhit further notes that: In Shakespeare’s time, there was little attempt at what we might deem “historical costumes.” For the most part, the costumes consisted of contemporary clothing.”  This has bearing on choices that must be made when producing Shakespearean works, and the ISE considers many elements related to this fact, as follows in Douhit’s continued explanation of the fine intricicies involved.


Douthit emphasizes: “First of all, we don’t really know what those first productions looked like. We (merely) have some circumstantial evidence from which we can deduce a few things: There is a prop and costume list from theatre producer Philip Henslowe, a rival of Shakespeare’s company; we have a drawing of the Swan Theatre from a Dutch visitor; and we have Henry Peacham’s drawing of a scene from Titus Andronicus, which shows actors in toga-style tunics along with Elizabethan costuming.


But really, we have no substantive knowledge of what the actors wore or what the acting style might have been like. We don’t think there was much scenery, and as for costumes, it seems there was little, if any, attempt at what we might deem “historical” costuming. For the most part, the costumes consisted of contemporary clothing. This speculation comes from Henslowe’s list, which documented specific pieces of clothing that we think were recycled from various royal patrons.


As a matter of fact, we think the first “historically accurate” production of a Shakespeare play (... was suddenly "invented" hundreds of years after his plays were created in a production of....) King John, in 1842, in which producer and lead actor William Charles Macready tried to replicate what people might have worn in 13th-century England.

Douthit goes on: Now although we can be certain of little when speaking about how Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced, some things seem a safe bet. There were two kinds of theatre: an open-air structure [similar to (the OST’s) own Elizabethan Stage] and an indoor one (the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, is a fine replica). There were companies of actors who were patronized by royalty, a gesture much appreciated because actors were considered vagabonds.

All the roles were played by men or boys; actors learned only their lines, or “sides,” and there was no one style of acting. Because plays changed frequently—the average length of a run was 10 days—actors kept thousands of lines in their heads. It is hard to imagine that every actor accurately recited a playwright’s words, especially since each production employed a prompter to help the actors get through it.

This is pretty much how things were until 1642, when the Puritans closed England’s theatres.


The Restoration to the 18th century

Douthit continues: Following Charles II’s restoration to the English throne in 1660, the playhouses in London were open for business again—with some big changes. The theatres were exclusively indoors. Costumes tended to be the latest fashion.Women were now allowed to perform women’s roles.

Shakespeare’s plays were in fierce competition with the new comedies of the age, such as The Belle’s Stratagem. "(During this time) Shakespeare was produced almost solely in adaptations (such as William Davenant’s reworking of The Tempest, in which practically everyone has an additional sibling). It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century when actor-manager David Garrick insisted on the superiority of Shakespeare’s original texts that the playwright’s works grew in popularity in England.


The 19th century

Douthit goes on: Perhaps one of the most significant developments in this century was the desire for "historical accuracy". Companies now sought to recreate the fashion and style of living of the period in which the play was set. The current notion of “traditional” Shakespeare stems from this era. Along with restoring Shakespeare’s full texts, theatre artists at the end of the 19th century were also interested in examining and replicating the history of the plays, including how they might have looked in their original productions.

As the great 20th-century British actor and director Tyrone Guthrie once noted,“What we of the 20th century have inherited is not a Shakespearean tradition, it is merely a legacy of 19th-century theatrical conventions.”


The 20th century

Well, what goes around, comes around.  Douthit continues:  "Now as a reaction to the rise of historical accuracy in the 19th century (and to the way in which these "historically accurate" productions ignored the contemporary nature of Shakespeare's own work), early 20th-century audiences began (again!) to see productions in modern dress—especially in the 1920s with Barry Jackson’s productions at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England."

And so a pattern of one step forward, one step back - action-reaction began. 

Action and Reaction in the 20th Century

Douthit continues: "In turn, a reaction to this movement then gave rise to what is now labeled “Stratford Elizabethanism,” which insisted on a strong, historically based Elizabethan look in costuming. In the middle of the 20th century, directors began setting Shakespeare’s plays in specific historical periods to help express their unique interpretation of the play. Guthrie, for example, set the war-torn Troilus and Cressida in Edwardian England. He wanted the English audience to bring their knowledge about that period to bear on the characters. In such a “metaphor production,” the setting is moved to a different time period. It shakes up the play in what may seem like strange and unnatural ways to bring out certain ideas in the text."


Douthit then takes us into more modern times.  She goes on: Beginning in the 1960s, directors started using larger theatrical gestures to create visually provocative pieces. Peter Brook’s famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind. Trevor R. Griffiths describes the production as follows:“Brook’s staging is neither Elizabethan nor Athenian, nor did he have any truck with mimetic woods: the permanent set was a white box which reminded critics of a circus ring, a gymnasium and an operating theatre.” For literary journalist Ron Rosenbaum, that production seminally hooked him on Shakespeare, as he notes in the introduction to his 2006 book, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups. 


Today we have all these choices and more. For example, the British company Cheek by Jowl explored love and gender in As You Like It by using an all-male cast, which, of course,was a Shakespearean acting convention.


The times and the conventions


In sum, the ISE recognizes that as Douthit says: “Every production must reconcile the fact that plays take place in four different time periods: the time it was written, the time the play is originally set, the time period chosen by the director and the time the audience sees the production.”


Douthit notes: “An example of how these four time periods connect can be seen in this year’s (OSF) production of Coriolanus. (The OSF) deliberately chose to produce the play this year because it’s an election year, and we think that what the play has to say about the electorate is still relevant.


The fact that Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus in 1607–1608 and set it in ancient Rome—both time periods foreign to us—played into director Laird Williamson’s decision to bring the costume feel of the production into the 20th century, which is closer to our sensibilities.”


Thus, as Douthit does, the ISE recognizes that: “The use of history is one component that theatre producers have always considered when producing these plays. Another consideration is production history. Because we continually produce Shakespeare’s plays over and over again,we have a catalog of performances accumulated over the years. And we each have our favorite versions of these plays”


She continues: “For me, the best production in my mind’s eye is an amalgamation of pieces from different productions. I have my favorite Juliet from one production, favorite Romeo from another, and a favorite setting from a third and so forth. And in the desire to be creative, directors over the past 400 years have looked to past productions: either to inspire them or to avoid.”

To illustrate the point, consider the production history of what is perhaps Shakespeare's most famous play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The fashions and tastes which have been popular in this play are varied - yet for very long stretches of decades, each different fashion held sway as "the" way in which to produce this play.  There was a time when the most elaborate sets possible (down to live rabbits for the woods scenes) were de riguer - - as well as a time when sets became minimalist.   There was a time -for over seventy years!- when it was unthinkable to have Puck played except by a female - but then came our own fairly recent time when Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Puck was so powerful that now many think Puck must be played by a male- and by an elfin-like male at that.  But although these fashionable portrayals of the show held sway for years and years at a time, still, going back across the entire scope of 400 years, we find a pendulum instead of a bible on popular thought at to how to produce this work.

The ISE also finds fascinating Douthit's note that: “One last consideration is theatrical conventions, which have changed over time. The kinds of plays that were written in ancient Greece have as much to do with the large amphitheatres and the conventions that were a result of that space (masks for instance) as with literary conventions of the time'.” ISE interest in these facts continues regarding the unique ISE history and expertise with “Found Space” theatre. As Douthit notes: “Plays were written for specific theatre spaces. This is true of those written by Elizabethan writers for outdoor theatres like the Globe, as well as for Molière’s plays, written for indoor theatres. And the larger proscenium theatres of the 19th century heavily influenced the dramatic literature of its time."


She continues: "Some people think that the five-act structure of the Shakespeare plays, as printed in the 1623 Folio, is a delineation based on how long a taper (candle) would last. (So much for the integrity of dramatic action!) Other historians think that the first scene in plays written during the Restoration and into the 18th century was often just marking time—that the play often didn’t start until the second scene, when everyone might have arrived at the theatre. (They didn’t have the OSF convention of starting shows on time, obviously.)"


And she goes on: "Richard Wagner introduced the idea of using lights to focus our attention, not on the late-arriving socialites and royalty as in Molière’s theatre, but on the stage. He was the first to lower the lights in the auditorium."

Her point: "Each historical time period has agreed upon some of these conventions in terms of theatrical presentation." ”


In sum, the ISE agrees with the culminating thesis of Douthit’s conclusions: “Producing plays from different time periods means that we translate the conventions of one time period (Shakespeare’s boy actors, no intermission, daylight) to our conventions (women playing those roles, intermissions, performances at night).With the rise of new technologies in theatrical productions (think video, slides, text messaging), I predict new conventions will emerge”

And noting that soon the brand new conventions will likely become as tyranical as some of our current conventions are today, the ISE agrees!  As Douthit says in one of her conclusions: “Re-invention, after all, has always been the function of Shakespeare in performance, as noted in this brief discussion of 400 years of Shakespeare production.” 

The ISE is proud to be one point on the great continuum of Shakespearean production change as the work of the Bard boldly marches to meet its future! 

For, “As cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien explains: ‘It could have turned out otherwise: If the English Civil War (1642–1660) had not disrupted the line of transmission, or if the post-Restoration theatre had not rejected the plays except in heavily revised form, we might have something more in the nature of Kabuki or Peking opera, a fixed tradition of gestures and voicings, with ritual drumbeats and trumpet flourishes marking the exits and entrances.’

To conclude, then, the ISE perspective on issues involved with producing so-called “traditional Shakespearean theatre” can do far worse than to echo the work of Lou Douthit with enthusiasm: “The point is that we (Shakesperean producers) don’t have a performance style set in stone. It wasn’t that way from the beginning, and we continue to carry on that ‘tradition’ today. I look forward to seeing how the next Romeo and Juliet matches up with the vision in my head. And I like the comparative shopping!”


Literary Assistant Lezlie Cross contributed to Ms. Douthit’s article.


Ms. Douthit suggests the following books for further Reading

Editors Barbara Hodgdon and W.B.Worthen, A Companion to Shakespeare and Performance

Editors Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare

Editor Russell Jackson, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film

Editors Stanley Wells and Sarah Stanton, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage

Editors Russell Jackson, Robert Smallwood and Philip Brockbank, Players of Shakespeare (Vol 1-6)

Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present

Editors Keith Parsons and Pamela Mason, Shakespeare in Performance

Ron Rosenbaum, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups

Section Two:

The ISE seeks to open Shakespeare to new audiences

through bold, fresh interpretations of the Canon


Finally, now that we have discussed and identified the sand traps inherent in any desire to produce "traditional" Shakespearean theatre and to "preserve" the Cannon, let’s turn our attention to the other end of the artistic spectrum: what does theatre's desire to make plays relevant bring to bear on this discussion?  In other words, to go back to the ISE's (and OSF's)mission statement: what does it mean to "boldly offer fresh interpretation to classic works- especially the work of William Shakespeare?"

We offer the following example, based on the work of venerated linguist John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute in the following terrific essay, entitled:

The Real Shakespearean Tragedy

It's been 400-plus years. Is it time to translate the Bard into understandable English? 

McWhorter begins as follows: "To set our discussion off in a useful direction, imagine for a moment that “it's a Thursday evening and you've gotten home early to eat a quick dinner with your spouse before driving downtown for a night of theatre. A friend has given you tickets for King Lear. Freshly showered and nicely dressed, you slip on your coats, have a nice twilight drive, park, glide into the theatre and take your seats. The lights dim, the audience quiets down, you squeeze your partner's hand, and up goes the curtain.

The actors playing the Earls of Kent and Gloucester and Gloucester's son Edmund stride on in vigorous conversation, and you savor the finery of the costumes, the rich voices of the performers, the beauty of the set. And ah, the language, the language. We churls bumble around butchering the language with our Billy and mes and hopefullys and Who did I see?s, but here at last is the language at its most sublime. We have to remember to thank Maria for the tickets.

What a difference 20 minutes can make. Lear has made his first appearance and exited, and now his three daughters are discussing him. Goneril advises that:

“The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look to receive from his age, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.”

Regan replies:

“Such unconstant starts are we like to have from him as this of Kent's banishment.”

Goneril continues:

“There is further compliment of leave-taking between France and him. Pray you, let's hit together."

Isn't it great to be here at the theatre enjoying some of the mightiest drama civilization has to offer? Yet it has been a long day. It's going to take some concentration to follow this, well, to be sure, gorgeous and profound, but, if we may, rather dense language. It seems like we get thrown little curveballs every second line. What does engraffed mean? How about therewithal? Well, forget it—the line has passed. "Starts are we like to have from him as this of Kent's banishment"? Oh, she means "starts" like shocks, with the banishment being an example, I guess. "There is further compliment of leave-taking"? What compliment? What are they all going to "hit" together? And this is only three ordinary lines. Shakespeare!"

McWhorter goes on: "We all esteem Shakespeare, but how many of us actually dig him?”   As long ago as 1955, “Alfred Harbage beautifully captured the mood of most audiences at Shakespeare performances as ‘reverently unreceptive,’ ‘gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go.’ One is not supposed to say such things in polite company, but it is an open secret in America that frankly, for most people Shakespeare is boring. I, for one, as an avid theatre fan, will openly admit that while I have enjoyed the occasional Shakespeare performance and film, most of them have been among the dreariest, most exhausting evenings of my life."

Then he notes: "It may be an overstatement to say that every member of a Shakespearean audience is wishing they had brought a magazine. But most of the people who truly get the same spontaneous pleasure and stimulation from Shakespeare that they would from a performance of a play by Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams or David Mamet are members of certain small subsets of the general population: people of letters (literature professors, English teachers, writers and Shakespeare buffs) and "theatre people" (actors, directors, producers, dramaturgs and playwrights). For the rest, the language of Shakespeare remains lovely in snippets, but downright tiresome as the vehicle of an evening-length presentation.

"In response to this, many argue that Shakespeare's language merely requires well-honed acting technique. While it is true that inflection and gesture can clarify some of the blurry points in a Shakespearean passage, what emphasis, flick of the head or swoop of the arm could indicate to us what Goneril's "further compliment of leave-taking" means? No amount of raised eyebrows, bell-jingling or trained pigeons could coax, for instance, "The cod-piece that will house / Before the head has any, / The head and he shall louse; / So beggars marry many" any further from the Hungarian that it is to us today, and I have graciously giggled along with many an audience in utter bafflement at such witticisms from Shakespearean Fools.

"It is true that Shakespeare's comedies are in general somewhat less of a chore than the tragedies. This, however, is in spite of the language, not because of it. Because comedy lends itself to boffo physical pratfalls, outrageous costumes, funny voices and stock situations, an evening of Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors is usually easier on the derrière than one at Julius Caesar or Henry V. However, a great deal of the language remains equally distant to us, and even the comedies would be infinitely richer experiences if we had more than a vague understanding of what the characters were actually saying while climbing all over each other and popping out from behind doors.

"The common consensus seems to be that what makes Shakespearean language so challenging is that the language is highly "literary" or "poetic," and that understanding the plays is simply a matter of putting forth a certain "effort." Shakespearean language is indeed poetry, but it is not this which bars us from more than a surface comprehension of so much of the dialogue in any Shakespearean play. Many of our best playwrights, such as Eugene O'Neill, David Mamet, Tony Kushner and August Wilson, put prose poetry in the mouths of their characters, and yet we do not leave performances of Long Day's Journey into Night, Glengarry Glen Ross or Joe Turner's Come and Gone glassy-eyed and exhausted.

"Some might be uncomfortable with an implication that the most challenge that should be expected of an audience is the language of the aforementioned playwrights, since after all, Shakespeare presents us with the extra processing load of unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure. But stage poetry can challenge us without being as dimly meaningful as Shakespearean language so often is to us. A fine example is David Hirson's La Bête (see American Theatre, June '91), set in 17th-century France and composed entirely in elegant, overeducated verse. Two-and-a-half hours of this certainly requires a close attention which Neil Simon does not—there is a challenge to be risen to here. Yet it is utterly delightful because the effort pays off in complete comprehension.

No, froufrou words and syntax, and the artificiality of meter, are not in themselves what makes Shakespeare such an approximate experience for most of us. The problem with Shakespeare for modern audiences is that English since Shakespeare's time has changed not only in terms of a few exotic vocabulary items, but in the very meaning of thousands of basic words and in scores of fundamental sentence structures. For this reason, we are faced with a language which, while clearly recognizable as the English we speak, is different to an extent which makes partial comprehension a challenge, and anything approaching full comprehension utterly impossible for even the educated theatregoer who doesn't happen to be a trained expert in Shakespearean language.

No one today would assign their students Beowulf in Old English—it is hopelessly obvious that Old English is a different language to us. On the other hand, the English of William Congreve's comedy The Way of the World in 1700 presents us no serious challenge, and is easily enjoyable even full of food after a long day. The English of the late 1500s, on the other hand, lies at a point between Beowulf and Congreve, which presents us with a tricky question. Language change is a gradual process with no discrete boundaries—there are no trumpet fanfares or ending credits in the sky as Old English passes into Middle English, as Middle English passes into Shakespeare's English, or as Shakespeare's English passes into ours. Thus our question is: How far back on a language's timeline can we consider the language to be the one modern audiences speak? At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists?

Many readers may feel I am exaggerating the difficulty of Shakespearean language. However, I respectfully submit that Shakespeare lovers of all kinds, including actors and those supposing that Shakespeare simply requires a bit of extra concentration, miss much, much more of Shakespeare's very basic meanings than they have ever suspected, far beyond the most obvious head-scratchers.

In October 1898, Mark H. Liddell's essay "Botching Shakespeare" made a similar point similar to mine—that English has changed so deeply since Shakespeare's time that today we are incapable of catching much more than the basic gist of a great deal of his writing, although the similarity of the forms of the words to ours tricks us into thinking otherwise. Liddell took as an example Polonius's farewell to Laertes in Hamlet, which begins:

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.

We might take this as, "And as for these few precepts in thy memory, look, you rascal you!", conveying a gruff paternal affection for Laertes. Actually, however, look used to be an interjection roughly equivalent to "see that you do it well." And character—if he isn't telling Laertes that he's full of the dickens, then what other definition of character might he mean? We might guess that this means something like "to assess the worth of" or "to evaluate." But this isn't even close—to Shakespeare, character here meant "to write"! This meaning has long fallen by the wayside, just as thousands of other English words' earlier meanings have. Thus "And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character" means "See that you write these things in your memory." Good acting might convey that look is an interjection, but no matter how charismatic and fine-tuned the performance, thou character is beyond comprehension to any but the two or three people who happen to have recently read an annotated edition of the play (and bothered to make their way through the notes).

Polonius tells his son to "Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in / Bear't, that the opposed may beware of thee." We assume he is saying "Avoid getting into arguments, but once you're in one, endure it." In fact, bear't meant "make sure that"—in other words, Polonius is not giving the rather oblique advice that the best thing to do in a argument is to "cope," but to make sure to do it well.

"Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement." Turn the other cheek? No—to take a man's censure meant "to evaluate." Polonius is advising his son to view people with insight but refrain from moralizing. "The French are of a most select and generous chief"? Another blob we have to let go by with a guess. Chief here is a fossilized remnant of sheaf, a case of arrows—which doesn't really help us unless we are told in footnotes that sheaf was used idiomatically to mean "quality" or "rank," as in "gentlemen of the best sheaf."

And finally we get to the famous line, "Neither a borrower or a lender be." Have you ever wondered why the following line is less famous—the reasons why one shouldn't borrow or lend? "For loan oft loses both itself and friend / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." So the reason one shouldn't borrow is because it interferes with the raising of livestock? Actually, husbandry meant "thrift" at the time. It does not anymore, because the language is always changing.

Polonius's speech is by no means extraordinary in terms of pitfalls like these. Indeed, almost any page of Shakespeare is as far from our modern language as this one. So shouldn't one simply read a Shakespeare play beforehand in order to prepare oneself to take in the language spoken? The fact is that one cannot simply "read" this speech without constant reference to annotations. How realistic or even charitable is it to expect that anyone but specialists, theatre folk and buffs will have the patience to read more than a prescribed dose of Shakespeare under these conditions? And ultimately a play is written to be performed, not read, and certainly not deciphered. A play that cannot communicate effectively to the listener in spoken form is no longer a play, and thus no longer lives.

The tragedy of this is that the foremost writer in the English language, the most precious legacy of the English-speaking world, is little more than a symbol in our actual thinking lives, for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying. Shakespeare is not a drag because we are lazy, because we are poorly educated, or because he wrote in poetic language. Shakespeare is a drag because he wrote in a language which, as a natural consequence of the mighty eternal process of language change, 500 years later we effectively no longer speak.

Is there anything we might do about this? I submit that here as we enter the Shakespearean canon's sixth century in existence, Shakespeare begin to be performed in translations into modern English readily comprehensible to the modern spectator. Make no mistake—I do not mean the utilitarian running translations which younger students are (blissfully) often provided in textbooks. The translations ought to be richly considered, executed by artists of the highest caliber well-steeped in the language of Shakespeare's era, thus equipped to channel the Bard to the modern listener with the passion, respect and care which is his due. (Kent Richmond, a professor at California State University—Long Beach, has been quietly doing just this with his Shakespeare Translation Project.)

"But translated Shakespeare wouldn't be Shakespeare!" one might object. To which the answer is, to an extent, yes. However, we would never complain a translation of Beowulf "isn't Beowulf"—of course it isn't, in the strict sense, but we know that without translation, we would not have access to Beowulf at all.

I predict that if theatre companies began presenting Shakespeare in elegant modern translations, a great many people would at first scorn such productions on the grounds that Shakespeare had been "cheapened" or "defiled," and that it was a symptom of the cultural backwardness of our society and our declining educational standards. However, especially if they were included in season ticket packages, audiences would begin to attend performances of Shakespeare in translation. Younger critics would gradually join the bandwagon. Pretty soon the almighty dollar would determine the flow of events—Shakespeare in the original would play to critical huzzahs but half-empty houses, while people would be lining up around the block to see Shakespeare in English the way Russians do to see an Uncle Vanya."

And now McWhorter begins to lead us to his fascinating conclusion.  He goes on: "Then would come the critical juncture: A whole generation would grow up having only experienced Shakespeare in the English they speak, and what a generation they would be! This generation would be the vanguard of an American public who truly loved Shakespeare, who cherished Lear and Olivia and Polonius and Falstaff and Lady Macbeth and Cassius and Richard III as living, breathing icons like Henry Higgins, Blanche DuBois, Big Daddy, George and Martha and Willy Loman, rather than as hallowed but waxen figurines like the signers of the Constitution frozen in a gloomy painting."

And pointedly: "No longer would producers have to trick Shakespeare up in increasingly desperate, semi-motivated changes of setting to attract audiences—A Midsummer Night's Dream in colonial Brazil, Romeo and Juliet shouted over rock music in a 90-minute MTV video, Two Gentlemen of Verona on motorcycles, Twelfth Night at a 7-Eleven. Producers do this to "make Shakespeare relevant to modern audiences," but the very assumption here that the public needs to be reminded of this relevance is telling, especially since the assumption is so sadly accurate”

Therefore, note that the ISE explicitly does not take the above approach.  The ISE steadfastly refuses to “trick up” our Bard.  Instead of merely plunking Shakespeare down into some wild setting, a hallmark of ISE productions is the way in which we carefully adapt Shakespeare to adjust not only TO the setting, but with it- melding the story just enough to make it more understandable to audiences both in terms of the way the story and the setting interrelate AND the way in which the language works.  While the ISE is not yet willing to go as far as McWhorter recommends (McWhorter: “A more effective way to make Shakespeare relevant to us is simply to present it in the English we speak”) the ISE recognizes that we are a production company born at a particular point in historical time.  We exist on that boundary of history where children grow up on computer, and where the wide world is becoming increasingly homogenized.  Therefore, our work and mission seeks to blend history with the current “real world” and in doing so, creating new ways to push and develop and revel in and extol the wonderful richness of the Shakespearean canon.

It may be, in fact, that 100 years from now, McWhorter’s prescription will have naturally been brought to pass by a variety of other Shakespearean theatre companies who will come in our wake.  If so, the ISE would proudly claim the role of serving our own time as one of the early pathfinders in these wilds.  For we are one of the “early adopters”, if you will- indeed, we believe that the very fabric of the culture and times in which we live demands no less from us. 

For as Mr. McWhorter goes on to say:

“Indeed, the irony today is that the Russians, the French and other people in foreign countries possess Shakespeare to a much greater extent than we do, for the simple reason that unlike us, they get to enjoy Shakespeare in the language they speak. Shakespeare is translated into rich, poetic varieties of these languages, to be sure, but since it is the rich, poetic modern varieties of the languages, the typical spectator in Paris, Moscow or Berlin can attend a production of Hamlet and enjoy a play rather than an exercise.

In Japan, new editions of Shakespeare in Japanese are regularly best-sellers—utterly unimaginable here, since, like the Japanese, we prefer to experience literature in the language we speak, and a new edition of original Shakespeare no longer fits this definition. In an illuminating twist on this, one friend of mine—and a very cultured, literate one at that—has told me that the first time they truly understood more than the gist of what was going on in a Shakespeare play was when they saw one in French!”

In summary, the ISE agrees heartily

 -and with heartfelt appreciation-

with Mr. McWhorter’s conclusion.

The ISE position on our contribution to the Canon emits from McWhorter's concluding realization and belief: “The glory of Shakespeare's original language is manifest. We must preserve it for posterity. However, we must not err in equating the preservation of the language with the preservation of the art. Perhaps such an equation would be the ideal—Shakespeare through the ages in his exact words. In a universe where language never changed, such an equation would be unobjectionable. In the world we live in, however, this equation is allowing blind faith to deprive the public of a monumental treasure."

Keeping it in mind that ironically, it is the English-speaking children of the Bard's heritage which now are that population of the world to disproportionatly suffer while the rest of the world moves on, as McWhorter said:

"We must reject the polite relationship the English-speaking public now has with Shakespeare in favor of more intimate, charged one which both the public and the plays deserve. To ask a population to rise to the challenge of taking literature to heart in a language they do not speak is as unreasonable as it is futile. The challenge we must rise to is to shed our fear of language change and give Shakespeare his due—restoration to the English-speaking world.”

Through educated adaptation and judicious, playful creativity,

through the unique arts of the contemporary playwright and through the vivacious window of a multi-disciplinary artistic approach to the Bard,

the ISE promises to lovingly, respectfully, but effectively “open Shakespeare” to the whole of American culture, in all ways which radiate artistic joy, integrity, and our certain knowledge that as Shakespeare would say:

“The Plays the thing!”  Play on, Friend William.  Play on!

John McWhorter is a linguist and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His books include Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and Word on the Street, from which this piece was  excerpted.


A review of the staging direction of THE most successful Shakespeare Festival in America- as it relates to the directions being taken by The Iowa Shakespeare Experience
Excerpted from the article "Oregon Festival Announces Slate of Plays"
By Marty Huey, The Oregonian, March 11 2011

One of the pillars of success for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been its continued commitment to theater's classic plays, especially those by its great namesake. At the same time, the festival has shown a keen interest in the creation of new works. The festival's 2012 season, scheduled to run from Feb. 24 through Nov. 4, will see it strongly pursuing both agendas.

At first glance, the (season) is well balanced, including the obligatory four works by Shakespeare and four productions billed as world premieres.

But look into the descriptions and it's quickly that the line between the classic and the new might get blurred more than ever.

Take, for instance, one of the three summer offerings on the Elizabethan Stage, served up under the title "The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa." It's an adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy, of course, but the altered title tips us off to an updated sensibility and a "contemporary setting that includes a failed presidential candidate, gay marriage, and the Iowa State Fair."

Even more intriguing is the title "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella," described in the season announcement as a "long bridge through Western culture" in which "Euripides', Shakespeare's, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's classics of populist theater are performed on one stage simultaneously, three-ring circus-style." "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" initially was Rauch's brainchild during his college days at Harvard.

(Playing off Shakespeare's own history cycle plays), Rauch's ( own ) history cycle (productions) - -arguably the most significant initiative so far of Rauch's tenure as Artistic Director- - kicks into high gear with two productions in the season. Pulitzer-winner Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way" looks at the productive early years of Lyndon Johnson's presidency. "Party People," by the multi-disciplinary performance troupe Universes, takes on the stories of the Black Panther and Puerto Rican Young Lords movements of the 1960s and '70s.

If somehow all this doesn't seem like enough variety, how about a tasty comedy classic immortalized by the Marx Brothers? "Animal Crackers" should present some delicious opportunities for OSF's cadre of comic actors.
And, oh yes, of course -- Shakespeare.

In addition to the adaptation of "Merry Wives," OSF will stage "Romeo and Juliet" for the 13th time, and "Troilus and Cressida" for just the fifth. "Henry V" will complete a historical arc started fruitfully last summer with "Henry IV, Part One" and continuing in "Henry IV, Part Two" later this season.

With such a promising balance between the classic and the contemporary, the familiar and the adventurous, plenty of theater fans are likely to stick around for another season too.


From a 2013 article on new practices at London's newly rebuilt Globe Theatr

The Guardian 4/23/13:  Jonathan Jones on Arts (blog)

In the wick of time …

The Globe theatre is planning to illuminate performances in its new indoor Jacobean playhouse, due to open in January 2014, by candlelight – and is recruiting a company of child actors like the ones satirised in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Mark Rylance, meanwhile, is up for an Olivier award for his performance as Olilvia in the Globe's all-male production of Twelfth Night. How much further can the rebuilt Renaissance theatre in Southwark go in recreating the world of Shakespeare? All-male casts, children's companies ... How about some bear-baiting before the play? In the 16th century, the original Globe had to compete with the nearby bear gardens. Actors had to deliver something with more bite than a hungry, irritated omnivore.

And how about the smell of dung that's sadly lacking at the Globe? Last summer, I relished Rylance as Richard III in this lovely theatre, his grotesquely brilliant antics framed beneath its wooden O. But the toilets were disappointingly modern and no puddles of urine were steaming in the groundlings' enclosure, as they surely did back in the day.

We want to recreate some of the past, but not all of it. The idea of lighting a theatre with candles, in the 21st century, is enchanting; it is even timely. As humanity dismally fails to rein in its energy demands, here is a chance to enter a world before electric light, before the great illumination that is modernity. In 1600, a satellite view of the earth at night would have shown a dark planet – none of today's matrices of street-lighting.

Georges de la Tour's paintings of Mary Magdalene meditating at night, which date from the first half of the 17th century, return again and again to the beauty of candlelight. At once bright and weak, intense and ephemeral, the golden dance of the candle flame casts a lyrical gentleness.

That was the light Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote by, loved by, and read by. It will be amazing to see a theatre flickering to its uncertainties. But again – is the Globe's determination to recreate history, now entering a bold new phase with this indoor playhouse, a heritage fantasy rather than a real encounter with history? Does it light up or dim the immediacy of drama?

To be honest I love Shakespeare's Globe. Its imaginative productions and raw vitality have made scepticism fade away. I think it gives just enough authenticity to take us out of the workaday world and make us start to imagine the strangeness of Shakespeare's times. To put it another way, it's great fun. And often great theatre.

The past is another country: they light things differently there


pilogue: The ISE and Artistic Choices:

The following material provides a basis for understanding various common artistic choices made by the ISE. 

However, theatre is nothing if not fluid and filled with opportunities to have very good reasons to break the rules. 

The ISE always reserves the right to listen to our own

artistic muse!



TO ACCENT OR NOT TO ACCENT:  Whether ‘tis nobler…..

Trevor Nunn on American Accents from The Bard Blog by Gedaly Guberek:

Trevor Nunn, former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Compnay, wants to do a production of Shakespeare with an all-American cast, reports Telegraph.co.uk.  Nunn says: “There is a different enery and a different use of language”.  This is certainly true:  Americans and Brits have very different rhythms and sounds to the way way they speak; I imagine that any dialect will bring something new to a character or play.

But the rest of the article chooses not to report on the challenges of staging a play in a dialect or examples of how differences in dialect in equally-talented and trained actors can yield different readings and interpretations of text. Instead, there are a few comments about Nunn’s statement,

“…it is almost certainly true that today’s American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”

You can read the article to see what Professor Stanley Wells has to say about it.

I want to talk about the above quote. It is a common (what I believe to be) misconception that American English is more like Shakespeare’s than British English. Firstly, there are several dialects of English in both the US and UK that vary a great deal from each other. If we’re talking about the perceived “standard” dialect from each country (General/Standard American and British RP/BBC English) I still don’t think American English is any more closely related to Shakespeare’s speech.

English, regardless of where it is being spoken, has been evolving for over 400 years since Shakespeare began writing for the theatre. Language and its dialects change a great deal, especially among super-social societies. There are certainly parts of the US and UK whose dialects have evolved more slowly due to isolation over the past centuries, but there has still been 400 years of dialect evolution.

Perhaps the misconception comes from the idea that British RP is an “invented dialect.” Even so, American English pronunciation has been heavily influenced by our friends across the pond. Remember all those movie stars from the 1930s? Theatre, Film, and Radio in the US had a notably “British” sound for a long time.

So you see why I disagree with Trevor Nunn when he says it is “almost certainly true” that American English is closer to Elizabethan English than modern British English.

David Crystal, world renowned linguist and co-author of Shakespeare’s Words, has done a lot of research on what Shakespeare’s English may have sounded like back in the day. His book, Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment, tells the process of researching this and using the pronunciation in a production! You can also hear David Crystal reading of Sonnet #1 in “Original Pronunciation.” Listen, then decide whether you think modern American or British English “is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”


What Would Shakespeare Think? by Gedaly Guberek at The Bard Blog

In a lot of articles and interviews with people who are creating scholarly, theatrical, or other artistic products of or based on Shakespeare’s works there seems to be a common question: “What do you think Shakespeare would have to say about what you’re doing?”

The common answer is something to the effect of, “I think he would have approved because Shakespeare was all about creating and updating art and finding new and creative ways of entertaining…” Or, “I’m sure he’d like to see his plays being taught in this manner…”

Whatever the reply is, the interviewee is quite sure that Shakespeare would have approved of his or her work.

What makes them so sure? What do we REALLY know about Shakespeare, the man, that gives us clues to his opinions on art or education or more specifically on the interviewee’s efforts? Isn’t it just as silly to try to determine what Shakespeare’s intended to tell his audience with his plays, or how he intended them to be acted? Sure we can find “clues” and pose theories that may seem very likely with all the evidence pointing in a certain direction, but we weren’t there and we just don’t know for sure.

Not that I like to bring politics into the mix, but the whole thing reminds me of the Republican presidential candidate debate in the Ronald Reagan Library on January 30th of this year. The final question given to each candidate was, “Would Ronald Reagan endorse you and if so, why?” The first three answered “Yes, of course!” and gave their reasons. But then Mike Huckabee said that he thought it would be arrogant to assume so, and that he didn’t know if Reagan would, “But I endorse him.”

So he was being clever with his words. I won’t tell you any of my political sympathies in this blog, but when it comes to art, you may have noticed I’m rather opinionated. It is rather presumptuous to say that Shakespeare would have agreed or supported the work being done. The work is being done, rather, to support Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, therefore I read/act in/direct/blog about his works, etc. When it comes down to it, Shakespeare’s works are public domain – freely available to everyone to download, read, hate or enjoy, and then do anything you want with it.

If ever I’m interviewed and asked if Shakespeare would support my work, I’d say “Who knows? But I support his work — without it I wouldn’t be doing [whatever it is I'm being interviewed for].”


Staging Textbook Shakespeare by Gedaly Guberek at The Bard Blog

By textbook Shakespeare I mean a history lesson exploring the time that the play is set in as well as learning about the audience mentality during the era when the plays were written and first performed. We can also say a historicist production.

If the title of this post sounds like I’m going to tell you how to do it – that’s not what you’re going to get.

My purpose is rather to explore its validity in modern theatre. Today, Shakespeare’s plays function as two very different things: Literature, and a play script. The former is an end product, the latter a starting point – raw material on which a theatrical production is built upon. Literature is often dissected to find the authors intent, inspiration, any philosophical messages or themes, allegories, allusions, similies, metaphors, symbolism, foreshadowing, and all that generally for the purpose of figuring out what the author was really trying to communicate. A seemingly objective process, but everybody’s different interpretation turns it into a rather subjective work.

Theatre, on the other hand, has its number one priority as — in my opinion — entertainment. Yes, you can comment on politics, society, etc. (and I’m ignoring most absurdism but I’m concentrating on the more common forms that we’re used to seeing) but those are secondary priorities in most cases. What comes first in the plays we like best is telling a good story, and telling it well. Theatre is full of plays about the most important episode of the lead character’s life (or end of).

Since Shakespeare has become such a huge literary figure, it’s very easy to lose focus when producing a play. Before I go on, I must say that I DO think it is almost essential to understand as much as you can about the raw piece of work that you can. Find the meaning of every word, discover how the play would have been understood 400 years ago, realize the significance of certain plot events to an Elizabethan/Jacobean audience. BUT when all is said and done very little, if any, of that work will be seen by the audience of the production. What might be seen is some work in drawing parallels. For example, if Shakespeare’s audience viewed such-and-such event THIS way, then we’ll have to stage it like THIS so that a modern audience will understand the weight of the situation.

After all, we don’t really go to the theatre to learn about history. I love learning about history, but it’s not why I go to the theatre. I want to see a good story told well. And if I learn in the process, cool. If not, fine. Good theatre has to be relevant today somehow. We can’t just dig up a play – by anyone – and say “it’s a classic, let’s do it.” There are plenty of blockbuster plays from not even 50 years ago that are no longer produced because they were such a product of their time that they would be incomprehensible to us today. Shakespeare’s power, I believe, is that the plays are extremely adaptable to play in front of a modern audience. We’re not necessarily showing how they were originally staged. Instead we present them (with minor alterations) to tell the story that will resonate most with the hearts and heads above the butts in the seats. They are about the human experience and today and tomorrow will still find truths that we can relate to.

As they are in your Arden, Riverside, Pelican, or other edition the plays are pieces of literature. The footnotes and introductions often explore what those words meant 400 years ago and how the play was received by a 16th or 17th century audience. If we today tried to put such a historicist production onstage I have no doubt that not too many people would enjoy it. Theatre is about the now. It’s an opportunity for catharsis – you can’t get that from a textbook history lesson.

Condemning of ‘The Shrew’ by Gedaly Guberek of The Bard Blog

The Taming of the Shrew is a wonderful play that we theatre artists all love for the great characters, the comedy, the language…

But what about the “problem” of the audience? This play is one (of many) of Shakespeare’s works that has elements that just seems to rub we moderns the wrong way. Will spectators ever be able let that go and enjoy the play or will there constantly be a battle between an auditor’s conscience and the attempted justifications made in the director’s notes?

In a recent review of Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s production, the critic states

There’s no getting around the misogyny at the core of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. You can try to talk yourself out of it, as dramaturg Jen Plants does in her program notes … You can try to restore the usually discarded framing device in an attempt to pass the whole thing off as a drunken dream. You can even cast a real ball of fire … as Katharina, the shrew who must be tamed.
Nothing works.

Theatres will usually try to present productions that are relevant today, that speak to modern generations. Most audience members watching Shrew will know in the back of their mind that this play was written 400 years ago for a very different audience with different thoughts about, well, a lot of things. But how can you convincingly justify putting on the play as something relevant?

It’s impossible just shrug relevance away and say “It’s a good play,” or “because it’s Shakespeare!” I’m sure no matter what you say there will be people flocking to come see it if it’s well acted. But the parts of the play that are relevant today are for the director to find or create.

You may have noticed that I don’t really have an answer for you. I’m a little conflicted over it. I enjoy the play for a variety of reasons that I have mentioned: the characters, the comedy, the language. But if I were an artistic director of a theatre company getting my chosen season approved by the board of directors and was asked to justify my choice of Shrew I might have a hard time convincing anyone. How would you justify it? Or would you at all? (Emphasis is the ISE’s)


Bardolatry by Gedaly Guberek of The Bard Blog


Bardolatry is defined as “the idolization of William Shakespeare”. Therefore one who idolizes William Shakespeare is referred to as a “Bardolater”. Before moving on, I feel that it is necessary to define “idolize”. The definitions are
1.to regard with blind adoration, devotion, etc.
2. to worship as a god.

Now before anyone gets worried about these definitions and starts throwing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare into the fire just like their copies of Harry Potter, let me just tell you that Bardolaters do not idolize William Shakespeare in the manner of definition #2. Although I may refer to the Complete Works as my “bible”, please consult dictionary.com’s 4th definition of the word bible.

William Shakespeare was a swell guy and had some super cool things to say and some people just wanted a word to express that.

It was George Berard Shaw, in fact, who coined the word “Bardolator”. Thanks G.B. I have recently coined the word “Anti-Bardite” referring to those people who would rather stab themselves with a rusty spoon in a malaria infested bog rather than read or see Shakespeare. Fie on them.

It is my dream that one day The Complete Works of William Shakespeare will be found in every hotel room of America! And he will no longer be taught in English classes as literature, but in COMPULSORY theatre classes everywhere to truly appreciate his genius as a playwright and poet! Join me fellow Bardolaters! And drink some of this punch!

Of course that’s going a little far. Theatre classes can’t be compulsory. But Shakespeare does need to be taught with emphasis that these are plays first, not literary works. Also, when a crazy man is talking nonsense: don’t ever drink the punch.

May the Bard be with you.






And now, to conclude (at least for now!) this rolicking discussion on Shakespeare and adaptations, as promised 

Here is a short list of some of the adaptive movies

that have been created from the words of William Shakespeare… 

A juncture where the fluid, fragile world of theatre merges into the static preserved work of film:


Adaptations of Shakespeare in film


True to the text, time and setting:

Early 20th Century actor Sir Laurence Olivier starred in many film productions of Shakespeare, including the film production of Hamlet (1948). In Olivier’s productions, all of the aspects of Shakespeare’s work are kept the same. Olivier is probably the most famous actor and interpreter of Shakespeare. 

Film director Roman Polanski did an adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) in which he didn’t change the setting, the time period, or the language. This adaptation is probably one of the darkest, because Polanski directed the film exactly one year after the Manson Family murdered his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. 

Theatre and film director Julie Taymor has directed Shakespeare plays on the stage as well as films, such as The Tempest (1986), and The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (1999), an imaginatively staged piece that cut the script but retained Shakespeare’s words, setting, and the time period. 

Twelfth Night (1996). This is a film adaptation of the play, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Helena Carter, Nigel Hawthorne, and Ben Kingsley as the multidimensional Feste. 

Irish actor Kenneth Branagh is also famous for directing different film versions of Shakespeare’s work, including Much Ado About Nothing (1983), Hamlet (1996), Twelfth Night (1988), and As You Like It (2007). He also starred in Hamlet

Actor/producer Mel Gibson starred in the 1990 version of Hamlet directed by Franco Zeffirelli and also stars Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia. 

Adaptations that change the time period:

Kenneth Branagh’s latest Shakespearian movie is an adaptation of As You Like It, released in 2006. The film is set in pre-20th century Japan and stars Kevin Kline as Jacques and Alfred Molina as Touchstone. 

Christine Edzard directed an adaptation of As You Like It that was released in 1992. It is set in modern 

London; the Court becomes an opulent office building and the “forest” is the banks of the Thames River, where the homeless try to lead a simple life. 


Famous actors Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, and Michelle Pfeiffer star in an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999). This lavish adaptation takes place in the 1930s. Some of the script is cut, but the actors still keep to the original text. 

Probably the most popular film adaptation of recent years is The Tragedy of Romeo+ Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and directed by Baz Luhrmann (1996). This adaptation shifts the action to modern-day Verona and mixes modern music with Shakespeare’s original language, and used guns instead of swords for the battles. 

Another popular film adaptation of Shakespeare is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (2000) 

with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, as well as Julia Stiles and Bill Murray, set in present-day Manhattan. Though the script is cut, Shakespeare’s language is preserved. 17 


Adaptations that preserve the situation: 

Several stage and movie musicals have been based on Shakespeare. West Side Story (1961), directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, is a musical set in New York City. Based on Romeo and Juliet, the story depicts the conflict between two teenage gangs of different ethnicities and two young lovers who suffer the consequences of violence. 

O, a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s Othello, was directed by Tim Blake Nelson and starred Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, and Josh Harnett, and translates Shakespeare’s story of jealousy and murder to a private high school. 

She’s the Man, directed by Andy Fickman, is a modern-day Twelfth Night in which Viola poses as her twin brother at his boarding school, getting very close to his roommate Duke. 


The popular film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), starring Julia Stiles, is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. The play takes place in sixteenth-century Padua, Italy while the movie is set in a modern-day California and follows the dating troubles of its characters in contemporary language. 


Movie Poster: 10 Things I Hate About You. Directed by Gil Junger, 1999. 





In the Middle East, there is a popular myth that Shakespeare was actually an Arab.

He is still sometimes referred to as Sheikh al-Subair, which translates from Arabic as “Prickly Pear.” 

-Alan Riding 

From http://guardian.co.uk