Aesthetic Statement 

of 

The Iowa Shakespeare Experience

 

by

Lorenzo Sandoval, MFA, Artistic Director

 

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, we start from the premise that classic theatre—notably Shakespearean theatre—is important because it remains dynamic: 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.

 

With regard to innovation, in each production we undertake, we want to add something new to the art form of theatre. Our, to put this another way: especially since Shakespeare has been performed for hundreds of years, we want to add to the Cannon- not just regurgitate it.

 

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.  See the attached material about whether or not there is a “traditional” Shakespeare we can know or ascribe to– or whether we just think there is.  

 

We accomplish a progressive approach through a careful process. 

 

  •  First, I, as an Artistic Director, arrive at an interpretation of a Shakespeare play. To achieve this I apply scholarship and experience with dramaturgy plus an extensive knowledge of Shakespeare’s work, with an eye to discovering themes which echo with themes of interest today. 
  •  Then, with the intention of making the play as accessible and rewarding as possible to our audiences, I work first alone, and then with key leaders on my Artistic team to make significant artistic choices relating to fundamental elements such as language, plot, setting, costuming, lighting, casting and length of the play. 
  •  We also explore integrating other art forms such as music, dance, film, mass media, painting and sculpture. 
  •  The results: theatre that is original, exciting, captivating and executed with the highest production values

 

With regard to artistic excellence, we set high standards for our productions. To begin with, we work with performance artists and technical artists who set high standards for themselves. These individuals range from those who possess extensive experience to those emerging artists whose talents show considerable promise.

 

We measure artistic excellence by considering three important aspects of artistic work:

 

• artistic idea – the artistic impulse behind our production,

 

• artistic practice – how the production is effectively realized and its impact on the artists who helped bring it to life,

 

• artistic development – how our production contributes to a) the artists’ career paths and goals,  b) the art of theatre, b.) the art of Shakespearean theatre and d) the overall role of the arts in society.

 

We collect this information by engaging in both formative and summative evaluation. That is, formatively, during the exploration and rehearsal processes of the production the Artistic Director is constantly seeking feedback from the artists, and the feedback is used in a formative “feedback loop” process which allows the artists’ feedback to the Director and the Director’s feedback to the artists to create the ultimate shape and flavor of the play. Questions are continually posed and discussed: Do you understand the artistic direction of the production? Do you understand what is expected of you as a theatre artist? Are you being challenged? Do you feel as if you are contributing substantially toward the creation of your character? What can the Artistic Director do to help you meet the needs of the production and your own artistic goals?  A complete list of the types of questions we ask (in focus group process or tablework) is based on work in the area of evaluation of the Artistic experience by the Arts Council of England, provided in our Evaluation documents. 

 

We also measure artistic excellence in terms of seeking summative data from the audience about their experience.  Using tools (such as a Liker Scale) which are pre-tested for various kinds of validity, we ask questions that give us insights into their understanding of the production, their enjoyment of the production, their interest in continuing to attend our productions, their ways of accessing our marketing information, and other data that will help us deliver high-quality professional productions.  This information is used to guide our development of future productions.  Additional information about how we engage in getting feedback from audiences can also be found in our Evaluation documents. 

 

In conclusion, through a scholarly process which is also highly interactive and collaborative between our various artists and our audiences, we make discoveries which we allow to inform the very substance of our creative output.  In this manner, the Iowa Shakespeare Experience constantly strives to provide the best Shakespearean and classical theatre in central Iowa.

 

The Iowa Shakespeare Experience

Statement of Aesthetic Philosophy and Artistic Vision

(Draft, a work in progress)

Submitted by Lorenzo Sandoval, MFA, Artistic Director for the Iowa Shakespeare Experience

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 cannon at a distinct point in human history.  It is the goal of our work to expand the cannon, 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 are work needs to go, are based on multi-disciplinary artistic study of works from all throughout the arts- 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.  

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.

The Iowa Shakespeare Experience:

Artistic Directors Vision Statement- a Draft

The mission statement of the Iowa Shakespeare Experience is explicit:  With our tagline aggressively branding our work as being “Delightfully Wicked!”, the ISE invokse a mission similar to the one manifested by the great grand-daddy of all American Shakespeare Festivals, the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), as follows:

As the Premier Provider of classic theatre programming in Central Iowa,

the ISE 

preserves and honors 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.

This mission statement thus presents two opposing concepts, with the duty to contribute to the Canon inherent in both.  

In short, 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?

and

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), our interest in creating historically appropriate work.  Our tandem interest in creating bold new contributions to the cannon will 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.  (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 discuss this conclusion, as follows:

“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 seminsal fact: “What is defined as “traditional” means essentially something called “original practice”—costumes and settings that strive to accurately replicate those of Shakespeare’s time. 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.

 

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 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. 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

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. 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

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

As a reaction to the rise of historical accuracy in the 19th century, early 20th-century audiences began to see productions in modern dress—especially in the 1920s with Barry Jackson’s productions at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England. In turn, a reaction to this movement gave rise to what is 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.

 

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, 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.”

 

The ISE also finds it fascinating to 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.

 

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.) 

 

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. 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 the ISE agrees! “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, 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, let’s address the other end of the artistic spectrum: 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 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?

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!

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.

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.

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.

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, 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 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 this 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.

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.

 

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

Filed under Quips and Quibbles on August 22 | Comments welcome!

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

Filed under Quips and Quibbles on August 17 | 1 comment

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

Filed under Quips and Quibbles on July 25 | 3 comments

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.

 

Notes on the ISE Artistic Philosophy:

 

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.  

It is the goal of our work to expand the canon, and we made decisions about direction based on cultural needs we believe exist 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 study of works from the fields of linguistics, history, the humanities- and of course from theatre.  

 

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

 

The Iowa Shakespeare Experience

Statement of Aesthetic Philosophy and Artistic Vision

(Draft, a work in progress)

Submitted by Lorenzo Sandoval, MFA, 

Artistic Director for the Iowa Shakespeare Experience

 

The mission statement of the Iowa Shakespeare Experience is explicit:  With the tagline of being “Delightfully Wicked!”, we invoke a mission similar to the one manifested by the great grand-daddy of all American Shakespeare Festivals, the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as follows:

As the Premier Provider of classic theatre programming in Central Iowa,

the ISE 

preserves and honors 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.

This mission statement presents two opposing concepts, with the duty to contribute to the Canon inherent in both:  In short, the Iowa Shakespeare Experience seeks to present the entire spectrum of Shakespearean interpretation- from the “historic” to the “contemporary” – and we have a quite carefully considered idea of precisely what this vision means. 

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?

and

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), our interest in creating historically appropriate work.  Our tandem interest in creating bold new contributions to the canon will 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.  (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 discuss this conclusion, as follows:

“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 seminsal fact: “What is defined as “traditional” means essentially something called “original practice”—costumes and settings that strive to accurately replicate those of Shakespeare’s time. 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 aesthetics related to Shakespeare will be brought to light.

 

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 intricacies involved. 

 

Douthit says: “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 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. 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

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. 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

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

As a reaction to the rise of historical accuracy in the 19th century, early 20th-century audiences began to see productions in modern dress—especially in the 1920s with Barry Jackson’s productions at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England. In turn, a reaction to this movement gave rise to what is 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.

 

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, 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.”

 

The ISE also finds it fascinating to 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.

 

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.) 

 

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. 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 the ISE agrees! “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, 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, let’s address the other end of the artistic spectrum: 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 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?

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!

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.

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.

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.

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, 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 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 this 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.

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 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.

 

 

 

The Iowa Shakespeare Experience

Statement of Aesthetic Philosophy and Artistic Vision

(Draft, a work in progress)

Submitted by Lorenzo Sandoval, MFA, Artistic Director for the Iowa Shakespeare Experience

 

The mission statement of the Iowa Shakespeare Experience is explicit:  With the tagline of being “Delightfully Wicked!”, we invoke a mission similar to the one manifested by the great grand-daddy of all American Shakespeare Festivals, the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as follows:

As the Premier Provider of classic theatre programming in Central Iowa,

the ISE 

preserves and honors 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.

This mission statement presents two opposing concepts, with the duty to contribute to the Canon inherent in both:  In short, the Iowa Shakespeare Experience seeks to present the entire spectrum of Shakespearean interpretation- from the “historic” to the “contemporary” – and we have a quite carefully considered idea of precisely what this vision means. 

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?

and

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), our interest in creating historically appropriate work.  Our tandem interest in creating bold new contributions to the canon will 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.  (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 discuss this conclusion, as follows:

“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 seminsal fact: “What is defined as “traditional” means essentially something called “original practice”—costumes and settings that strive to accurately replicate those of Shakespeare’s time. 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 aesthetics related to Shakespeare will be brought to light.

 

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 says: “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 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. 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

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. 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

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

As a reaction to the rise of historical accuracy in the 19th century, early 20th-century audiences began to see productions in modern dress—especially in the 1920s with Barry Jackson’s productions at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England. In turn, a reaction to this movement gave rise to what is 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.

 

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, 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.”

 

The ISE also finds it fascinating to 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.

 

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.) 

 

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. 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 the ISE agrees! “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, 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, let’s address the other end of the artistic spectrum: 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 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?

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!

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.

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.

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.

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, 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 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 this 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.

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 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.