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Expert Comment: Shakespeare’s Words on Changing Stages

Shakespeare Monday 11 April 2016

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, whose poems and plays contain some of the most famous and resonant phrases in the English language. So it’s understandable that some theatregoers get jumpy when they hear their favourite plays sounding … different.

In 2006, audiences at Stratford-upon-Avon were shocked to realise that a production of Cymbeline by internationally-acclaimed Kneehigh Theatre had thrown out almost all of the play’s original words, the company creating their own adaptation of the play, complete with new characters and a series of jokes at Shakespeare’s expense. Many people loved the show, but others walked out in disgust. Just last year, some critics and theatregoers were similarly infuriated by Lyndsey Turner’s production of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which (in early previews) shifted the prince’s most celebrated soliloquy (‘To be, or not to be …’) to the play’s opening moments.

These are not isolated examples of contemporary theatre-makers tinkering with Shakespeare’s texts, or even writing their own versions of Shakespeare’s plays, in order to examine his stories from new angles. Tim Crouch’s one-man show I, Malvolio (2010) revisits the events of Twelfth Night from the perspective of the play’s aggrieved puritan steward, in the process interrogating the ethics of theatre audiences, and our own laughter. (Crouch also directs The Complete Deaths, a comic tribute to Shakespeare’s tragedies, coming to the Liverpool Playhouse in May 2016.) The Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment are currently touring their ‘Complete Works’ project, in which performers re-tell all of Shakespeare’s plays in their own, idiosyncratic words, while skilfully manipulating casts of condiments, toiletries, and other household items across a table-top, making you see familiar plays with new eyes. Meanwhile, Emma Rice (formerly of Kneehigh Theatre, and the woman responsible for that controversial Cymbeline) has just taken over as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, promising a new focus on re-claiming Shakespeare’s wondrous stories.

Should fans of Shakespeare’s writing be shocked and appalled by these shenanigans? Well, maybe not. Current research actually suggests that the classic plays we now think of as fixed and unchangeable would, in their early days, have been much more fluid and flexible. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare’s plays have always existed in multiple versions, with longer printed texts marketed for readers, while the public playhouses presented pacier, stripped-down variants. Others highlight how the contents of Shakespeare’s dramas may have changed during the playwright’s own career, with prologues, epilogues, and choruses (as well as songs, dances, and comic sequences) being added and deleted, re-written and replaced, as different occasions demanded. In fact, Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 production of The Winter’s Tale did something very similar, borrowing lines from a later scene to give Judi Dench’s Paulina and the play’s young prince a brand new opening dialogue.

So while modern audiences still love hearing Shakespeare’s familiar words, we also need to understand the ways in which a play’s text can change, and be changed, by successive generations of theatre-makers and audiences. After all, it may be this very ability to transform which keeps a dramatic story alive in our imaginations, even after 400 years. 


Expert Comment by Stephe Harrop, Lecturer in Drama (Shakespeare and the Classics) 

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