Shaking up Shakespeare for the modern audience
From Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet to Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice, Arts and Lit writer, Rosie Batsford, explores how Shakespearean texts are being made palatable for the twenty-first century audience.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, As You Like It, (Act II, Scene VI)
For many, Shakespeare may be a name deeply rooted within the dreaded GCSE English classroom. Still, his works continue to form a vibrant element of the contemporary world, with sixteenth century works being deconstructed and re-formed to give a twenty-first century voice to issues of gender, politics, sexuality, technology, race, and religion.
Although widely considered one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the political tensions of late sixteenth century England are embedded within Hamlet, with the troubles of the Danish court mirroring turmoil far closer to home. Icke’s 2017 adaptation of the play, in London’s Almeida Theatre, drew upon themes of reality versus appearance, and the idea of members of the court as social performers, filling the stage with surveillance equipment, cameras, and mirrors. The Evening Standard compared the play to a “Highly charged family drama”, where intimate family life is on display for all to see. Not only is the protagonist, who shares his name with the title of the play, isolated by technology, but many contemporary adaptations, such as a 2021 performance at the Young Vic, place Hamlet’s two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in a romantic relationship, further highlighting Hamlet’s ‘otherness’ as a misfit in his social context.
The Evening Standard compared the play to a “Highly charged family drama”, where intimate family life is on display for all to see.
For contemporary audiences, The Merchant of Venice is often considered Shakespeare’s most controversial play due to the polemics against Shylock, a heavily stereotyped Jewish character. Michael Radford’s 2004 film adaptation does not shy away from this uncomfortable narrative, instead highlighting the difficulties faced by Jews in the Venetian ghetto. Radford develops the close friendship between Antonio and Bassanio, alluding to a sexual relationship, including a scene where the two kiss.
Homosexuality is a common theme in many contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. This choice may, in part, be driven by speculation surrounding Shakespeare’s own sexuality. This approach is driven primarily by his Sonnet 18, which is a romantic poem addressed to a man (“Faith Youth”). Shakespeare never explicitly stated his sexuality, but ‘queer readings’ of his work are becoming increasingly common, and this is certainly reflected in adaptations of his work. The Angelic Conversation (1985), directed by Derek Jarman consists of homoerotic pictures juxtaposed with select lines of Shakespeare’s sonnets read by Judi Dench. Bray pushes back against this in his essay Locating Queerness in Cymbeline suggesting that it is not his sexuality Shakespeare is referencing, but rather, he is showing an awareness of the paradox of appearance versus reality; his work “queers what our sense of dramatic representation means”.
Shakespeare never explicitly stated his sexuality, but ‘queer readings’ of his work are becoming increasingly common, and this is certainly reflected in adaptations of his work.
It is not only the characters of Shakespeare’s plays that have been re-imagined, but the playwright’s life, too, has undergone new interpretations. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet provides an emotional adaptation confronting the painful death of the playwright and his wife’s only son in 1596, in juxtaposition with their marriage prior to their painful loss. Reflecting upon Shakespeare’s sonnets, some scholars suggest that he was having an affair, alluded to by a recurring “dark lady” (127-152) figure in his writing. This representation differs from the “Fair Youth” figure in that it is overtly sexual; “rising at thy name, doth point out thee As his triumphant prize” (sonnet 151), the voice of the poem is reduced to the male bodily reactions to arousal. Shakespeare’s will presents Anne almost as an afterthought leaving her “the second best bed with the furniture”. However, Lena Cowen Orlin suggests that this should not be read as a window into their marriage but rather it is language used to identify objects and is common in wills of that time (The Private Life of William Shakespeare 2021).
Personal life aside, James Shapiro (Shakespeare in a Divided America (2020)) argues that Shakespeare’s plays are more than merely relevant in contemporary society. From the miscegenation laws of 1833, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and even the radical political divisions of 2017, Shapiro suggest that many major events in American history are intrinsically bound to or reflected by Shakespeare’s works.