Shakespeare wasn’t one for mere variations on a theme. His plays scope war, fratricide, teenage angst and sylvan frolics, albeit with a long-running joke on the mysteries of human character. In contrast, playwrights and theatre-makers are constantly splurging their thoughts on Shakespeare onto the stage in the form of new pieces ‘inspired by’ the bard, in a sort of collective perennial meditation on the playwright’s place in British culture. And it’s not just in Britain that Shakespeare’s influence is felt; a recent piece at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Dream Variations, was created by students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts of Budapest and used devised theatre to explore ideas of aspiration and love in homage to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But how much does artists’ supposed inspiration come from a genuine response to the texts, rather than a learned understanding of his greatness? Children have Dream, at the very least, shoved down their throats from a young age, long before they’re old enough to appreciate much more than the naming of Bottom. Yet we’re as likely to have watched West Side Story or She’s the Man as we are to have seen Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night. We often see shadows of Shakespeare before we’ve experienced the real thing, and so the idea of his significance is embedded in us in such a way that it becomes difficult to approach his works with clear eyes.
This can sometimes be a problem, as even the most diehard Shakespeare fan would agree that his work is flawed. It’s arguable how far his plays can be considered misogynistic or racist, but being surrounded by attitudes that are now unpalatable, and being only human, it is fair to assume a degree of their influence on him and his work. Further, his plots are filled with black holes that can frustrate non-indulgent audience members. Indeed, there is a definite danger of accepting Shakespeare whole-heartedly without acknowledging the problems of his texts. It’s not an unreasonable position to resent Shakespeare by virtue of him being the archetypal ‘dead white male’, and to begrudge his immutable stage presence in place of a greater lauding of modern playwrights who speak more directly to the current moment.
This is particularly true if the audience is required to have knowledge of Shakespeare in order for the play to work. It’s one thing to be inspired by Shakespeare; it’s another to require the audience to recognise the allusion. Dennis Kelly’s play The Gods Weep uses a modern corporate setting to re-imagine King Lear. This might function as a knowing wink between playwright and punter, but it may also be alienating. The CEO, Colm’s, sudden decision to pass power over to two subordinates, and then cling intensely to it, may seem contrived to a spectator unfamiliar with Lear’s tragic mistakes.
However, Kelly’s play is a good example of the fact that aside from anything else, Shakespearean form provides a context in which playwrights can stage stories that might otherwise squash the form that contains them. The Shakespearean context allows Kelly to get away with a visceral language and openness of character that may have felt false in a realistic contemporary play; ‘When they put you in my arms I had to fight back the desire to swing you by your feet and dash your brains out on the wall’. Characters can engage in long monologues and pour out their souls to each other, safe in the cavern of Shakespearean scope. Mike Bartlett, author of King Charles III, acknowledges this in a piece he wrote for The Guardian, justifying his choice of a Shakespearean frame as due to the ‘epic’ scale of the drama. The play, which is written in iambic pentameter, dramatises the imagined events when – or if – Prince Charles ascends to the throne. According to Bartlett, the point was less for audiences to ‘get’ the Shakespeare reference, and more to use a form employed by Shakespeare in order to convey the story; ‘It wasn’t a postmodern take on Shakespeare, it wasn’t a parody or a pastiche – it was a play, telling a story the audience should care about. Anything that worked against this was swiftly cut’.
Interestingly, Bartlett comments on his initial disappointment when he realised that audience members often didn’t realise the play was written in iambic pentameter, until he accepted that ‘it meant they were enjoying it for all the right reasons – meaning, imagery, character – rather than worrying about the technical aspects’. Ultimately it’s that infamous ‘meaning, imagery, character’ that playwrights continually find engaging and stimulating, and justify his big billing. It was Shakespeare’s approach to love and human dreams that the creators of Dream Variations responded to, not Shakespeare as an institution or even the play as a complete work. These are topics that have been approached by a myriad of writers, but the richness of Shakespeare’s imagery, and his nuanced portrayal of conflicted characters in situations with the stakes blown up to eleven creates a gorgeous canvas to catch on the imagination.
With this in mind, an unconscious consumption of Shakespeare from childhood makes it all the more stimulating to engage with his work at a more mature level, finding juvenile assumptions and expectations quashed. We can’t deny Shakespeare’s pervasive influence, so it is beholden to theatremakers to examine it and the plays’ relationship to contemporary society. Dance company Lost Dog’s upcoming show Juliet and Romeo – A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage imagines that the pair didn’t die after all, and so uses the play’s archetypal lovers to examine ‘our cultural obsession with youth’. After all, in adapting or making work based on Shakespeare theatremakers are inherently involved in a process of selection, engaging in an ongoing conversation about how and why we make theatre, what’s included and who’s left out. Firebird Theatre’s The Nine Lessons of Caliban humanised the maligned, outcast character from The Tempest whilst simultaneously giving voice to the challenges faced by people with disabilities, therefore redeeming a vilified character in order to reflect on problems of vilification in society. It’s exactly because Shakespeare is so entrenched in us that it’s important that artists make perceptive, considered creative responses to his plays, working out where we stand in relation to the stories we’ve been telling each other for centuries.