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The Ghost at the Feast

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

film directed by Baz Luhrmann

Hamlet

a film directed by Kenneth Branagh

Looking for Richard

a film directed by Al Pacino

Twelfth Night

a film directed by Trevor Nunn

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Tramway Theater, Glasgow, February 4-7; the Palais Résidence, Brussels, February 12-15; and the Cultural Center Belem, Lisbon, February 19-23

a play directed by Jonathan Miller. At the Almeida Theatre, London, through February 1, 1997; then the

1.

To unravel my first associations with Shakespeare is like trying to clamber back into the core of childhood. My parents worked in the theater—my mother as actress, my father as director and theater owner—and stages figured early on as places of magical transformation. Seeing the process from the wings did not make it any less magical: quite the contrary. The stage was a place where people became other than what they were, in a fully real alternate world. The most highly developed aspect of that other world was called Shakespeare, conceived not as an individual but as an inventory of places, costumes, roles, phrases, songs.

Countless artifacts served as windows into it: a book of cutout figures for a toy theater, based on stills from Olivier’s Hamlet; Classic Comics versions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; recordings of John Barrymore as Hamlet and Olivier as Henry V and (most memorably) an Old Vic Macbeth whose bubbling-cauldron sound effects and echo-chambered witches’ voices haunted me for years; splendidly melodramatic nineteenth-century engravings of Hamlet in pursuit of his father’s ghost, Romeo running Tybalt through, Caliban and the drunken sailors carousing on the beach; prints of Sarah Siddons and Edmund Kean in their most famous roles; a whole world of Victorian bric-a-brac and accretions out of Charles and Mary Lamb; Victor Mature as Doc Holliday in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, reciting “To be or not to be” in a Dodge City saloon. There were productions, too, of which I remember none better than John Gielgud standing alone in modern dress on the stage of a school auditorium on Long Island enacting the abdication of Richard II; and there were Olivier’s three Shakespeare movies, the most recent of which, Richard III, had its American premiere on television in 1956.

It was a world that came into focus very gradually, little pieces clinging to memory out of a whole at first immense and vague. Probably the first details absorbed were of props and clothing—a crown, a dagger, a robe—augmented gradually by gestures, phrases, half-understood speeches. I can just about recall the uncanniness, on first encounter, of the exclamation “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Even more peculiar in their fascination were those words not understood at all: aroint, incarnadine, oxlips, roundel, palpable, promontory. No subsequent encounter with lyrical poetry ever exercised the initial hypnotic power of such a phrase as “Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

This Shakespeare existed outside of history, like Halloween or the circus. He was the supreme embodiment of the Other Time before cars or toasters, the time of thrones and spells and madrigals, imagined not as a dead past but as an ongoing parallel domain. So it was that I came to participate in a sort of religion of secular imagination: a charmed world whose key was to be found in the plays themselves, in all those passages where Shakespeare, through the mouth of Puck or Jaques or Hamlet or Prospero, appeared to give away the secret of a mystical theatricality, a show illusory even where it was most palpable.

The plays were just there, a species of climate: a net of interrelations extending into the world and generating an unforeseeable number of further interrelations. Why this should be so did not seem particularly important. Having managed to bypass the didactic initiation into Shakespeare favored in most schoolrooms—where every aesthetic pleasure must be justified in the name of some more or less hollow generality about will, or fate, or human relations—I didn’t need to look for reasons for the endless fascination. Certainly the sociology of the sixteenth century, or the development of the English theater, or the mechanisms of religious and political thought in early modern Europe seemed to have little to do with it. Any piece of writing, after all, came with such local meanings attached; every Elizabethan and Jacobean play was loaded to the brim with comparable social revelation. Something else had motivated a culture to adopt this vocabulary of situations, roles, and locations as the materials for its collective dreaming: something less susceptible to quantitative analysis than scope or invention. What but some mysterious generosity in the author could make possible such an infinitely flexible repertory for the theater of the mind?

If any era could call that flexibility into question it is a post-postmodern moment skeptical by now even about its own skepticism, and unable to refrain from an anxious cataloguing of inherited knowledge it can neither quite forget nor celebrate altogether without qualms. Shakespeare is the past, and the past is something we don’t know quite what to do with; we toy uncertainly with a millennial sense of impending drastic rupture, as if preparing to say goodbye to everything, even Shakespeare. With or without regrets: on one side there is the conviction (to quote from a notice posted recently at the MLA1 ) that “the current explosion of the uses of Shakespeare often consolidate elite and dominant culture” (the notice goes on to speak disparagingly of “Shakespeare’s status as high cultural capital”), on another the gloomy suggestion that in our present debased condition we are barely worthy of Shakespeare at all.

Nonetheless a sort of boom has been announced, and by virtue of being announced has gained official media recognition as a phenomenon; the Globe is at last reconstructed in South London (the culmination of a long and loving process which has involved among other things a rediscovery of Elizabethan construction techniques); new editions and CD-ROMs proliferate; a humorous compilation entitled Shakespeare’s Insults becomes a bestseller, with accompanying magnetic Wit Kit; and in the wake of last year’s films of Othello and Richard III we have been given in short order a Hamlet, a Twelfth Night, a sort-of Romeo and Juliet, some large chunks of Richard III interspersed in Al Pacino’s immensely entertaining filmic essay Looking for Richard, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by Adrian Noble) still to come. It isn’t exactly the Revival of Learning, and it is unlikely (although I would be glad to be told the contrary) that wide-screen versions of Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, or The Winter’s Tale will be coming any time soon to a theater near you, but it beats another movie about helicopters blowing up.

Doubtless there are thoroughly prosaic reasons for the momentary surge, having more to do with the random convergence of financing and marketing possibilities than with some cultural moment of reckoning. In a marketplace hungry for any pre-tested public domain property with instant name recognition, Shakespeare clearly has not altogether lost his clout, although his near-term bankability will certainly depend a great deal on the box office receipts of Kenneth Branagh’s textually uncompromising four-hour Hamlet. In the meantime singular opportunities have been created, not to recapitulate but to reinvent.

Reinvention has always been the function of Shakespeare in performance. It could have turned out otherwise: if the English Civil War had not disrupted the line of transmission, or if the post-Restoration theater 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. Of course there have always been productions—more a few decades back than now, perhaps—that inadvertently produced just that effect, of watching an ancient play in a foreign language as it moved through its foreordained paces.

In the face of such displays audiences often tended to shut down. A brilliant Shakespearean parody in the 1960 English revue Beyond the Fringe hilariously summed up everything that has ever made Shakespeare in performance more burden than delight: the mellifluous rote readings gliding incomprehensibly over gnarled syntax and thickets of argument, the versified rosters of the history plays sounding like nothing so much as medieval shopping lists (“Oh saucy Worcester!”), the bawdy uproariousness and farcical mugging designed to disguise the fact that even the actors didn’t get the jokes.

That parody, with its evocation of a lost era of complacent pageantry, came to mind while watching the recent production by Jonathan Miller (as it happens, one of the creators of Beyond the Fringe) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Almeida Theatre. Here was the driest possible reimagining of a play capable of being smothered in ornate fancies: a Dream without fairies or fairy bowers, without even a hint of woodland magic or, indeed, of woodland. Miller recasts the play as a Thirties comedy of precise class distinctions, where the mortals—Theseus as lord of the manor, Hermia and Helena as bright debs pursued by young fashion plates of inspired fatuousness, Bottom and company as working men recruited from the local pub—are indistinguishable from Oberon as a somewhat tattered aristocrat, Titania as a sleek hostess out of a Noel Coward play, Puck and the other fairies as reluctant butlers inclined to be surly in their off-hours. Mendelssohnian echoes are displaced by “Underneath the Arches” and some snatches of ready-made dance music. In place of palatial pomp and natural wonderland, there is an unchanging set (designed by the animation specialists the Quay Brothers) consisting of rows of receding glass fronts, like an abandoned arcade, and permitting endless variations on the entrances and exits in which the play abounds.

Although some English critics felt that Miller had cut the heart out of the play by his policy of deliberate disenchantment, he seems rather to have demonstrated that the enchantment lies elsewhere than in light shows or acrobatics. Instead of magic, he gives us the accoutrements of Thirties drawing room comedy, appropriately enough in a retrospective culture for which Thirties comedy, whether Private Lives or Bringing Up Baby, serves as a gossamer substitute for more substantial magic. By a similar process of analogy, Shakespeare’s hierarchies of courtiers and mechanicals and nature-spirits are mimicked by the gently graduated hierarchies of the English class system in a later phase, the great chain of being linking landed gentry to their groundskeepers and socialites to their chauffeurs. The pastoral sublime of Dream is transmuted into the terms of a more recent version of pastoral, the weekend country-house party as imagined by P.G. Wodehouse or Agatha Christie.

The net effect is not to do violence to the play, but to give it another text to play against, a visual and behavioral text compounded of fragments of Thirties movies, plays, popular songs, magazine covers, a hundred tiny rituals and breaches of etiquette. It is a way of measuring distances: Shakespeare’s distance from the Athens of Theseus, the distance of the 1930s from the 1590s, and our distance from all of those times. To put Dream through this particular wringer—reimagining every line precisely as if someone else (W. Somerset Maugham? Terence Rattigan?) had written it, so that Theseus’ prettiest set pieces become exercises in obligatory speechmaking, and Oberon’s evocations of herbs and flowers are delivered with a cosmopolite’s distaste for mucking about outdoors—turns out to be a way of forcing out some of its bitterer aftertastes.

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    The notice requested submissions for an anthology to be titled Shakespeare Without Class: Dissidence, Intervention, Countertradition, edited by Bryan Reynolds and Don Hedrick.

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