Inexorable as the changing year, “contemporary” versions and interpretations of Shakespeare come forth as by a natural process. Some good and little permanent harm is done thereby. However it may be butchered in an “adaptation,” the established text of Shakespeare is not harmed; one can always return to it, or use it as the basis of another (and perhaps more successful) revival. Given the dreary way Shakespeare is taught in many classrooms, almost any variations that invite an audience to see our English classic as living theater are bound to be a good thing. On the other hand, one risks cheapening the original by implying that without circus tricks onstage, without virtuoso feats of free-association scholarship in the commentary, the plays are somehow insufficient. There’s always a certain complacent, Whiggish assumption behind a “modernizing” project that this is what the original creator would have approved if he had been fortunate enough to live in our time.

Thus as a word, “contemporary” carries two quite different sets of overtones, depending on whether it’s used on a billboard or in a work of scholarship. On the billboard, it’s all positive; a “contemporary” Shakespeare will appeal to your sensibility, your personal sense of what’s meaningful in the world. The word tugs at you to buy a ticket. For scholarship, on the other hand, a “contemporary” interpretation is understood to claim that the critic sets himself apart from, and above, previous criticism; being a privileged modern, he has found something new that everyone else overlooked. And scholarship, with its customary astringent skepticism, is likely to look dimly on such a happy assurance. Most of the time there are very good reasons why novelties of Shakespearean presentation and interpretation have remained untried after four hundred years of exploring the possibilities. Still, there’s the off chance: even a supremely silly reading of Shakespeare has a chance of illuminating some corner of the text that a plodding conventional one doesn’t.

Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary had considerable impact when an English version was published in 1964—less, I think, on scholars than on general readers and people professionally interested in producing Shakespeare. Peter Brook adapted ideas from it for a production of Lear, and words like “vital,” “provocative,” and “vivid” were used to describe it. So, elsewhere, were words like “muddled,” “extravagant,” and “distorted.” Frank Kermode, writing in this journal (September 24, 1964); took a strong line when he said that what is “most interesting in…Kott’s book is often not particularly original,…[and] what is most original [is] for the most part useless and sometimes harmful.” Yet the book was not only appreciated in its day, it has been widely disseminated, and for all I know exerts an influence even now.

What Kott meant by “contemporary” in 1964 was essentially “having had some experience of war and totalitarian rule,” a phrase that evokes his experience in Poland during and after World War II. He entered upon his account of Shakespeare’s plays rather obliquely with an analysis of Richard III and Richard II, two plays directly concerned with the mechanisms of power politics at their ugliest. From these historical dramas he deduced a structural principle that he applied with great rhetorical vehemence not only to some of the tragedies, but also—and much more questionably—to plays that had previously been considered comedies. He had discovered “The Grand Mechanism,” a principle of dramatic action not unlike the medieval “Wheel of Fortune,” by which a dramatic protagonist, having risen to the height of power, was inevitably abased and destroyed to make way for his equally ruthless, equally doomed, successor. The effect of such a stage action is to crush and depress an audience; there is no room in the psychology of the drama for that lightening and purging effect for which Aristotle provided the stock term catharsis. As Kott applied it among the dramas of Shakespeare, the “Grand Mechanism” worked very well to explain Richard III, King Lear, and Coriolanus (though it rather compressed the thematic amplitude of Lear); it worked much less well on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. To read them as documents of despair, cruelty, and mental defeat would have been a virtuoso feat of reinterpretation; and it’s not surprising that the essays in which Kott attempted to do so were judged his least effective.

There were reasons for such a “contemporary” reading of Shakespeare, not just personal and historic but cultural ones as well; Kott had been much impressed by contemporary playwrights like Brecht and Beckett. Indeed—though I don’t know whether it influenced Kott or not—something like the “Grand Mechanism” had been in the theatrical air since 1935, when Jean Cocteau produced La Machine infernale. Where the model worked, in the darkest of the histories and the most bitter of the tragedies, it worked well. (A disturbing thought is that it might have worked best of all on Titus Andronicus, making that grotesque and often hateful play appear a masterpiece: that was an argument that Kott skirted, never actually undertook to make.)


But with the comedies and romances, Kott was working against the grain. When he represented The Tempest as “a great Renaissance tragedy of lost illusions,” he ran up against the play itself, at the end of which the usurper is replaced by the legitimate duke of Milan, the two family factions are reconciled by the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda, the wicked conspirators (though exposed) are forgiven, Ariel achieves his freedom, and the royal parties return home without loss. Was this not enough to achieve the happy reconciliation for which the late romances have been remarked since Shakespearean criticism has been written? But Kott saw cruel tyranny in the treatment of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano; he saw despair in Prospero’s renunciation of his art; he saw the masque and the game of chess at the end as threatening events. To make The Tempest a tragic and depressing play he was willing to burke all the elements that made it the exact opposite. He didn’t exactly ignore them, he just mentioned them in passing and left them out as functioning elements of the play.

To have a drama, you have to have, I suppose, a conflict; and in the resolution of a conflict there are likely to be winners and—at least relative—losers. From Malvolio’s point of view, Twelfth Night is pure misery, and Don John would probably feel much the same about the out-come of Much Ado About Nothing. So, too, if one takes a particularly sympathetic view of Caliban, The Tempest ends on a harsh note. But it was surely to prevent our feeling this sort of sympathy for Caliban that Shakespeare included the story of his effort to rape Miranda.

These remarks on Shakespeare Our Contemporary are necessary to explain the oddities of Kott’s latest book on the Elizabethan stage, The Bottom Translation. It is a smaller and less single-minded book than its predecessor; its four essays are concerned with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, under two aspects, with The Tempest; there is also an appendix consisting of three short, occasional pieces. Perhaps destiny determined that Kott would return in this book to the two Shakespeare plays with which he was least successful in his first volume. He has not returned, however, to modify the somber, if not sullen, readings imposed on the comedies by his early effort to make Shakespeare contemporary. Rather, that reading is retained, while the argument on which it was based is replaced by another, which looks in a very different direction. Shakespeare is now to be understood by traditions lying in his own past, often at a considerable distance.

The most striking of these arguments is one that tries to relate The Tempest to Virgil’s Aeneid; this one invites special consideration, but the other three essays can be grouped as efforts to apply to the plays, via the Russian student of Rabelais, Mikhail Bakhtin, the notion of a “carnival tradition” of linguistic parody and jocose verbal display on serious matters. Stylistically, the carnival tradition tends to fall into the formless form of a mace-doine, or farrago, but it may borrow for its purposes the guise of a mock-allocution, slip into mock-heroics, or put on the mode of a Milesian tale like The Golden Ass of Apuleius. Just because it is hard to define precisely, but has a variety of different aspects, it can be applied very successfully to the work of a slippery, joco-serious puppet manipulator like Rabelais. Whether it can be brought to bear with equal success on the three Elizabethan plays that Kott summons up is therefore the question.

A preliminary obstacle is the question why Marlowe in Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare in the two comedies that Kott persists in reading as plays of despair and disillusion, should have made use of an essentially comic mode. It is true that the central sections of Faustus—if they are by Marlowe at all, which is very much open to doubt—consist of an avowed muddle of slapstick, dumb show, charade, and historical-hysterical antipapal fantasy. They are, and have long been recognized as, the weakest unit of the play—pace Kott, who darkly intimates, though he makes no effort to show it, that they are precious stuff. But whatever their literary value, the central units show few marks of the carnival tradition; they do not play with contrasting styles and dialects, they do not parody or burlesque other parts of the play. Kott argues that the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, in combination with the dumb shows presenting Alexander and Helen, contributes to a “polytheatrical vision,” which is true enough, though the relation of this vision to the carnival tradition is never spelled out. In itself, polytheatricality (better known as the device of a play within a play) was a convention of the Elizabethan stage, familiar at least since The Spanish Tragedy.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a very somber if not despairing play as Kott reads it, must be converted to that state from what looks like an apparently light-hearted comedy. It ends with a reconciliation of Titania with Oberon, with two happy marriages of the bewildered young Athenians, with the successful performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and with the stately nuptials of Hippolyta and Theseus. But this, apparently, is all superficial stuff; the real heart of the action (according to Kott) is that Titania sleeps with Bottom in the guise of an ass. Here is a deed of utmost animality, in which not only

high and low, metaphysics and physics [?], pathos and burlesque, meet, but so do two theatrical traditions: the masque and the court entertainment meet the carnival world turned upside-down.

As the depth of sensual abandonment, this scene is equated (through references to the carnival tradition) with the heights of visionary folly as described by Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, and by Erasmus at the conclusion of The Praise of Folly.

Introduction of these grand themes to what has previously been taken as a scene of ludicrous but light comedy would certainly alter the entire balance of the play. But Kott takes the ground out from under his own feet when he points out that Bottom as ass is by no means lustful or sensual—rather, what he wants is to be scratched between the ears and fed on hay.* What makes it particularly inappropriate to equate Bottom’s dream with the end of The Praise of Folly (to the point that Kott can speak flatly of the “mystical orgasm” at the end of Folly) is that Erasmus left, in a famous letter to Martin Dorp, a detailed account of the various literary devices he had used to keep such crude and heavy-handed readings from being made of his sotie. An equivalent list could be made of the several ways in which Shakespeare deliberately lightened and softened Titania’s love play with Bottom.

Packing this scene with literal bestiality and religious transcendence enables Kott to apply it in a particularly direct way to the rest of Shakespeare’s play:

The larger play has an enveloping structure: the small ‘box’ repeats the larger one, as a wooden Russian doll contains smaller ones.

But it seems more natural to see the Titania-Oberon story as antithetical to the Theseus-Hippolyta wedding; it is a story of conflict and disorder that has to be cleared up before the dynastic nuptials can proceed on their untroubled course. The function of the inner play is exorcism—in evidence of which Puck in Act V sweeps off the stage with a literal broom, to clear the way for the royal wedding. Kott finds that there is about this sweeping of the stage “a strange and piercing sadness,” because use of the broom “is a sign of death.” But nobody is dead, nor is any death anticipated; the action of the fairies is to “bless this place,” and particularly the bride-bed, so that the issue of it shall be free of all birth defects. As for where the funerary Eros comes from, which Kott invokes to close his account of the Dream on a suitably somber note—well, he comes from the Imagines of Philostratus. Kott’s train of thought is that Theseus’s master of ceremonies (named just once in the text as “Philostrate”) would suggest to an audience the sixty-four Imagines, just one of which, Comus, has some affinity (as well as major differences) with Puck, who would therefore suggest to any reasonably alert viewer the funerary Eros. This seems a fairly tenuous argument for an audience to construct with the aid only of a single, remote, authorial hint.

Kott’s essay connecting The Tempest with the Aeneid is largely spun out of similarly wispy connections. A good number of them depend on the stage directions, which Shakespeare’s audience neither heard nor saw, and which he did not know would ever be printed; several are such commonplaces as the presence of clouds, thunder, and lightning during a tempest at sea. There is indeed one passage, in the first scene of the second act, in which the story of Dido and Aeneas is mentioned repeatedly. Perhaps, as Kott says, this is Shakespeare’s way of calling attention to a significant parallel. But if so, what is the significance? Indeed, what is the parallel? Dido, an African widow, encounters Aeneas, a Trojan widower; he is on his way to establish the Roman Empire, and after a passionate interval deserts her; she commits suicide, and the bitter hostility between Carthage and Rome is thereby explained.

This seems remote from the events of The Tempest—indeed, conflating the two stories makes rather a mess of them both. Why, then, all that play with “widow Dido” in Act II, scene 1? Well, it’s fairly obvious, but since Kott doesn’t consider or mention it, the simple explanation might as well be given. Shakespeare had onstage four visually indistinguishable Neapolitan courtiers. Three of them were cynical, sophisticated, and corrupt mockers; one was not very bright but morally decent. How was he to make this distinction evident? Discussing where they have been (i.e., Tunis, where Alonso’s daughter Claribel was married to the king of that region), naive, decent old Gonzalo says Tunis was never graced with such a queen “since widow Dido’s time.” The other three fall on his phrase and pick on it unmercifully. What they nag at is its incongruity with modern circumstances, when middle-aged widows aren’t in question, when abandonment and suicide are the last things anyone wants to think about. In fact, Gonzalo is an old fool; he is clumsy and inopportune in his efforts to comfort Alonso, simple-minded in his vision of an innocent paradise on the island, and wrong about Tunis being identical with Carthage. His remark about “widow Dido” is nothing but a trivial gaucherie; but finical “wits” like Sebastian and Antonio can’t let it pass without showing their superiority to the old man. Still, Gonzalo’s heart is in the right place, and Shakespeare uses him deftly in weaving a tapestry of innocence and sophistication, malice and good-heartedness, nature and art, that his characters must decipher as they make their way through the plot.

If parallels with the Aeneid are less impressive than contrasts, there remain for The Tempest a substantial number of analogues and parallels, especially with Italian scenari performed in London by visiting comedians. Among other things, these sources largely dispose of the old notion, picked up by Kott without much question, that Prospero resigning his art is really Shakespeare bidding farewell to the theater. The magician inhabiting a lost island, maliciously interested in the love affairs of young people among whom one may be his daughter and another the lost son of the Magnifico is a traditional figure of the scenari as they were described by Miss K. M. Lea more than fifty years ago; “at the dénouement the magician discovers the relationship between himself, the lovers, and the strangers, ends the play by renouncing his magic and sometimes agrees to leave the island and return to civic life” (Italian Popular Comedy, pp. 444–445). If this much of the story is conventional, there seems little need to suppose that much, or any, of it is confessional.

One figure whom the parallels don’t do much to illuminate is Caliban; and for him Kott, following not very closely in the footsteps of Ernest Renan’s quasi-dramatic fantasy of 1878, has a “contemporary” explanation. He thinks Caliban is an emblem of inchoate, enslaved humanity, brutalized by Prospero’s plantation imperialism, but deserving of our sympathy. (In the classic words of the ode to Offissa Krupke, “he’s depraved on accounta he’s deprived.”)

But this is imposing a sociologist’s, not to say a social worker’s, point of view on a work of art. Shakespeare, as a man of the theater, knew the value in his color-scale of absolute evil—of a figure who, when you teach him language, uses it only to curse you. Villains like Iago and Iachimo are potent springs of dramatic energy—the more potent the less “explained.” So with Caliban, who is not so much a failure of Prospero’s education as evidence that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That there’s a delicate thread of poetry in the monster as well (Browning amplified some of it) is one of the wonders of Shakespeare’s art—he could no more not write poetry than Mozart could not create crystalline, soaring music. And it’s interesting to reflect that when the whole clutter of “civilized” people move on to Naples with their codes and their comforts, Caliban and Ariel will remain together, free at last, on the island. Even if he didn’t specifically invite us, Shakespeare left us free to dwell in imagination on the quality of their life there—its scorns and hatreds, but also its potential for a sort of comradeship. What will their respective liberations amount to? That, although Kott does not raise it, may be a more contemporary issue than the failings of a plantation mentality.

It’s better not to sin at all, Saint Augustine is said to have said, but if you must sin, sin strongly, pecca fortiter. Jan Kott is a wholehearted, independent commentator on Shakespeare. He’s not inhibited by predecessors, whom he either ignores or misrepresents blithely; lack of positive evidence doesn’t limit his talent for speculation, or the ease with which he allows an analogy to blossom silently into an identity. He has a strong sense of theatrical effect, and a prosecuting attorney’s instinct for making the most of his case. His originality, which Kermode thought “useless and sometimes harmful,” has another aspect—it can stimulate disagreement, which isn’t always unfruitful; there are blander and more correct students of Shakespeare with whom it’s by no means so worthwhile to quarrel.

One thing to be particularly careful of in The Bottom Translation is literal inaccuracy—there’s far too much of it, and often a single glance at the text would have corrected it. For example Cornelius in Doctor Faustus is said (page 11) to represent Cornelius Agrippa, though in I,1,118, the latter is mentioned to him as a third person. Helena, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is said (page 30) “not [to] know yet that Hermia is soon to be her rival” when she speaks lines 232–233 of scene 1, Act I; in fact, that’s exactly what she’s talking about in the quoted lines. More’s Utopians are said “not to know what violence was”—a view that would startle the Zapoletes. “Caliban” is said to be almost an anagram of “Claribel”; perhaps happily, the anagram is so far-fetched that we needn’t care what it would signify if it existed. On page 26 we learn that Butler’s Hudibras is “one of the last works in the tradition of serio ludere“—even though Swift and Voltaire (to mention no others) are right around the historical corner. Kott is much given to such dangerous locutions as “the first,” “the only,” “always,” “never,” and—most treacherous three-letter word in the language—“all.” A reader of his two books on Shakespeare should look narrowly at sentences that form themselves around these sweeping, categorical words.

Whether there is really any way to define a coherent relation between Shakespeare and the contemporary world remains an open question. Probably it’s a silly question, deserving nothing better than the silly answer it usually gets. But perhaps even a crude and perfunctory distinction can point toward a scattering of possible formulas. If we take the modern world to consist of—as with increasing insistence it seems to—such portents of decay and disaster as the AIDS epidemic, illiterate and savage slum dwellers, the bomb and its mindless ministers, an atmosphere polluted with acid smoke and heavy metal, and an earth saturated with garbage, then most of Shakespeare can’t be brought into harmony with it, and so much the worse for us. (I say “most of Shakespeare,” because a kind of grotesque theater-of-cruelty Shakespeare can be concocted out of the mutilation of Lavinia, the blinding of Gloucester, and Macduff parading around with the severed head of Macbeth. But it’s a much-attenuated Shakespeare.)

Imagination can do something to make connections with the larger Shakespeare, but it can come only from the viewer or the reader himself. He must translate himself into a world of slow pace and limited dimensions where people count for something, of personal authority and personal deference, of courtly manners interspersed with mortal violence—a world where honor and chastity are openly discussed and (more strangely) valued. To reach Shakespeare, an imagination rooted in the rocky soil of the 1980s needs all the energy it can summon up, joined perhaps with a talent for momentary, local blindness. And so almost any effort to envision the plays imaginatively is to be welcomed—even though some efforts have to be judged more welcome than others.

This Issue

November 19, 1987