The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition
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…
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