The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is, in essence, an Art Deco temple to the Bard, complete with marble friezes, intricate tile work, and a beautiful theater where William Shakespeare is honored the way he should be honored: through the performance of his work.
The one production I managed to see there was The Taming of the Shrew. It was my least favorite Shakespearean comedy at the time, but I felt compelled to take advantage of the opportunity regardless. The director set the action in saloon somewhere Out West during the late 1800s, made the traditionally male Baptista a whisky-swilling, tough-as-nails businesswoman, and completely changed my mind about the play.
By shifting the location and time period of Shakespeare’s plays, or even the sex of the characters, directors can emphasize different themes already present in the text and highlight subtle nuances that might escape a modern audience.
But most importantly, they can reveal the timelessness of Shakespeare’s words.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare: his words. When that changes, it’s no longer actually Shakespeare.
I’m not saying that I disapprove of people taking his plots and characters and putting them into a modern setting with modern words. It’s a wonderful way to make his work accessible to people who, otherwise, wouldn’t touch one of his plays with a ten foot pole.
Ten Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming of the Shrew and starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger (RIP), is a great example. I love that movie. While my high school friends wouldn’t watch the movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream if I paid them, they’d happily watch Ten Things every weekend for a month.
However, I would never claim Ten Things to be “Shakespeare.”
To be honest, if caffeinated and sleep-deprived enough, I would probably round on anyone who suggested otherwise and start calling them “Mammering clotpoles” or “Muling, rampallian hedge-pigs.”
Much Ado About Nothing is my all-time favorite Shakespearean play. Partly because it’s the one that made me fall in love with Shakespeare in the first place, but also because it’s laugh-out-loud funny, with the pattering banter of a black-and-white 1940s screwball comedy.
Joss Whedon’s recent modernization — not coincidentally filmed in black-and-white — took advantage of Shakespeare’s amazing script to create a fresh, funny, and completely contemporary rom-com.
Beyond the pronouns needed to make a few characters’ gender changes consistent, he only changed one word to do it, too. The wide lace collar known as “rebato” a few hundred years ago obviously failed to keep its place in fashion, so Whedon chose to replace it with the word “gown.”
Engaging, relevant productions of Shakespeare’s plays are completely possible. Clever, entertaining productions inspired by Shakespeare are also possible. They’re different, and shouldn’t be confused, but an audience can benefit from both.
*Another version of this was published under the same title in The Hillsdale Collegian. The Hillsdale Theatre Department is staging a production of Much Ado About Nothing later this semester and just announced their intention to modernize the language.