When Shakespeare dependence hits point of diminishing returns

by Benjamin D. Kabialis / Theater Columnist • February 2, 2012

I don’t care if he’s the Greatest Writer in the History of the English Language — it is time to reevaluate our relationship with William Shakespeare.  

After nearly 400 years, the interest in his work shows signs of growing popularity.  According to the Educational Theater Association, three out of the top 10 most performed plays in North American high schools are Shakespearean works, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the number one slot. The Theatre Communications Group disqualifies Shakespeare from their list of the top 10 at a professional level because the competition would simply be unfair. In 2011 we saw film adaptations such as Coriolanus, The Tempest, and — who could forget — Gnomeo and Juliet.

Why is Shakespeare so often produced? Easy answer: The plays are just plain good. However, it is far too simplistic to believe that Shakespeare stays present merely by the strength of his work. There is a world of difference between reverence and reliance, between a tool and a crutch. Underneath this respect there are severe limitations to our creativity. 

The current spirit of staging Shakespeare often means revitalizing or reimagining a Shakespearean work.  From the very beginning, the concept of revitalization is a contradiction. The revitalizer claims that the play is shockingly relevant and entertaining, but then proceeds to add new and exciting twists. 

In contemporary revivals one feels a sense of secret boredom, of lurking compensation. Helen Mirren shoots flames from her sword in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest while Ralph Fiennes’ blood-spattered face shrieks Shakespeare’s lines between blasts from his assault rifle in Coriolanus. Why does a current stage production of Richard III require Kevin Spacey in the starring role, film director Sam Mendes, and elaborate multi-media simulcasts? Either the text stands true on its own or it must be manipulated extensively to become relevant and interesting. Both sides certainly can’t exist simultaneously.

The sinister truth is that the Shakespearean revitalization is the killer of new plays. Rather than write a new work, artists decide to begin with a strong existing script, one almost universally known and read, and then spend their energy on superfluous design elements. The result is often entertaining, such as the enormously popular Sleep No More, “based” on Macbeth.  

Audience members in Sleep No More are given masks and are allowed to follow a character of their choice — interacting with the set, props, and actors in a site-specific, Hitchcock influenced experience. However, little text from the actual play is used. Without preexisting knowledge of Macbeth, there would be no story here.  The Punchdrunk Theater Company’s Sleep No More may be innovative, but a new work it is not.

Anyone interested in truly reinvigorating American drama must move away from revitalization towards original work. Then they must move further, not only liberating their work, but the way we approach drama and perception as a whole. 

The reason so much gaudiness can be heaped on top of Shakespeare’s plays is that his stories are a part of our collective cultural history. This is a powerful tool that has become a dangerous and oppressive force to our own artistry.  

Each of Shakespeare’s plays is a microcosm of the classical, Western, and masculine paradigm. Take for instance A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The world presented in Midsummer is a harmonious hierarchy of ancient binary relationships. Man rules over woman, humans rule over nature, and the drama stems from a separation between order and disorder.  

Even beyond a creative deficiency, these are times when it is especially important to break with this dated way of thinking.