Is Shakespeare Better Now?

Continuing our discussion on the nature of quality, what do you think about the idea of quality over time? Specifically is Shakespeare “better” now, 400 years after the fact, than when he first wrote it? We know what would happen if a person from today jumped into a time machine and went back to watch an original.  He’d come into it with all sorts of preconceptions about the inherent genius of the work.  But what about the other way?  What if someone only familiar with Shakespeare’s original jumped in a time machine, and basically skipped those centuries we’ve had to build him up in our minds?  Then what? How much of the quality lies in the source material itself, and how much do we bring to it?  Is it at all possible to guess at a ratio? Which direction does it swing?

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13 thoughts on “Is Shakespeare Better Now?

  1. One can't be totally scientific about establishing a ratio, but I think it is clear that some aspects of Shakespeare are better when performed now sometimes. Some parts neutral, and some parts perhaps not as good.

    The epic scope of some of his plays can be handled more realistically these days, if one is into spectacle.

    More of the nuance can be enjoyed because of the practices of modern, quiet, enclosed theaters. No groundlings, etc.

    Costumes, props, sets, all, (when a director chooses to use them) can enhance many qualities of the plays. In that sense an individual production can be better depending on your preferences.

    I think Shakespeare himself would be kind of stoked to see all of the trappings and extras that are now possible in the modern theatre. I think he'd write plays with that in mind to a degree.

    On the other side, it is the words, and the almost supernatural ease with which the scripts and the characters of the Bard tap so directly into the human spirit and condition; ways we don't even understand consciously sometimes, that made them so popular then, and so popular now. That, I maintain is why his popularity has been essentially unbroken for 4 centuries. And if that is true, I think people being brought from the past to the present, aside from being shell shocked by the technology, would still recognize that power in the plays as put on today.

  2. Hi Ty,

    I wrote that post, then walked around the block, had an idea, and came back to see that you hit on it here:

    "…the almost supernatural ease with which the scripts and the characters of the Bard tap so directly into the human spirit and condition; ways we don't even understand consciously sometimes,…"

    What occurred to me, on the subject of quality, is not that quality is *added* over time, but that it is *discovered*. The longer we look into what Shakespeare gave us, the more we find. 400 years didn't change the work, it just gave us 400 years of understanding (or trying to) the depths of it.

  3. As I understand it, a modern classically trained actor will probably have spent a couple orders of magnitude more time thinking about any given text as an Elizabethan actor would have. My instinct is to say that that kind of "more experience" is more important than the 400 years of societal experience we have with doing Shakespeare.

    I guess in principle the right question to separate these two kinds of experience is: is Shakespearean performance still getting better with time? If it is, that means Duane's probably right; if not, then I probably am…

    Making that kind of comparison is a lot easier with filmed Shakespeare than with live performances, and there I don't see a particularly big quality gradient over time (at least not since the Olivier era, and before that the gulf between filmed and staged Shakespeare was considerably larger). On the other hand, that only gives us access to two or three generations of actors, which might not really be enough to see a trend.

  4. I think we're still recovering from the combined curse of the Restoration and the modern knee jerk reaction to it, the advent of the Method. The Poet's Method wasn't meant for spectacle or proscenium, or hyper-internalized acting born of a lot of Freudian psychobabble. And I believe it can still be enjoyed more in the native surroundings for which the poetic drama was designed. It was much more inclusive of the audience. And we need to get rid of the false amplification. As has been mentioned here, Shakespeare's work is much more aural than visual. Vocalization and proximity are keys, in my opinion, to the successful communication of his work, both for the actor and the listener.

    The heightened interest in original settings giving rise to a new popularity of Globe-like settings is encouraging. I think we're onto something there. Proximity, relationship to the audience, and more actors trained in the correct approach. Considering all of the false starts generated by what I mentioned above, I second Micah's thoughts that there really hasn't been enough time to know for sure. Only given the trial and observation of these factors and others can we really make any accurate comparisons the way I see it.

  5. From my point of view, Shakespeare is not getting better but rather more diversified. I think that the academics' focus on Shakespeare and the incredibly vast field of different approaches leads up to a huge storage of knowledge and interpretations and everyone can pick his/her favourite one. Therefore I also think it problematic to speak of a "correct approach" as JM did in his comment (although I also have to admit that I am not sure whether you meant "correct approach" in terms of acting methods or of literary interpretations in general, JM).

    The trend of "Elizabethan theatres" is also something I consider not quite so enthusiasticly. It is not enough that the theatres pretend to be like those in Shakespeare's time when the audience's attitutes and expectations have changed so dramatically. I am not sure whether you could really get a modern audience to participate in the action on stage. And the sole fact that they know they will watch a Shakespeare play changes their expectations. They expect the bard and are so influenced by cultural assumptions about his genius that they will probably not leave the theatre and say: "What a lot of crap" (as already discussed in the "bad Shakespeare" post).

    And I also want to add something about the "Freudian psychobabble". Even if you consider psychoanalysis as far-fetched and not academically valuable, a rather large part of the audience will know about Freud's theory of Hamlet's oedipal complex. So, if you put a bed on stage in the closet scene and have Hamlet threaten his mother with a long sword (see Mel Gibson), maybe half of the audience will read this as oedipal subtext and this is something which makes Freud's theory highly powerful. So many people know about it, whether they "believe in it" or not. My professor called psychoanalysis a "self-fulfilling prophesy" and I think this true.

  6. I think it's about conditioning Katja. Most of what you speak of has come from years of dictated "status quo". Everyone accepted Ernest Jones' (Freud's #1 vocal disciple) interpretation of Hamlet AS Oedipus because he wrote it as though the Freudian theories were foregone conclusions. Once again, someone followed in the footsteps of Aristotle and Aquinas in assuming that their theory was correct, based upon other pure theory. We need to adjust expectations. But such prevalent and "accepted" theoretical notions, having been in practice for so long, are difficult opponents, as you know.

    And yes, "correct approach" has to do with a meld of the Elizabethan and modern acting techniques, vis a vis more attention to the text, as opposed to attempts to first and foremost layer it with psychological trappings, long before we understand how Shakespeare might have been making his own psychological statements to the actors via concrete messages in the textual construction.

  7. PS Katja,
    By audience inclusion, I don't mean their participation. What I mean is not pretending as though they're invisible or don't exist. It has to do with actors becoming more comfortable with the Rhetorical/Poetic style. And it's not "rhetoric" in the sense we've come to know it. It's a much more playful/theatrical sense than the sober and somber treatment popularized by the physical and cerebral withdrawal of the actor into the somewhat falsified atmosphere of the proscenium picture stage. There are many ways to address this; and not just with Elizabethan style settings. But I believe the experimentation will lead to a realization that the audience fares much better when they're not forgotten entities in the theatrical equation.

  8. There is one major advantage to Shakespeare's plays as they were seen 400 years ago–the writer was there to direct them (and clear up any questions about the text).

  9. I see your point, JM. I have watched a performance at Shakespeare's Globe in London and it was a unique experience. I guess the actors' acting style changes inevitably when they are confronted with a visible audience. And probably this also applies to the audience itself. (The feeling that the actors can actually see you was a new experience to me and although I enjoyed the performance very much, there was also an uneasy feeling because I always had this pressure on me to look happy and interested so that I don't disappoint the actors.)

    So, I do see the advantages in such performances and theatres. However, I have also seen a performance of Hamlet in which the Hamlet actor at some point imitated a German rap star and I really enjoyed this performance as well. I just don't think that the quality of performances should be measured according to their authenticity. To me, the claim for authenticity can become a bit too limiting and therefore I consider the establishment of authenticity as quality marker problematic.

  10. I agree, Katja. 'Authenticity' (whatever that might mean to us–we can never be sure an unrecorded experience is authentic anyway) simply for its own sake is something of a pipe dream, and silly in my opinion; good for a museum piece, perhaps. And I think it's a mistake to have as our aim a total, accurate replication (impossible). But we can surmise from some of what we do know and test it and attempt to incorporate what works and what advances positive understanding while we experience the plays in performance. I understand the uncomfortableness you mentioned. Perhaps the actors were somewhat uncomfortable too? If they made you at all feel as though YOU were responsible for anything, then I think a mistake might have been made. We have to be careful in our implementation or a negative can be the result. As I mentioned, I think it's a conditioning experience, and we've been, as you noted, led for a long time to expect something entirely different. This kind of approach, although known about for years in England and Europe, is really in its infancy here in America.
    But I think we can learn something about the plays and attempt to flesh them out a bit by understanding that a soliloquy, for instance, can be something other than a deep meditative exercise; something, as universal as Shakespeare can be, more universally shared and experienced by everyone involved in the process.
    Carl, I agree. However, Shakespeare is still there as a kind of director in his text. And I think more attention needs to be paid to the idea that there was no such thing as a 'director'–as we know it anyway. The whole idea of a textual approach to acting is based upon the idea of Shakespeare as actor/director, experiencing the text as such while he was writing it–hearing and seeing it, so to speak, in the process, and influencing him in his decisions about how he ultimately 'voiced it' on the page. (But I preach to the choir, in some sense, I think :))

  11. Yes, JM, you do preach to the choir. But I am thinking of Shakespeare, perhaps, suggesting to his fellow actors that they speak their lines "trippingly on the tongue," as Hamlet does, or hold some of the emotion for Act II, as Stoppard fancifully suggests he does in rehearsing Romeo and Juliet in "Shakespeare in Love." But I think we share the concept.

    As for audience participation, I just saw a rather enjoyable production of Richard III yesterday at Shakespeare and Co. Their productions are fairly Globe-like, with minimal sets, seating on 3 sides and, in this production, house lights up much of the time. They used the interesting ploy of having the audience act as the citizens of London when Buckingham and the Mayor plead for Richard to be given the throne. It worked quite well. It is also a very different thing for an actor to deliver soliloquies and asides to an audience in full light as opposed to one in darkness (with the actor in a spotlight). It gives the audience a sense of not just involvement, but almost complicity. Very important in Richard III, and very effective, I thought.

  12. That ol'Amiable Toad, RIII, is the perfect example, Carl; the quintessential stand-up routine with a very dark twist. I use him as THE shining example in the supporting essay for my proposal. And when he asks for "A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdome for a Horse…" a little touch of potential genius is in the works, given the parameters we're talking about.

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