Is There Such A Thing As Bad Shakespeare?

This oughtta be good for some discussion.  What, exactly, is “bad Shakespeare”?  If you saw 6yr old children attempting Henry V, would you call it bad?  What about prisoners behind bars, or juvenile delinquents, or any other situation where it’s to be performed by people who are not actors by trade?  What about a good actor who does a less than stellar job? Here’s my thinking.  The only way that it’s bad is when it doesn’t show appropriate respect for the source material.  If your production is attempting to do a good job, then by definition I think you’re on the positive side of the scale because even if the words aren’t coming out of your mouth properly, you know that you want them to, you are striving to make that happen, and that’s a good thing.  But if you’re phoning it in, and you couldn’t care less whether you’re reciting Lear or the phone book, that’s where I think I have a problem. Make sense?  I will be disappointed with a production not because of its quality, but because of its effort (or lack thereof). I’m tempted now to apply this reasoning to movie version of the play like Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, or Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice, but it’s not that easy since I don’t know rationale that went into some directorial decisions.  Did they really think they were doing Shakespeare justice in some of their choices?  Or did they think that the source material needed a serious overhaul to make it better?  I can say I didn’t like Hawke’s Hamlet (I’ve not seen Pacino’s Merchant, only read reviews), but I couldn’t necessarily call it “bad Shakespeare” unless I sat down with the man himself and got his opinion on why he did what he did. 

21 thoughts on “Is There Such A Thing As Bad Shakespeare?

  1. "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Hamlet.

    There are so many levels to this question. There is a train of thought, which one of my high school teachers bought into whole heartedly, that says "This play is good Shakespeare, while that play over there is 'bad Shakespeare,'" or worse falsely attributed to him because Shakesppeare doesn't write bad plays and those are bad plays. This is most often said of Timon or Titus. And while that was not the train of thought being discussed, it is a very similar train of thought to the one being asked about.

    My favorite response to people's likes or dislikes in the cannon of literature was that of a friend. Her opinion was that a person could not dislike Shakespeare or Faulkner or Dickenson but rather enjoy this more than that.

    I apply this train of thought to the production of shakespeare as well. I enjoy plays or I don't enjoy them, but I try not to think of things in terms of good or bad. Instead, it is more constructive to think of things as thought provoking or problematic.

    I have seen many Shakespearean productions that I thought were problematic. Because I thought of them as problematic rather than bad, I gave myself the opportunity to consider why I thought that. If i think of something as bad, I have a much more difficult time analyzing it, because it is bad and therefore not worth thinking about.

    That being said. Yes, I think there is such a thing as problematic Shakespeare. For me, this is a production that doesn't think out the choices it makes. Now, of course each production has to have its own merits weighed.

    The other day I saw a group of middle and high school students perform Julius Caesar in a one-hour production. I did not enjoy it very much, but not because of the kids. The kids did a very good job for their age and the time they had to work on it. The thing that drove me nuts about it was directorial choices made in cutting the play down two an hour.

  2. I see the distinction between the source material and the performance of same. There can certainly be bad performances of ANY material. (I will save the discussion of the bad material that Shakespeare produced. And he DID produce poorer products in his time.)

    Like Monica, I think often what we call bad may just be something we didn't enjoy, I standby the notion that some productions are just simply poor for any number of reasons. (I've been in one myself.)

    As for the material, I think that to can be good or bad. I think some of Shakespeare's plays are terrible, even though he is the greatest English writer ever. So one has to also take into account if anything good can really be done with something like Love's Labor's Lost, or if one is witnessing a poor production of same. (Or of Hamlet, or any of the others.)

    "A" for effort is nice in grade school, but I really prefer to see performances that are good. So yes, I think that even if people are trying, the result can be a poor production.

  3. "Is There Such A Thing As Bad Shakespeare?"

    Yes. Why do I think so? Because there's a major difference between 6 year olds giving it their all and adult actors who are untrained in the techniques but, egotistically, think it's okay to just wing it without finding out about what's necessary to do it justice. I've taught and directed both–I'd rather work with the six year olds.
    We're talking about a specialized form of acting. Classical acting can't be treated generically. People train for years to become accomplished at handling verse. It's a completely different animal. You can't simply "feel" your way through it (Dustin Hoffman found that out) and you can't brazenly "emote" your way through it (Al Pacino). If actors as accomplished as they are have trouble with it, doesn't it follow that a less accomplished actor might?
    So yes, in my opinion, I've seen some pretty bad Shakespeare. Early on, I was guilty of some myself.
    And as far as attempting goes, the parents of the six year olds will applaud their attempts, as will I. On the other hand, audiences seldom feel so good about actors trying real hard when they've paid to see their "attempts"–especially when they're not quite "phoning it in" at all. More like the incapable attempting the impossible, to borrow from Oscar Wilde.
    My assessment may seem harsh to some. But if we live without standards, all we have is mush. And Shakespeare is anything but pablum.

  4. even when kids are doing it 'badly' it's better than some adult shakespeare i've seen.

    the overacting, the insensitivity to the text, the really bad set/setting interpretations…. just plain awful sometimes.

    are you a fan of the show "Slings and Arrows," which is based on a toronto area shakespeare festival. when they handle macbeth, the pompous actor who is playing the lead gets his…. and it makes for great theatre even though he is pissed.

  5. Funny you mention that, Christine, as I am watching – and that episode was just on late last week. 🙂 I was definitely reminded of the scene where the director is trying to convince his leading lady to "do what needs to be done", and he says simply "Ask yourself which one of us [director or lead actor] is acting in the best interest of this play?"

    I'm not surprised by your position, J – I wrote this one with you in mind :). But I did try to couch the question such that "bad" was associated more with paying proper respect to the source material. Are we talking about the same thing?

  6. Duane, a quick question: Which network do you get Slings and Arrows on? I didn't realize it was running. I used to get it on IFC.

    As for the topic, I first understood your question as referring to the plays themselves. I have several reactions:

    1) Objectively speaking, maybe, but there's too much subjectivity involved: wasn't it TS Eliot who loathed Hamlet? I know he didn't like Othello. And Shaw was no lover of Shakespeare, either. My memory is failing me, but I think it was Auden who didn't even write a paragraph on Merry Wives in his collection of essays on the plays b/c he saw nothing to admire or like in it. But many people love it! (Obviously it performs better than it reads.)

    2) My romantic side says that if there is bad Shakespeare, it is far superior to excellent virtually anything else.

    3) My even more romantic side says that if there's any bad Shakespeare, I'm not good enough to tell what it is.

    Now if you mean, can Shakespeare be performed badly, well, sure. However, even when I have seen the performance that is "bad," I am able to take something from it I've never seen or thought before. It may be an interpretation of a scene, the way a line is read, or the non-verbal ways in which a theme is expressed, but there's inevitably something to take home.

    Sometimes it may be the reassurance that a particular character should NOT be interpreted as an actor did. I saw a Twelfth Night last year that reaffirmed my belief that having Viola and Sebastian played by the same actor doesn't work. The same performance proved that you'd damn well better have a great Feste…unfortunately by not having one.
    And so often, any problems with a performance stem from actors who don't know the text and a director who worries that the text isn't enough to "sell" the show.

  7. Slings and Arrows is currently playing on the Ovation network, Ed. I would never have known if I'd not gone into my tv guide and just searched "Shakespeare". People complain that they have "200 channels and there's nothing on" but how often do we really go hunting for shows we might like?

    Re the bigger question, it's really open to how people want to take it. What I was going for had more to do with whether you judge a particular performance of a particular play the way you might, say, just a movie. I can go to a movie and come out saying "That was a bad movie." But when I see a particular performance of a particular play I'm much more inclined to be less critical and switch instead over to opinion calls about what I liked and didn't like.

  8. I'm not sure, Duane, if we're on the same page, exactly. I was speaking more from a performance standpoint, I guess. But that includes having to consider the source material and how to treat it, or 'approach' it hands-on; maybe that's a more accurate way of saying it in the case I addressed.

    Honestly though, I've seen some really flat out badly done Shakespeare, acting and production-wise, by actors and directors who seemingly have little regard for the impression they leave anyone with as to what is "Shakespeare". I think it's damaging to bore audiences to death with badly thought out, inept, and poorly executed performances in an effort to be able to say "I did Shakespeare!". I've actually heard audience members say, "So THAT was Shakespeare? I thought I didn't like it–now I'm sure I don't".
    All around, from whatever standpoint or treatment, I think the answer is education ASAP. That's why I like working with kids–and they CAN be taught some of the techniques AND the textual stuff at that age–I've done it successfully, over and over. It's more of a struggle with actors who think they already know how to act it. Many times when I direct, a great deal of my time is spent on teaching an unheard of textual approach to acting the stuff–and this to experienced actors. That's another kind of respect for the 'source material'–in action, so to speak.

    Maybe I'm off on a tangent, but I didn't think my position would surprise you in any event–by now you know me far better than that 🙂 Good topic. I think it's extremely multi-faceted.

  9. Of course, I don't get Ovation, but thanks, Duane. I'm going to have to get the DVDs.

    Agreed re watching a play. There's always something to make you think or rethink, another reason to love Shakespeare, even when someone tries to ruin it.

    Couldn't agree more, JM. Kids love Shakespeare when they get up and perform it. I'm tired of the notion that it's not for everyone.

  10. I completely disagree. I don't think art should ever be judged on effort. The intentions of the artist are completely irrelevant to the important questions, which are whether, how, and why it is affecting you as you experience it. Good art moves me, bad art doesn't.

    Just in case it's not clear what I'm saying, I have an example:

    If I go see Shakespeare and I'm bored, it was bad. If it is performed by 10 year olds and it was boring, then it's still bad no matter how hard they are trying.

    If it is performed by 10 year olds with poor speech, who can't remember their lines, the costumes were made of paper bags, and the play was cut down to 15 minutes, but it made me feel and think, then it's good art.

    Can Shakespeare be performed poorly even with the best of intentions? Absolutely. Is Shakespeare's own work so strong that it is good in spite of a poor performance? I don't think so. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Shakespeare's work is so good that it demands a higher level of execution than most others before it becomes any good.

    I would answer that there is absolutely such thing as bad Shakespeare (I've seen some from the world's leading companies and actors) and in fact there is a whole lot more of it than there is good Shakespeare.

  11. Christopher's position is intriguing. You're basically saying that the quality question is entirely subjective? That gets into a far bigger topic, doesn't it? That's not about theatre at all, that's about quality in general. Is the new Green Day album good or not? Is Jackson Pollack good art, or not?

    I don't belong to that particular school of thought. I believe that there is indeed something universal in Shakespeare's work, an inherent level of quality that comes with any performance right out of the box. To detract from it, I think, must be a conscious effort to do so.

    It would be completely different for me if we were talking about completely new creations, like a piece of art or music. Performance of Shakespeare is not like that. You are creating a version of an existing thing. A very, very good existing thing. So how do you take something good and make a bad version of it?

  12. Computer software is a wonderful thing–universally useful and applicable–it amazes me in its creativity and usefulness every day. I have a great deal of respect for the work done by those who make it their profession.

    So now my question for you Duane: Duane. Is there such a thing as badly written software? Poor programming? Do you know any computer hacks? (hacks in the negative sense, of course). Have you never met anyone who performs poorly in their job? Anyone you know ever get fired for it?

    Good or bad isn't entirely a subjective issue. It can be based upon a recognized level of expertise, agreed upon by those who are experienced enough to know the difference.

    Besides, purely from a logical standpoint, if there is no 'bad' then relatively, there is no 'good'.
    Shakespeare, in performance, adaptation, et al. is no different in this respect. Neither is theatre. The general is inclusive of every specific making it up. And I don't think Christopher is speaking in terms of raw subjective generalities–his targets were very specific regarding the qualities of specific entities. You speak in terms of good, better, best all the time–we all do. But how can any of those states possibly exist in a world of pure and absolute single-minded subjectivity?

  13. A subject near and dear to my heart, JM! Three thoughts.

    First, in a digital world there are very clear and objective metrics that can be applied to a program – speed and size, for instance. Given two programs that do the same thing, the one that's smaller and faster is, typically, better.

    Having said that, it's not always so easy as just those two variables. There is always, always a battle about the "best" programming language, and no one ever wins. Because one language will be best at bringing your product to market first, but another will be best at keeping the bugs out, and still a third will be best at making the programmers happy, which in turn may or may not be an indicator toward productivity. So the idea of a best language is completely subjective in that you need to agree on what variables you're measuring it against.

    Lastly, on a completely different tangent, you wrote "badly written" software. But as I was trying to explain, performing Shakespeare is not an entirely creative act – someone wrote you your source material, and all you're doing, to steal a computer geek phrase, is implementing it.

    I may lose the non-computer folk here, but the comparison to computers then would lie in the difference between the more abstract mathematical concepts like algorithms and data structures, versus implementation. When you solve a problem, it comes in multiple levels – first you decide how you will manipulate your data, what functions you will perform, and so on. That is fundamentally a mathematical issue, not a computer one. You can draw it out on paper, and there is a universal way for how you might express it. How you get it coded into a computer? That's a completely different thing. That is very dependent on the environment – the computer, the language, the programmer.

    In that example then sure, I can say things like "That is a terrible implementation of an LRU cache". The pattern of an LRU cache may be the right decision, though. So at some level the solution is put together correctly, it's just implemented badly. This would be different than, say, someone who didn't go with the LRU cache at all and did something fundamentally broken.

    Am I too off in left field?

  14. I haven't read through all the comments, but alas… I think you are all dancing around the topic. The question is broader. Can anything be called bad?

    I will always remember my 4th grade art teacher's definition of what art is not. It is not an incredible replica of a castle built with toothpicks. Even though it took a lot of talent and effort to build it, sheer effort and precision doesn't cut it. On the other hand, the antithesis of my 4th grade art teacher's point of view is that it is close-minded not to validate artistic efforts, even amazing replicas of castles built out of toothpicks… In fact, the appreciation of Shakespeare is sometimes considered disdainful of other art forms. We are considered to be stuck in a rut. Why don't we appreciate more movies. Let's see there's Cats and Dogs: The revenge of Kitty Galore, Despicable Me (oh Pixar, they're so funny), The Other Guys (Will Ferrell!) I'm not knocking these things, but Duane, seriously, do you put these in the same category of quality with Shakespeare?

    The broader question is whether distinctions of quality can be even considered? If they cannot, why do we insist we can't when it is completely clear to me that even very open minded people, who will tell you how open minded they are if you ask them, have their own secret hierarchy of artistic merit. Why are we so guarded about it?

  15. Ren du Braque said…"I haven't read through all the comments, but alas… I think you are all dancing around the topic."

    Read on Ren–the dancing stops at least a couple of times.

    "Can anything be called bad?"

    Can anything be called good?

    "…even very open minded people, who will tell you how open minded they are if you ask them, have their own secret hierarchy of artistic merit. Why are we so guarded about it?"

    Once again, read on. 'Guarded' is surely not the category a couple of we commenters fall into.
    Duane said:"…performing Shakespeare is not an entirely creative act."

    I totally disagree. Acting is an entirely individual creative 'act' 🙂 in itself, as is writing FOR the actor. The playwright, many times, is as inept at "creating" or "giving life" to his characters, as are many actors inept at creating an initial original inception in a literary sense. –Two separate creative and individual exercises, each with their own special demands and sets of circumstances. This is why we see so many variations on a single character, though glaringly different, just as valid and "good" in their own way. Some, of course, are as glaringly 'bad'. 🙂

  16. Sorry J. I was a little too quick. You are are not dancing around the topic. My interest in the question centers around the inherent conflict between your position and Duane's. Is it all a matter of opinion? There's a historical precedent for this debate and unfortunately, we have "Shakespeare" to blame. At the beginning of the 20th century everyone showed Shakespeare, but some versions of Hamlet were "atrocious". They re-wrote the endings (Hamlet and Ophelia get married), they hammed it up, etc. This debate is really a much more profound inquiry into what is art. J., your position is the classic, intellectual (I belong in that camp), D., your position is the more "democratic" camp. It's all good (as long as it's Shakespeare). I'm sympathetic to D.'s side too, as long as they don't re-write the play! It's interesting to see just how nutty they can twist it. I brought up the dancing around because I still haven't managed to get my mind around the two sides. Can anyone really do it?

  17. We've reached one of our impasses (?), JM – acting is not a 100% creative act. Someone hands you your lines after having written them. Improv, perhaps, would be a 100% creative act. But the core of my point was exactly this, that we're not talking about any random group performing any random play. We're starting with a very high bar in what Shakespeare gave us to work with. We generally all agree that the source material is "good".

    Ooo, I just had an idea for a new post. Look for it in a minute.

  18. Duane said…"JM – acting is not a 100% creative act."

    Stanislavski might have a small argument with that. But even he had more respect for the playwright's art than the gobbledygook that ensued from his teachings here in America 🙂

    On the other hand, believe it or not, I agree with you when it comes to Shakespeare. But some of my reasons aren't exactly the same–some are.

    Since my first post here (? years ago) when I analyzed half a sonnet (using the same techniques I've so often spoken about since) I've been talking about the difference between doing other material and Shakespeare, and that there's another way it has to be approached because of what and how he wrote. My opinion on that (and it's not opinion) has pretty much been dismissed or pooh-poohed as though I were some sort of "textual fuddy-duddy" or anal retentive nit picker. (And I'm not pissed about that…at the moment) 🙂

    So whattaya, know, it seems as though we've come full circle. Here you are, Duane, defending the source material… against ME! Wonders never cease. 🙂 (although I still don't think your reasons are as extensive or numerous as mine are for so doing).

    And of course, you'll get no argument for insisting that we all agree on the 'goodness' of the source material. But even so, I'm sure Will would be quick to tell you that even he was capable of writing some crap as compared to what he produced as he went along.
    Evidence of that is embedded in…the source material. And guess what? A lot of it has to do with where, later on, he put a period or a comma! 🙂 Cheers, and I mean that sincerely, JM

  19. You have more evidence, J. No question, and no denial from me. I've always come to it entirely from something of a "I know it because I know it" camp, though it might be better to say "I feel it because I feel it." You, and some of the other frequent posters here, have a significantly higher command of the details than I ever will.

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