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Shakespeare’s legacy and impact in the 20th and 21st centuries

‘That one might read the book of fate and see the revolution of the times’: Isy Platt discusses the relevance and impact of Shakespeare on modern art and society


Image(s): Isy Platt via Pinterest

Although Shakespeare is over 450 years old, his plays seem to have the gift of eternal youth. Eighty percent of Britons have seen or read his plays, and it is estimated that there are 410 annual productions of Shakespeare plays around the globe, meaning there is almost always a production on at any given time. These statistics in themselves demonstrate the Bard’s global reach, continuing popularity and enthusiastic consumption. His works have shaped our perception of history, contributed to the English language and influenced the writing style of his contemporaries and those who followed. But what lies behind our cultural obsession with Shakespeare that covers much of the globe? And why are they still read and performed so widely, despite the huge gender and racial disparity of the roles in his plays? To explore the reasons behind the impact and legacy his works have, we can use a handful of productions from across the globe during the last century or so to begin to look for answers.

An increasing number of productions in recent history have sought to recreate the original staging of Shakespeare’s plays, whether through setting (for example, The Globe in London and the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon), costuming, music, casting or audience engagement with the ensemble. One production that did all of the above was Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance as Olivia, which first premiered at Middle Temple Hall in London in 2002 and was revived at The Globe in 2012. These kinds of productions have been termed ‘original pieces’, and seek to reproduce the performance style and practises of the first company that performed Shakespeare’s texts. Although skirting controversy with all-male casting, the results of painstaking research into different elements of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre are productions that create thought-provoking connections between the politics of past and present.

Shakespeare’s plays have always had a complicated relationship with race, and recent shifts in scholarship on his works has opened up debate about how depictions of ethnography, politics, religion and identity can resonate more powerfully when viewed through a present-day lens. The history of Othello on stage — as argued by actor Hugh Quarshie, who played the titular role recently at the RSC — unearths as much about the societies in which it is staged as it does about the text itself. More recent productions such as Quarshie’s and the most recent at the National Theatre drew the emphasis away from race relations, emphasising how the play’s tragedy is that of the effects of jealousy. The staging of Macbeth in Harlem in 1939 has been described as a diversity landmark in its innovative transposition and success in promoting African-American theatre. Organised by the female-led Federal Theatre Project with the 750-strong cast made up entirely of black actors, the production played in front of fully integrated audiences across the country at a time when Jim Crow laws institutionalised the disenfranchisement of the black community throughout the USA. Taking place nearly thirty years before the American Civil Rights Movement, unemployed and struggling black actors being given the opportunity to play established roles significantly advanced the national dialogue on racial equality.

On average in Shakespeare’s plays, women have less than 17% of the dialogue. To lessen this huge gulf, many productions today have either blind cast the roles or gender-swapped them, creating new gender dynamics from the original text and pulling them onto the stage. Glenda Jackson’s King Lear on Broadway transformed the play into a study of maternal relationships rather than paternal ones; Lear’s rejection of Cordelia in the play’s first scene became a rejection of the daughter’s straying from her mother’s ideal of womanhood. Furthermore, when the same is done with Hamlet – a role as definitive for a younger male actor as Lear is for an older one – when gender roles are reversed. The text’s original critiques on the male hierarchies of the Danish kingdom and the father-son relationship are overturned. However, this doesn’t warp the central traits of the Prince of Denmark or move the conversation restrictively to gender dynamics. Unlike Michelle Terry’s staging which also flipped Ophelia’s gender, Maxine Peake’s at the Royal Exchange in Manchester didn’t; the production as a result also explored internalised and implicit homophobia through Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia and Laertes’ protection of his sister respectively.

The all-female trilogy of plays staged at the Donmar Warehouse also demonstrated what can be gained from gender-swapped productions, using the setting of a women’s prison as a framing device. Director Phyllida Lloyd cast a diverse group of actors to play female prison inmates putting on a Shakespeare production. The result was multi-faceted; each actor played a character playing a character. One of the most resonant moments came in Henry IV, in which Hal’s redemptive storyline is reflected in that of the prisoner who plays her; Rosie, a recovering heroin addict soon to be put on parole. Hal’s final rejection of Falstaff, who also serves as Hal’s drug dealer, is equally Rosie’s of her former existence. Framing devices with Shakespeare can provide opportunities for new meaning within the text that facilitates present-day resonance, seen in the layering of the world of the play and the world of the production.

Globally, the staging of Shakespeare plays has grown throughout the 20th century and continued into the 21st. One of the world’s longest-running productions of Hamlet was in Lithuania and was used to disseminate political ideas that resonated with a population only recently removed from Soviet governance. In China, Shakespeare is frequently translated into Mandarin due to the commonality between the complexities of his work and China’s dramatic culture and heritage.

You can read translations of his plays in over 100 different languages. The reasons behind this are varied and hard to define. During the Renaissance, it has been argued that his works were part of cultural exchange between Britain and the European continent; during the height of British colonialism in India, Shakespeare was made compulsory on the curriculum; George Washington even repurposed a quote by Prospero, famously Caliban and Ariel’s captor, in a polemic against British colonialism. In each of these places and beyond, the texts have been assimilated and given new formats, settings and concepts; the Bard’s origins abroad as the poet of the British Empire have evolved with time to take on new national meanings.

There have also been times when staging Shakespeare has ‘gone wrong’, striking the wrong notes for audiences and critics alike. The most recent production of Macbeth at the National Theatre was criticised for its fundamental inconsistencies — transposing the play from medieval Scotland to a post-apocalyptic with a disintegrating world order was incompatible with the play’s central theme of feudal hierarchies. Macbeth’s transgression of this hierarchy through the murder of King Duncan fell flat as a result. By examining this we can see that although there is flexibility to Shakespeare, there are limits to what one can do; the production was inconsistent, changing some things and not others, to poor effect.

We also must mention the many films and television series that are adapted from Shakespeare synopses. The first that would spring to mind for many would be West Side Story, the musical that sets a love affair against gang rivalry in 1950s New York City, and is based on Romeo and Juliet (as is the Nicholas Hoult zombie flick Warm Bodies). There are others you may not have realised draw their plot directly from the Bard, apart from the numerous 1990s and early 2000s romcoms such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man. The Lion King’s story of Simba seeking vengeance against his uncle Scar for his father Mufasa’s death over the kingship of the Pride Lands was written with Hamlet in mind; the Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix indie film My Own Private Idaho is taken from Henry IV Part One; the influential Japanese samurai film Throne of Blood transposes Macbeth to feudal Japan. You can even see elements of King Lear in the HBO drama Succession, where the children of a billionaire businessman vie for control of his business empire (his name is Logan Roy: Logan from the Gaelic for hollow and roi meaning king in French). Shakespeare works as effectively in translation into film and television as it does onstage.

So - we’ve looked at Shakespeare onstage and off; at his best in production and at times when it hasn’t worked so well. Can we learn anything from the above about why we return to his work over and over?

As mentioned earlier, Shakespeare is known far and wide, and this renown draws people to the theatre; you know, on the whole, what to expect when the lights go down and the prologue of Romeo and Juliet begins to fill a theatre. It is for the directors, the actors, the producers, the designers, to surprise the audience, to bring something new to every different production. As time has passed, creative teams have shown much more willingness to take risks and dig deeper into the texts, whether to create critiques or simply unearth something previously unacknowledged. Shakespeare’s texts serve as empty vessels, into which new ideas that might not have been considered can find a home; the plays are thus given a contemporary resonance. As Leaphia Darko writes in a blog for Shakespeare’s Globe:

‘I think you are only really qualified to talk about Shakespeare at the moment in time in which you are engaging with him actively, that moment in time when you can hold his iambic mirror up to nature and gain a whole new perspective about the times in which you live. It is a very white, male, Elizabethan perspective but one with its finger on the pulse of humanity nonetheless’.

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