To put their own mark on productions of Shakespeare, modern directors frequently attempt to make them relevant to contemporary political issues. When topical meanings emerge from a performance of Shakespeare, three preconditions have been met: a crisis is felt in the society at large; the artistic ensemble makes the connection between onstage and offstage worlds; and the audience senses that connection in the performance. Of course, those conditions could apply to the production of any play, and not just in our own times. When performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men on the eve of the Essex Rebellion in 1601, Richard II – a play about a weak king forced from the throne and killed – was seen by the conspirators as a not so veiled commentary on the aging Queen Elizabeth. But why have Shakespeare’s plays in particular been so regularly used to comment on contemporary politics? Even if we accept that the plays themselves are not partisan – scholars vehemently debate this point, arguing that Shakespeare both supports and undermines the Tudor idea of kingship – it is beyond question that the plays themselves – in the events depicted, themes articulated, and characters realized – provide material ripe for political interpretation. Shakespeare’s plays deal powerfully with ambition (Macbeth), corruption (Hamlet), the wisdom (or ignorance) of the crowd (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar), the stability of the nation state (all the English chronicle plays, from Richard II to Henry VIII), and geopolitics (Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest), to cite just a few instances.
More broadly, what ensures that Shakespeare’s plays are politically resonant in different times and in different cultures is the playwright’s unique ability to present fascinating characters and intriguing plots in the context of perennially relevant societal conflicts: chaos and order, the legitimacy and illegitimacy of governments, the self and society, and the suppression of the weak by the strong. Ulysses’ famous speech from Troilus and Cressida on ‘degree, priority and place’ makes the point powerfully: In Shakespeare’s plays, the microcosm and the macrocosm are present simultaneously. This rare combination of the local and the global explains why Shakespeare’s plays so often yield the uncanny sensation of having been ‘ripped from the headlines’.
Yet the political resonance of his plays in performance has never been straightforward. Troilus and Cressida, for example, a text deeply skeptical of wartime heroism, was not revived in performance (apart from John Dryden’s Restoration adaptation) until 1907, 300 years after it was first acted. In the last few decades, however, that same play, ignored for so many years, has proved immensely appealing in the United States, Britain, and Germany because of its perceived anti-war message. Beginning in the late Victorian era, it gradually became conventional – though it seemed daring at first – to portray Shylock sympathetically, a view that the tragic fact of the Holocaust has only reinforced in contemporary theatre. The character may be vengeful, but he is equally the victim of institutionalized anti- Semitic prejudice. And yet in Nazi Germany, The Merchant of Venice was staged with the opposite intent: to portray the stereotypical evils of the Jewish people as confirmed and unequivocal truth.
Hamlet was regularly performed in Eastern Europe during the Cold War not because audiences in Bucharest and Prague were interested in the personal tragedy of its melancholy hero (the dominant Anglo-American interpretation) but because staging a play that revolves around surveillance, interrogation, and murderous plots was an effective way to express indirect opposition to totalitarian regimes and their compulsion to monitor the daily comings and goings of the citizenry. More recently, the Romany company Pralipe staged Romeo and Juliet in Macedonia. The play was set in Bosnia, with Juliet a Muslim and Romeo a Christian. Contradicting Shakespeare’s pacifist ending, when the two rival families unite in shared grief, this production closed with gunfire and the sorrowful promise of yet more violence. In racially segregated societies, any production of Othello will be sharply political by its very nature. In Janet Suzman’s (1939–) production at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1987 during the South African apartheid era, white policemen searched the black actor John Kani (1943–), who played Othello, while on his way to rehearsal. These are just some of the ways in which productions of Shakespearean drama acquire new and deeper relevance when they intersect with contemporary concerns, thus making an old play feel new and urgently relevant.
Just as an entire production can resonate with societal issues, so can an individual actor’s interpretation of a role. The challenges that actors face in interpreting a Shakespeare role are inseparable from the challenges they confront in society at large. Nowhere has this been expressed more powerfully than in the work of actresses: How do they perform pre-feminist roles in a feminist (or even post-feminist) society? How do they honor the character that Shakespeare wrote without also honoring the patriarchal structure of Shakespeare’s world? Because, as Harriet Walter (1950–) recently told her fellow Shakespearean actresses: ‘He never meant you to play the part.’
A flashpoint for this issue has been the role of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Historically, the play had been performed as the socialization (‘taming’) of an unruly woman (‘shrew’) through such tactics as starvation and humiliation. Quite some time has passed since that openly chauvinistic reading was plausible, and the issue now often seems to be whether Kate’s final speech – ‘I am ashamed that women are so simple’ – can be delivered in a way that does not make the character – or the actress – an agent of misogyny. Because misogyny is built into the structure of the play as a whole, we cannot read Kate’s speech as disconnected from the actions that precede it. But in performance, this closing moment stands out, fairly or not, as something like the production’s verdict on what we now regard as an anti-feminist dramatic narrative. In other words, this moment in the performance carries a heavy resonance that did not exist in Shakespeare’s time, or for centuries afterward. For us, however, that resonance is inescapable.
Performers who have played Kate have come up with different solutions to the problems now posed by Shakespeare’s text. One imaginative choice – because it expands, rather than narrows, our appreciation of the play – has been to recast the relationship between Petruchio and Kate, such that they come to realize that they are both forced to play gender roles. Thus, Kate’s final speech can be delivered as a ‘performance’ of obedience whereby she and Petruchio give the appearance of being a proper couple – dutiful wife, sovereign husband – yet all the while the audience knows that, underneath, Kate is not as obedient as her public words suggest and that she and her husband have come to regard each other as equals, not as ruler and ruled.
© Richard Schoch, 2021. Used with permission of Cambridge University Press.