The first performance of a Shakespeare play was Henry VI Part II, staged sometime between 1590 and 1591 — over 400 years ago. That’s 400 years of star-crossed lovers, betrayed monarchs, foiled (or terribly successful) villains, wise fools, fantasy, music, laughter, tragedy, and mayhem. It would be another two or three years after that initial performance before Shakespeare’s works were committed to paper for the first time and yet, for many of us, reading and studying the plays is the first encounter we ever have with the Great Bard.
This is curious when you consider that Shakespeare’s works were written for and enjoyed by an audience consisting mainly of illiterate folks who would never read one word of anything he ever wrote.
“They’re designed to be learnt and spoken out-loud, manuals on how to provide thought-provoking, laughter-making, heart-breaking entertainment for a watching audience,” says actor, linguist, and author Ben Crystal. “Reading a recipe is never going to be the same as having a world-class chef cook the meal for you.”
The bulk of the audiences in Shakespeare’s time were the “groundlings” – -the poor and relatively uneducated, who were attending the theater to forget about their troubles and be swept away for an afternoon. They weren’t interested in analyzing symbols and dissecting characters. They were there for a laughs, the music, the ribald wordplay, the love stories, and the drama.
“There’s not…that much difference between the plot of an episode of [Eastenders] and the plot of, say, Macbeth,” writes Crystal in his book Shakespeare on Toast:. “Love, hate. Sex, death. Betrayal, friendship.”
Comparing the Bard of Avon’s classic work of ambition and betrayal to a British soap opera might seem sacrilegious, but Crystal’s point is that though these works are revered as high literature, and rightfully so, they weren’t written to be. They were written as entertainment. Viewed entertainment. Hamlet could have been performed on the moon, for all Shakespeare cared, as long as it was actually being watched (and paid for.) They point was seeing – not studying.
“Shakespeare didn’t write to be read,” says Thomas Strickland, artistic director of the North Fulton Drama Club: “…these very human stories need breath and presence to reach even the least of their potential.” Strickland directed a steampunk rendition of The Tempest in 2012, which reimagined the inhabitants of Prospero’s isle in a Victorian era that never was.
Performances of the Bard’s works have varied (to say the least) over the years. In the Elizabethan era, when the plays were first written, great theaters like the iconic Globe in London would put on show after show after show in one week, rarely repeating performances. Actors would portray a multitude of characters in a variety of plays, all in a hurry and with little-to-no rehearsal. Costumes were lavish, but sets were almost non-existent, so the force of the language was supposed to paint a picture of time and place.
His works continued to be performed after his death, but a Puritan movement known as the “Interregnum” succeeded in banning most public stage performances after 1642. The movement was squashed later during the Restoration period in England and Shakespeare’s plays were taken out of moth balls. From around 1660 onwards his plays sprung back onto the stage – this time with sets, more elaborate props, and for the first time ever women were allowed to perform, taking the place of men in female roles. The audiences changed, too – theater became a diversion for the upper and middle classes, who were more literate, and with this change came a more respectful, quiet appreciation of performances.
It wasn’t always simple for Shakespeare’s legacy, though. Audiences during the Restoration wanted pleasant, uncomplicated plots and theaters took the liberty to liberally edit the Bard’s plays. King Lear and Romeo and Juliet remain the two most infamous examples: in the Restoration adaptions of those plays, Cordelia, Romeo, and Juliet all miraculously survive their respective stories!
Over the years, interpretations of Shakespeare’s works have varied from the strictly literal, to the overtly abstract. During the Victorian era, the “divine” Sarah Bernhardt performed the title role in Hamlet and from existing footage of the production you can see stage-y, larger-than-life movements and ornate costumes – hallmarks of that era. By contrast, the 1979 version of Macbeth with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen is sparse, with no set and simple, subdued costumes – a more modern, minimalist approach to Shakespeare’s works. “All you really need is a bare stage,” says Ben Crystal, whose most recent literary endeavor includes several books on Shakespeare which strive to make the Bard more accessible; the latest, due to release in June of 2013, is Springboard Shakespeare: Hamlet.
One of the beautiful things about Shakespeare is how adaptable his works are in performance. “They are all ‘malleable’” says Strickland, “maintaining their quality even when bent or hammered into a different shape.” Shakespeare’s plays have been modernized, adapted into concentration camps and the Vietnam War, abstracted with the use of color and light, and even flung into the far future. Yet for the most part, the plays retain their magic and their universality. As Strickland claims “…try as some might, Shakespeare cannot be broken.”
The Bard’s works have been performed for centuries, and are likely to be performed for centuries more. A new film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is in the works, produced by Julian Fellowes, and Joss Whedon’s modern take on Much Ado About Nothing is set to release June 7th, 2013.
Shakespeare is an unstoppable juggernaut, and seeing his works in action (live on-stage, or in a cinema) enables you to understanding why. His plays stick with you, as few works of literature do, with their iconic characters, beautiful prose, and their ability to hone in on the heart of human existence. “He wrote about what it is to be human, to love, to lose, to be envious of your best friend’s girlfriend, to become jealous, to kill – he explored the human condition, essentially, which is kinda timeless,” says Crystal. The plays can be performed in myriad ways, and just about anywhere, and the messages will resonate. I’m still waiting on that performance of Hamlet on the moon — I just know it’s got to come about in my lifetime.