Is Shakespeare relevant today? Such a question often crosses our minds as we read the plays written by the great playwright. However we know very well that Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed even today not just in English-speaking countries, but in others too in very many languages across the world. There are innumerable situations in Shakespeare’s plays that can never change from century to century, from country to country, despite differences in knowledge, cultures, customs and societies. In Shakespeare’s works, we experience practically every human emotion and condition. Shakespeare’s characters fall in and out of love, betray each other, misunderstand each other, argue, deceive, fight and kill each other; they are at times angry, grieved, ecstatic, envious, untrustworthy, deceptive, magnanimous and forgiving. They possess character traits common to human situations in every age. Even the social issues of Shakespeare’s time which feature in his plays—class division, racism, sexuality, intolerance, position of women, crime, war, death and disease—are still some of the burning issues in today’s world.
Shakespeare’s plays therefore embody human emotions that haven’t changed or have changed very little with time. Do we not find a striking similarity between “King Lear” and all those plays and novels written today about sons and daughters trying to get rid of their fathers by putting them into old age homes? Can we not find a depiction of racist intolerance in “The Merchant of Venice” that continues to pain us even today? Human beings actually do not seem to change much with time, nor does their nature. The problems remain the same for every age, but in different forms. Through my paper, I will explore whether Shakespeare can still be considered contemporary.
Brecht on Shakespeare
Shakespeare has become contemporary in our changing times and these times have changed our perception of Shakespeare. Brecht, in “Kleines Organon fur das Theatre” (A Short Organum for the Theatre) (1949), wrote thus: “The theatre should always be mindful of the needs of its time.…Time! The time to be contemporary, the time to start the dialogue, the understanding, the time of Shakespeare and the time of reading Shakespeare, our time, your time, Shakespeare’s time!”Brecht further points out that it is war time and Fortinbras is about to wage war against Poland. It is for the first time in Shakespeare that Poland is mentioned and we hardly bother to talk about Poland when discussing “Hamlet”. However, for Brecht in 1949, Poland deserves special mention connected with the time of Hamlet and his writings on Hamlet. Brecht wrote: “Overcome by the warrior-like example of Fortinbras, Hamlet turns back and with a piece of barbaric butchery, slaughters his uncle, his mother and himself, leaving Denmark to the Norwegians.” “Leaving Denmark to the Norwegians”—that was Brecht’s interpretation of “Hamlet” after the Second World War—leaving territory open to occupation and to a different king.
Martin Esslin, a theatre critic and author analysed Brecht, pointing out how Brecht did not want the audience to believe that the conditions shown in “Pericles” and “Hamlet” are being repeated today. Brecht in fact wanted to show that Othello does not embody innate male jealousy when he strangles Desdemona, but that he represents the seventeenth-century idea that women are the properties of their husbands.
Shakespeare Presented Today
An example of how Shakespeare transcends the boundaries of time and space, is Ariane Mnounchkine’s Japanese production of Shakespeare’s plays which include big Japanese dolls and Samurais. Between 1981 and 1984, Mnouchkine translated and directed a series of Shakespeare’s plays: “Richard II”, “Twelfth Night” and “Henry IV Part 1.” Mnouchkine was a French stage director who strongly believed in the collaborative process of theatre. She with her company Théâtre du Soleil developed ideas out of improvisational exercises incorporating multiple styles of theatre in their work.
This however is vastly different from Kurosawa’s films on Shakespeare. Kurosawa’s “Ran”, released in 1985, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. Kurosawa’s version is a violently lustful domestic drama centered on a conflict for power between a father and his sons. Presented through an ominous lens of betrayal, murder and deceit, the film is brilliantly presented; ferociously chaotic but never sacrificing its narrative lucidity. Shakespeare for Kurosawa is terror, the terror in “King Lear”; Lear for Kurosawa is timeless yet contemporary.
I remember reading an article on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet being enacted in a festival on a beautiful beach resort in the Mediterranean. In this particular theatre production of Hamlet, Claudius’s court was dressed in modern costumes resembling those of the people on the beach. This was an attempt to find a contemporary connection with the audience so that the substance of the play could be brought home to the audience, as also the point that Shakespeare’s plays transcend epochs, cultures or regions.
To claim that Shakespeare is contemporary can at times however be dangerous. A shocking example of this was given by a Shakespearean critic who described the manner in which the Nazis used “The Merchant of Venice” to stir up hatred against the Jews. Shylock was presented as a man isolated from society, and insulted, injured, and loathed by all. Shakespeare also endowed the character of Shylock with a psychological depth that no other character in the play had. In fact, “The Merchant of Venice” has played a very unwelcome role in the sentiments against Jewish people. In the play, the trial has been portrayed as a merciless and shameless parody of justice by a fake lawyer.
From the point of view of homosexuality, Shakespeare may once again be regarded as being contemporary. Hans Meyer, the German literary critic, describes in his writings how in “The Merchant of Venice”, Antonio is homo-erotically tied to Bassanio.
Understanding Themes of Femininity and Marriage
Let us now take a look at the Elizabethan marriage customs and Shakespeare’s treatment of women that constitute a major barrier to the contemporary understanding of his work. “The Taming of the Shrew” has been presented as a good guide to marriage and delights the male chauvinist. Similarly, there are many dialogues in Shakespeare’s plays in which the submission of women in marriage is praised along with qualities such as obedience, gentle voice and a reluctance to protest. In “King Lear”, “Her voice was ever soft,” Lear says over the dead body of his daughter Cordelia. He continues, “Gentle and low—an excellent thing in woman.” However, Cordelia is someone who answers back and so does the character of Beatrice in “Much Ado about Nothing”.
The question therefore remains, to what extent can a contemporary woman find herself in Shakespeare’s plays? In order to understand this, not only do we need to understand Shakespeare’s plays, but we also need to see how the ideas of the play connect with life outside the theatre. Can the women of today relate to Shakespeare’s plays and see their lives in the midst of the situations he presents in them? Men seem to be superior to woman in Shakespeare’s plays. The female characters are generally portrayed as powerless to influence the outcome of events; they are presented more as types than characters. Shakespeare’s heroines are like kaleidoscopes—they are all different from one another and have their own characteristic qualities, skills, flaws and failures. Shakespeare gives his heroines a leading part only when they dress up as men, as in the case of Portia, Viola and Rosalind. He wanted to prove that only when women dress as men can they behave in a rational and intelligent manner (such as Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”). Shakespeare was probably the first to perceive a characteristic masculine trait in every woman and in this respect he was close to Freud and three hundred years or so ahead of his time. In “Hamlet”, Gertrude has to marry another king, Claudius, who is the stronger man. Again Bianca, as soon as she gets the ring on her finger in “The Taming of the Shrew” says to Lucentio, “More fool you for betting on me!”Therefore in Shakespeare’s plays, men bet on women and we find a cynical society which, while protecting women actually batters them to pieces. Has the position of women actually improved in our society from Shakespeare’s time?
Shakespeare and Modern English
Many words and phrases from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have become iconic catch phrases, clichés, proverbs, and idioms that we use in contemporary speech today. So, if we hear someone as being “in a pickle”, or waiting “with bated breath”, or going on “a wild goose chase”, we must not forget that we owe all of these to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, “The Merchant of Venice” and “Romeo and Juliet” respectively. Expressions such as “It’s Greek to me”, “more sinned against than sinning”, “a fool’s paradise” or “vanished into thin air”, all have their origin in Shakespeare. Moreover, when we refer to jealousy as “the green-eyed monster”, we are actually quoting Othello’s arch villain, Iago. “The be-all and end-all” is uttered by Macbeth as he murderously contemplates King Duncan, and “fair play” falls from Miranda’s lips in “The Tempest”. With his invention of commonly used expressions and phrases, and his creation of new words, Shakespeare was able to impact the modern English language in a way that no other writer ever has.
There is one very strong point that needs to be stressed upon in our reading of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays provide a multi-focal view point—one can look at the plays as they were written, or one can treat them as a historical pieces or expressions of continuing human emotions. In whichever way Shakespeare is produced, then or now, the plays touch a chord in the hearts of the audience, irrespective of time or age. The audience can always find their own experiences in the context of the work that the great artist has provided to them. All they need to do is to recognize that their experiences are not entirely personal to themselves but are shared by a broad section of humanity through the ages.
Shakespeare may not be our contemporary in the sense of being topical, but he certainly is contemporary to our inner behavioural patterns. Through his writings, he has shown to us how society evolves, how we betray our allies out of fear and weaknesses, how conspiracy (as in “Julius Caesar”) takes its course partly through slander and partly through correct statements. Shakespeare’s knowledge and understanding of the world is different from ours. His world view is related to a moral order which comes through his plays. If we consider his moral order to be essentially different from our own, we might be limiting the meaning of his plays by only looking for topical connections. Conversely, if we want to actualize Shakespeare as if he is living now, we would lose the historical perspective contained in his plays. If our approach is too historical, we would end up with a very rhetorical Shakespearean theatre based on beautiful, ornamental words. The best option is therefore to find a style and maintain a fair balance between the original “historic” Shakespeare and our interpretation of what we call “contemporary” Shakespeare. We must not forget that Shakespeare’s plays continue to entertain people, sometimes as authentic historical performances, at other times as modern interpretations on stage, or in countless films and TV adaptations all over the world.
Brecht, Bertolt. (1949). A short organum for the theatre. London: Methuen.
Crystal, David & Ben.(2002).Shakespeare’s words: A glossary and language companion. United Kingdom: Penguin.
Esslin, Martin.(2001).The theatre of the absurd. UK: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
Greenblatt, Stephen.( 2005)Will in the world: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. London: Pimlico.
Greer, Germaine. (1986). Shakespeare. London: Oxford University Press.
Wells, Stanley.(2002).The Cambridge companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anindita Dutta is senior faculty at NITMAS (affiliated to the West Bengal Institute of Technology, under AICTE). Her areas of interest include British and American literature and ELT.