Shakespeare. The mere mention of the man’s name is enough to inspire awe in anyone with even the most passing interest in the canon of English Literature.
Sure you have other authors whose surname alone – Dickens, Austen – is sufficient to make them identifiable by just about everyone, but Shakespeare is generally regarded as pretty much the best writer to have ever walked this planet. Whether it’s Doctor Who considering him an intellectual equal or Alexandre Dumas saying that the only person who has created more than Shakespeare is God, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon is without equal in probably all of the Arts, and certainly in Literature.
Such lofty devotion means that Shakespeare has been revised and rewritten more than any other down the centuries, and we were all fortunate enough to be treated to a talk by Claire Jones, a Speech and Drama teacher at Surbiton, going through some of the high (and low) lights of creative re-imaginings of the Bard’s great works.
William Shakespeare, turning in his grave since 1616
As Claire explained, writers weren’t about to wait around for Shakespeare to shuffle off his mortal coil, with the first rewrites emerging while he was still alive. Things really took off in the Restoration period though, as people believed he needed to be ‘updated for the times’, as his plays had somewhat gone out of fashion at this point. It was here that cutting scenes, adding on bits, rewriting and borrowing parts from his other plays really began in earnest.
The bug was evidently caught, and as the 17th and 18th centuries progressed the rewrites continued to surface. Some of the more unusual efforts included Nahum Tate’s notorious reworking of King Lear, in which Shakespeare’s most harrowing of tragedies is given a happy ending, and Thomas Otway’s inexplicable decision to relocate Romeo and Juliet (‘the greatest love story ever told’ – discuss) to Ancient Rome and rename it The History and Fall of Caius Marius. Caius Marius being Romeo, you understand.
How Romeo might have looked in a toga
Why all these rewrites? Claire offered the explanation that the plays were modified to suit contemporary tastes. This, she added, should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing: not all offerings were as daft as Tate’s and Otway’s. It is testament to the genius of Shakespeare that his works can so easily be relocated to another time and place and still connect with an audience of the time.
Gradually, the original texts started to dominate the theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries, but rewrites and updates were still appearing. One noticeable trend emerging at this time was the rise of parody and travesty, which suggested Shakespeare was no longer a sacred cow.
As we enter the 20th Century, innovations and technological advances enabled producers to try new things that very much fitted in with what was going on at the time. Take Brecht for example, whose version of Richard III , it was argued, was not too different to his Nazi-lampooning piece The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. This trend very much continues to this day, as we can see in recent TV adaptations such as Shakespeare Retold and Hollywood movies ranging from Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) to O (Othello).
Another informative, entertaining Lit Soc then, enlivened by reading of extracts from these rewrites by Claire herself and several audience members. A big thank you to Claire for delivering the talk and for providing me with a copy of her notes, without which I would not have been able to write this blog piece; it goes without saying that I have only scratched the surface of what she discussed here!