First, Shakespeare's theatrical world was very different from ours, and a lot more fluid. The plays were written quickly in order to get it up on its feet quickly to beat the competition. The words on the paper were not meant to be read; and if an actor felt like doing a little improv at a particular moment, why then all the better. (see Will Kempe) )We have found there are multiple versions of many of the plays. Hamlet has 3- Quarto 1 (the Bad Quarto). Quarto 2 (the Good Quarto), and the First Folio version.
The version in Quarto I is considerably shorter, some of the character names are different, and the speech" To be or not to be" is different and appears in a different place. Some think it's because it was written from the memory of an acting. Some current thinking is that it was a touring version.
Which would Shakespeare have preferred? We just don't know.
Modern directors have the option of picking and choosing; or doing a bit of conflating.
Kenneth Branagh chose to use some of each for his 1996 Hamlet movie making for a length of over 4 hours.
After Shakespeare's death in 1616, the remaining members of his company were a living memory of how the plays were performed. From the Restoration on,however, all bets were off. The next generation of poets/writers/editors had their way with the texts.
The following were some of the most .. .excessive..
Henrietta (1750 - 1830) and Thomas Bowdler (1754 -1825) - authors
Published the infamous expurgated version of Shakespeare's plays, called The
Family Shakespeare (Bowderlization became synonymous with censorship)
The Years Of IMPROVING SHAKESPEARE
Nahum Tate (1653-1715) - poet
King Lear - put into modern English, cut the Fool. everyone lives, Cordelia and Edgar marry and rule.
William Davenant (1606-1668) - poet and playwright
The Law Against Lovers - Mash up of Measure of Measure and Much Ado About Nothing.
David Garrick (1717-1779 - actor/manager
"Fixed" Hamlet by taking out Gravedigger scene,, A Midsummer Night's Dream by removing the Mechanicals, and Macbeth by removing the Porter Scene and adding a death scene for Macbeth
It's easy to peruse the above examples and convince ourselves that we know how to successfully stage Shakespeare. And for the most part, it's true. Most of us in the theatre world agree that what Shakespeare wrote is special and we don't seek to make changes like our predecessors did.
The challenge is more subtle now. For the most part we believe that Shakespeare knew what he was doing with the characters and the structure of the story. It's the language upon which we stumble.
One common method to overcome this, is to add incredible sets, fancy lights and gorgeous costumes,
These are fine as long as they're not devices to divert rather than enrich.
Another method, is to set the production in an unusual location. Again fine, if by doing so will highlight something in the play.
A good usage of this was Richard Loncraine's Richard III, with Ian McKellan in the starring role.
The image of Hitler and the horrors unleashed by the Nazi Party are still fresh, and gave a deep understanding of what Richard was about.
The TEXT is the icing on the cake. Just as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton has launched musical theater into a different stratosphere by working with heightened text, Shakespeare brought theater out of the two dimensional zone and brought us into the heavens using heightened text. Not only are the word choices and arrangements unique, and the rhythms part of our heartbeat, but the very sounds of the words resonate within us and bring us, the audience, to a shared experience we will never forget. Shakespeare's language literally changes us.
Instead of making up for the text, I believe we should make it front and center. How?
- Have actors that can make the text sound like it was born in their mouths. Not an easy task.
- Minimize everything that can distract- the sets, the costumes, the lighting.
- Array the performance space so that the audience members are close to the stage. Proscenium spaces are the worst thing ever imposed up a Shakespeare play.
- Keep the pace swift.
- HONOR THE TEXT.
Don't water down the wine and the audience will get used to the taste and then even enjoy the nuances. Shakespeare is GOOD for you. (See last week's blogpost :-)