Standing some four centuries removed from Shakespeare, we like to think that our points of view are not only different from the author’s but superior. Our age is not unique in this habit. The Restoration sought to refine the barbaric yawp of the Bard of Avon. In the early 19th century, the much admired Thomas Bowdler presented his Family Shakespeare, in which he expurgated anything that would be unfit “to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies.”
Something like this impulse, if we take their actions at face value, might have motivated Sen. Jesse Helms and the Rev. Donald Wildmon in their attempts to tame the National Endowment for the Arts and thus to save the taxpayer from the wild beasts that inform all pursuits of creative imagination.
A few years ago, my theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, wanting to express solidarity with the censored, and conscious that suppression of any artistic product affects even the most established of theatres, turned aside a $50,000 grant which carried with it a promise to limit expression to those things that the Endowment deemed permissible in polite society. We were not the only Shakespeare theatre to do so—the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival did likewise and unhesitatingly so—but we felt brave and a tiny bit ennobled.
At the same time, we chose to produce two traditionally popular plays which, because of their subject matter, have become troublesome works in our own times—The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. It was our intent to demonstrate that themes no longer enthusiastically endorsed by the majority could, by sheer force of artistry, win acceptance, or at least provoke discussion, in a large audience. We hoped to prove that the politically incorrect have a place in the artistic firmament. And we had an ace in the hole: Both plays were indisputedly from the pen of Shakespeare.
The director of Shrew was highly aware of the pitfalls of the play. Feminists could not be expected to react with enthusiasm to the story of a high-spirited intelligent woman’s submission to a bully—a money-hungry, smug macho-man, with few redeeming graces. But rather than try to reshape the play to conform to contemporary expectation of the proper sexual roles, the director chose to make it into a lesson in preferred deportment. The Kate-Petruchio scenes were purged of their farcical physically, the energy of their clash of wills was converted to games and demonstrations of the futility of willfulness. The shrew of the title was tamed. But so, I fear, were the actors and the play.
The idea of doing Shrew at all still called forth a few protests, but the general response was a sullen sigh and a resigned acceptance of a middle-class destiny in a loveless, if comfortable, middle age. Petruchio had lost his plumage and had become a sensitive, caring person. Katherine, having been talked out of her mindless tantrums would, I am sure, accept a colorless lover within a year.
The problem with Merchant is, of course, Shylock. Libby Appel, our director, chose a contemporary setting for the play and, rather than reduce the malignity of Shylock, chose to raise the ante by emphasizing the callousness and mercantile avarice of the Venetian Christians of the play. There were no heroes in this production, not Antonio, nor Portia, certainly not Bassanio nor the Duke of Venice.
Despite some obvious problems of credibility in transferring Shakespeare’s fable to modern times, we were convinced the director’s interpretation had sound textual support. But if the careful balancing of virtues and faults were expected to pull the teeth of anticipated criticism, we were quickly disabused.
Almost all our mail began with the phrase “I have always been against censorship, but—“, and then continued with one or two principles of aesthetic theory that left us shocked. One was that The Merchant of Venice might have had a valuable message once, but that its age had passed. It was often suggested that just as we would not dream of reviving Uncle Tom’s Cabin or adapting Huckleberry Finn to the stage, so should The Merchant of Venice be consigned to the historical classical scrap heap.
The other suggestion was that the play, especially in modern dress, was suitable only with extensive revision and rewriting, perhaps a changed ending or a switched ethnic identification. As is, the story was dangerous regardless of interpretation, because young minds might misinterpret the best of the director’s intentions.
Ours is a popular theatre, and we take audience response quite seriously, even when we disagree with it. But the willingness to change, adapt or twist what clearly is the author’s intent—or alternatively, to consign a work to oblivion—seemed to us a betrayal of what we have always stood for. This, we thought, is the peril of producing classics in an age of deconstruction and political correctness—that one might use our common heritage of myths to support a currently popular agenda, but little else. We began to think to Moby Dick as a tract supporting the Save the Whales League or as an essay on sensitivity to the physically impaired instead of what Melville held it to be—“a wicked book [that left him feeling] as spotless as the lamb.”
I do not want to leave the impression that Shakespeare’s works should not be subject to contemporary interpretation. But eagerness on the part of the audience, or worse on the part of a director, to “fix” those troublesome scenes or plots might deprive the work of the deliberate ambiguity of the author’s vision.
Jerry Turner, former artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, delivered a longer version of this essay at a January meeting of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America in Houston.
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