Staging Textbook Shakespeare

By textbook Shakespeare I mean a history lesson exploring the time that the play is set in as well as learning about the audience mentality during the era when the plays were written and first performed. We can also say a historicist production.

If the title of this post sounds like I’m going to tell you how to do it – that’s not what you’re going to get.

My purpose is rather to explore its validity in modern theatre. Today, Shakespeare’s plays function as two very different things: Literature, and a play script. The former is an end product, the latter a starting point – raw material on which a theatrical production is built upon. Literature is often dissected to find the authors intent, inspiration, any philosophical messages or themes, allegories, allusions, similies, metaphors, symbolism, foreshadowing, and all that generally for the purpose of figuring out what the author was really trying to communicate. A seemingly objective process, but everybody’s different interpretation turns it into a rather subjective work.

Theatre, on the other hand, has its number one priority as — in my opinion — entertainment. Yes, you can comment on politics, society, etc. (and I’m ignoring most absurdism but I’m concentrating on the more common forms that we’re used to seeing) but those are secondary priorities in most cases. What comes first in the plays we like best is telling a good story, and telling it well. Theatre is full of plays about the most important episode of the lead character’s life (or end of).

Since Shakespeare has become such a huge literary figure, it’s very easy to lose focus when producing a play. Before I go on, I must say that I DO think it is almost essential to understand as much as you can about the raw piece of work that you can. Find the meaning of every word, discover how the play would have been understood 400 years ago, realize the significance of certain plot events to an Elizabethan/Jacobean audience. BUT when all is said and done very little, if any, of that work will be seen by the audience of the production. What might be seen is some work in drawing parallels. For example, if Shakespeare’s audience viewed such-and-such event THIS way, then we’ll have to stage it like THIS so that a modern audience will understand the weight of the situation.

After all, we don’t really go to the theatre to learn about history. I love learning about history, but it’s not why I go to the theatre. I want to see a good story told well. And if I learn in the process, cool. If not, fine. Good theatre has to be relevant today somehow. We can’t just dig up a play – by anyone – and say “it’s a classic, let’s do it.” There are plenty of blockbuster plays from not even 50 years ago that are no longer produced because they were such a product of their time that they would be incomprehensible to us today. Shakespeare’s power, I believe, is that the plays are extremely adaptable to play in front of a modern audience. We’re not necessarily showing how they were originally staged. Instead we present them (with minor alterations) to tell the story that will resonate most with the hearts and heads above the butts in the seats. They are about the human experience and today and tomorrow will still find truths that we can relate to.

As they are in your Arden, Riverside, Pelican, or other edition the plays are pieces of literature. The footnotes and introductions often explore what those words meant 400 years ago and how the play was received by a 16th or 17th century audience. If we today tried to put such a historicist production onstage I have no doubt that not too many people would enjoy it. Theatre is about the now. It’s an opportunity for catharsis – you can’t get that from a textbook history lesson.