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Thinking About Theater

The Common Sense of Shakespeare (Part II)

How to Keep Blank Verse from Leaving You Blank

This is part II of Michael Feingold's latest "Thinking About Theater" column.
Click here to read part I.

Condola Rashad as Juliet and Orlando Bloom as Romeo in the 2013 Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet, directed by David Leveaux, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Like Shakespeare's worshipers, the people who think that someone else wrote "Shakespeare," start, wrongly, by assuming his works to be great beyond all comprehension, much like the gushing folk who think that Mozart's peak moments came by special delivery from Heaven rather than out of his quick, complex brain. One useful reality check, in both cases, is to cite the passages that centuries of stage practice have wished away. Many experienced theatergoers, for instance, don't realize that in Othello there is a character named "Clown." This forlorn creature is almost invariably cut — I've only seen him onstage once in a few dozen Othellos — and with good reason: Unless you're an Elizabethan groundling who insists on a side dish of clowning with every performance, there's no need to overload a long, somber play like Othello with this lame stab at comic relief.

Similarly, you can startle many operatic Mozart-lovers by mentioning the slapstick scene in Don Giovanni, in which Zerlina ties up Leporello and threatens to cut his balls off with a razor. Some may even refuse to believe the scene exists, but it does: It was added for the Vienna premiere. (Like Londoners and New Yorkers, the Viennese always prefer a cheap laugh to dramatic coherence.) This scene, too, is almost always omitted in production, to the relief of the many knowledgeable Mozartians who can live happily without it.

Shakespeare and Mozart put their hands to these items as part of their respective jobs. Whether they would have preferred to dodge the task, we don't know, since their talk-show appearances have not yet been posted on YouTube. One 19th-century editorial fashion, blossoming alongside the desire to find an alternative author for Shakespeare's plays, was to denigrate any passage the editor found especially cheesy as an interpolation by some upstart actor. Victorian-era stage stars, sensibly, ignored the editors; their simpler rule of thumb was to leave in the passages that worked for their audiences and delete those that didn't.

In Shakespeare, as in Mozart, the combination of the sublime and the sleazoid makes an essential part of the wonderment his art creates, even while it dismays the idealists who want him to have been magically above such lapses. The deniers, seeking an ultra-wise, aristocratic Shakespeare handing down philosophic wisdom, cut him off from the common touch that makes his plays such fun for everybody else.

Aristocrats generally find theater a rather messy place. A quick glance across the history of dramatic literature reveals that few members of the ruling elite, and virtually none with inherited titles, have contributed much. Once you've subtracted the distinguished anomaly of Count Leo Tolstoy (who found Shakespeare's works stupid and immoral), you're left with a few scattershot instances: There's the 18th-century Venetian, Count Carlo Gozzi; the late-19th-century Russian, Sukhovo-Kobylin, who wrote one famously banned trilogy; and the late-medieval abbess, Roswitha of Gandersheim, whose wealthy father endowed a convent where she put on Christianized adaptations of Roman comedies with her nuns. Not a lot to show for half a millennium of inherited privilege. Most playwrights bear out the great critic Samuel Johnson's dictum that "only a fool ever wrote except for money."

The ultimate curse of the super-genius Shakespeare whom the great 18th-century actor David Garrick and his fellow idolaters raised up comes not through the deniers, who at least keep us laughing, but via the mystique bred into so many actors as well as audiences: the assumption that Shakespeare is so far above us, so incomprehensibly splendid, that we mustn't expect to comprehend his works. This leaves the field wide open for directors and leading actors with notions-shop ideas of how to enliven (or worse, explain) the text. Sometimes the notions are nakedly pieces of pointless dress-up, like the quasi-metaphoric fire effects that broke out, randomly, all over David Leveaux's recent Broadway staging of Romeo and Juliet. At other times, the notions serve some lamebrained reduction of meaning to "concept," as in the Lincoln Center Macbeth, where Jack O'Brien's staging turns the witches into a sort of Satanic service organization, guiding the hero's road to tyranny and destruction — an ingenious way to make his moral downfall lose its hold on the spectators' interest.

Mark Rylance as King Richard III in the Shakespeare's Globe production of '''Richard III'', directed by Tim Carroll, at Broadway's Belasco Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Even worse, because it imposes on a better-educated stratum of the public, is the kind of factitious "authenticity" that Mark Rylance and the Shakespeare's Globe company have been promulgating in its Broadway visit with Richard III and Twelfth Night. Here, because certain gestures resembling Elizabethan theater practice are made — men playing women's roles, illumination partly by candlelight — the audience is invited to make an automatic assumption of the troupe's artistic superiority, and many have fallen into the trap.

In actuality, the company is no better, or more notably authentic, than other troupes assembled to present Shakespeare. Their period-style music, performed live, is first-rate, and they end each performance with a traditional jig, well-executed, but these appealing peripheries don't supply much lift-off to what's essentially, when all's said and done, no more than a mediocre British provincial rep, blessed with a star (Rylance) who's as genuinely resourceful as he is showy.

A few of the Globe's actors can embody their roles convincingly, giving the verse poetic colors while making it seem to flow naturally from their characters, but the majority just recite, with barren competence — which, granted, is better than barren incompetence. Tim Carroll's staging of the two productions is, like most current directorial approaches to Shakespeare, a mixture of stolidly professional efficiency with gimmicky touches, a few of which work for the play, while more than a few work against it. For instance, Rylance's Olivia in Twelfth Night has two bits of business involving gifts conveyed to "Cesario," one of which coarsens Olivia's character, while the second makes the coarseness seem a product of her stupidity. It's highly dubious to assume that such stuff might constitute any sort of Shakespearean authenticity.

But, of course, historical authenticity isn't what Shakespeare needs to remain alive on our stage, though the knowledge behind it (as with the Globe's musicianship) can help us make vital connections to his work. The solution lies neither in gimmickry nor in gimcrack theory of any sort, but in common sense — in the belief that Shakespeare wrote to tell a story dramatically, and that, in consequence, every line of the text means something that furthers, or enhances, that story. This puts an obligation on us not to be afraid to speak up, if something he says strikes us as dull or pointless or outdated. Though a genius, Shakespeare was not a god, and his work has suffered from the corruptions of time, along with his own limitations and the vagaries of Elizabethan typesetters. Like the sacred books of other religions, his Collected Works have been used too often as a heavy object with which to bully children into submission. We need constant reminders that he wrote to provide pleasure, for his own and his company's profit, not to delude anyone into worshiping him as a supernatural force, every one of whose words carries equal weight as a message from above. The piety that enshrines him and the blasphemy that denies him are equally irrelevant to the love of his work.

Ethan Hawke as Macbeth and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth in Lincoln Center Theater's production of Macbeth, directed by Jack O'Brien, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays January 17 and January 24.