“This American Life” host Ira Glass provoked this horrified reaction when he tweeted perhaps the ultimate example of the “#confessyourunpopularopinion” hashtag: “Same thing with the great Mark Rylance shows this yr: fantastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”
Some of the response was supportive. “Does this Ira Glass thing mean we all get to stop pretending to enjoy Shakespeare?” asked the New York Times’ Josh Barro. “What a relief, if true.”
I once provoked a rather furious reaction some time ago with the confession that I do not much care for “Romeo and Juliet,” so Glass has my sympathy if not my outright agreement (if, in fact, he is being serious). And as a critic, I have to say that our contemporary conversation about Shakespeare would be a lot more interesting if, rather than using the Bard’s name as a synonym for unimpeachable greatness, we could talk about what works of Shakespeare we like best, which do not resonate with us and why.
Shakespeare’s plays are performed with such regularity and have been the basis for riffs ranging from “10 Things I Hate About You” to “Sons of Anarchy” that to a certain extent, talking about the man’s original works is futile. Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales or the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Shakespeare’s plays have become essential story forms, their quality validated by simple persistence.
But just because Shakespeare wrote a play does not mean that it will be adapted well. And not all Shakespeare plays move into the future or transport us into the past with the same ease.
Take, for example, two very different adaptations of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
When Kenneth Branagh directed his 1993 version of Shakespeare’s story about two sets of lovers who have rather rocky paths to the altar, he held onto a period setting while taking an approach to casting that makes the film look decidedly forward-looking in some respects — Denzel Washington (in one of his finest performances) and Keanu Reeves play brothers.
That decision to tell us a story from the past helps make a dispute about a young woman’s chastity, one of the central conflicts of “Much Ado About Nothing,” make sense: The characters are of a different age and live by different values. But the actors, particularly Branagh as Benedick, Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Washington as Don Pedro, bring a beautiful fluidity to Shakespeare’s dialogue that shakes the years off the words. We can appreciate the characters’ distance from us without being alienated by it.
By contrast, when Joss Whedon shot an adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” he brought the story into a contemporary setting but updated its sexual politics only part-way. In Whedon’s interpretation, Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are not just verbal sparring partners but former lovers, an idea that lends a sting to their exchanges.
But he neglected to provide similar nuance in moving forward the relationship between Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). In Shakespeare’s text, Claudio rejects Hero at the altar not just because he believes she has been unfaithful to him immediately prior to their relationship, but because he believes she has sexual experience that precedes even the incident he believes he has witnessed. The first rationale carries forward into the present day, but the later makes for a rougher transition unless our contemporary Claudio and Hero are given more detail and dimension than they possess in the play.
Another great illustration of the challenges and opportunities Shakespeare left for us to grapple with is “Coriolanus.” This drama about a Roman general whose pridefulness and contempt for the processes of politics is hardly the sort of universal reference point that “Romeo and Julie” or “Henry V” have become thanks to their presence in America’s classrooms. And yet I saw two terrific and very different interpretations of it in recent years, one of which emphasized the timelessness of the present challenges in American politics, the other which focused on the extent to which the main character’s worldview is alien from our own.
The former is a film adaptation, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Caius Martius Coriolanus. The ferocious military charge that earns Martius his honorific borrows imagery both from video games and the house-to-house fighting of our current entanglements in the Middle East. As Tribunes Sicinius and Brutus, James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson scheme with a petty cleverness that makes Frank Underwood look like a pretentious drama queen, sharpening parallels between the economic policies of Rome and 21st century America.
Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company, adapting “Coriolanus” for the stage during its 2012-2013 season, went far in the opposite direction. The stage is, by design, a limited space, and director David Muse made this an advantage. The production uses a claustrophobic set that emphasized Martius’s sense that he is being set upon by the people of Rome, the confines of being designated an icon, and Martius’s desire to break free into battle, the only place where he truly knows how to conduct himself. Shakespeare’s characters can be just as powerful when we accept them as forms and tropes as when a director tries to coax forward their specific humanity.
I have seen far too many excellent productions of Shakespeare to agree with Glass’s assessment that his work is “not relatable” or “unemotional.” But it does greater honor to Shakespeare to recognize that he was a man rather than a god. We keep him alive best by debating his work and the work that others do with it rather than by locking him away to dusty, honored and ultimately doomed posterity.