Is Shakespeare in Need of Constant Change?

Written by Leah Nichols

This question carries the weight of so many opinions given by so many people. Some of these people know every single minute detail of every piece of work produced by The Bard, while others don't know Shakespeare from a pack of wafer thin ham. I feel that I can give my opinion with some gravitas because not only have I made my - admittedly small - mark on the Shakespearian stage, I have also been a dedicated follower of the Stratford star and have enjoyed reading and viewing the various masterpieces throughout my years. Here are a few aspects on which I would like to draw attention to.

He recently celebrated his 401st Death-day

Being 401 years old means that it's going to be tough to stay modern and trendy. Naturally, people struggle to get their heads around the long, beautiful monologues and soliloquies. That being said, theaters all across the world are still packed to see his timeless plays. There must be a reason that makes this quadruple-centenarian's plays draw in so many people.

Directors who take on the exhausting task, put it upon themselves to constantly find new ways to reinvent the same old pieces. For example, I was lucky enough to see the award-winning Hamlet on the West End, starring the handsome A-Lister, Benedict Cumberbatch. Having seen many different versions of Hamlet, this was visually the best; using slow motion, current music, and slight non-naturalism. The visual feast that lay before me instantly took me in. This, to me, was a joy to watch. That being said, the film adaptation of Hamlet, starring David Tennant, had the same words and plot, yet the two adaptations were so different in their characterization, settings, and directorial choices, that they could be considered two completely different sides of the same sexy-British-lead-actor coin.

This is partly what keeps Shakespeare alive. The ability to adapt the same piece of work, work that has been circulated and viewed countless times over the past 400 years or so, and make it unrecognizable to any adaptation that has been put on before. And this, in itself, is a testament to Shakespeare: the fact that his work can be moulded and changed but still keep its core essence, means that he was able to write plays that are truly timeless.

Respecting the Words and Honouring the Aesthetics  

Conversely, there is a sense of respect owed to Shakespeare to which the most severe actor doth like to adhere. This camp of Shakespeare lovers suggest that there is a sense of duty, that deference should be paid to the original work, and that there is no way that any cuts should be made to the script, believing that the lines should never be adjusted or any kind of modernism added to it.

While this can be an unpopular opinion, there is a strong argument for it. A lot of actors and directors feel that Shakespeare wrote his plays in that particular way for a damn good reason and who are we to edit it in any way? We do not have his genius and so we shouldn’t tinker with his perfection.

There is, undeniably, a rhythm to each piece of Shakespeare's writing. From the beautiful soliloquies to the quick-paced duologues, there is a reason a line has been set in that specific place. For example, looking back, yet again, to the incomparable Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Danish Prince, in Hamlet, the director chose to put the most famous speech in the play – you know the one (To be or not to be…) – at the beginning of the show. Now, some, including myself, found this to be a refreshing change to a 400 year-old speech, created by a sense of uncertainty as to the order of things. This, in my mind, was a soaring eagle of theatrical genius (but being a Contemporary Theatre Graduate, I would). This was, unfortunately, changed later: the speech had been put back into it's ordinary, uninspired, place. This – according to most – was seen as the best option because the words of the speech did not make sense at the beginning of the play and created less impact. 

There are two different types of people when it comes to Shakespeare: either you embrace the whole new age, modern dress aspect of Shakespeare's works, or you thoroughly enjoy seeing women in bone-crunching corsets and men with tights so tight they spend the entire show reciting lines in a higher octave.

In my opinion, we need to embrace change. Life have undergone a drastic shift in the last 400 years, and as Shakespeare himself said, “To beguile the time, look like the time.” Personally, I enjoy seeing new, contemporary versions of a classic, coupled with outstanding literary genius. Having stated my view, one must always keep in mind that many people prefer to see Shakespeare’s plays with absolute originality out of respect and a sense of deference. And that’s fine too. Both views are, of course, valid and justified. It is almost guaranteed that there will always be two camps of Shakespeare enthusiasts, and thank The Bard for it. Both styles are necessary to keep theatre alive. No matter what camp you belong to, we all go see Shakespeare for the words, because it is in the words that the beauty, and our hearts, truly lie.

Whether you prefer Original Gangsta Shakespeare, or New, Hip and Modern Shakespeare, it does not matter. You love Shakespeare all the same. We may be divided but we still fly that Shakespearean flag together. And if you don’t know under which camp you fall, perhaps you should go book a ticket to a Shakespeare performance near you.