“What you have to remember is that these,” said Tom Berger, referring to the printed playbooks of the Early Modern Period, “are comic books.” It was 2009, and during my orientation to my graduate program‘s tour of the Grafton library that we met Tom Berger, our program’s scholar in residence, there in his home-away-from-home. It was the first of many earth shattering revelations about the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that would shape my graduate education. Which is why, when I see so many people cringing at the first half of A. O. Scott’s New York Times Magazine article: “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” I cringe at the cringers.
Lets all take a moment to realize that the great works of the Greatest Playwright in the Eternal History of the English Language were popular entertainments, and probably treated with a similar regard as a Captain America comic book. This is something that we all need to learn to embrace in the arts, though: and I can’t say that enough, we need need need need need to learn to embrace this if our productions of Shakespeare’s plays are going to be anything but stodgy museum pieces that people come to out of a sense of guilt or cultural obligation.
First and foremost, please read all of Scott’s article, not just the first half, because he makes some very intelligent insights. Secondly, I’m not sighting Captain America without reason; the recent Winter Soldier film elevated was is essentially a goofball comic book story to the level of a grown up political narrative about the grim consequences of the US Government spying on its own citizens as a matter of policy, and where we have started to betray the principles of the Enlightenment that are the foundation of our political theory for the illusion of security or, more frighteningly, just because we can. Also, there were ‘splosions at the end, and a some action in the middle that is mostly forgettable after the movie is over, but help keep things moving along until the end.
Kind of like Hamlet.
When performed by a skilled actor who can manage to give us a Hamlet that needs to rationalize all of the disturbing things that have seen and happened, and is compelled to figure out his place in the universe, we’re treated to an exposition of thought that can do no less for us. But thank God Laertes shows up at the end to drive all that home to the finish line, or else we would have just sat there for three hours without being able to appreciate the inevitable end of the action that Hamlet himself has been desperately trying to put off. Also, I’m pretty sure there is some action in the middle, some old guy gets stabbed, some other old guys almost gets stabbed, but all that’s pretty forgettable at the end. But hey, that was some AWESOME sword play between Laertes and Hamlet, amiright?
So I guess what I’m saying is, don’t do Hamlet without an awesome Hamlet and an equally awesome fight director.
But the other thing I’m saying is this: Shakespeare’s audiences knew that Hamlet was an awesome revenge tragedy before they saw it. They knew there would be murder, intrigue, bloodshed, and a culminating duel that would wow them. Kind of like when we see one of those immature superhero flicks, we know we’re going to get a healthy dose of action, and then when it turns out to be an intelligent, well-conceived, and well-performed philosophical or political piece, we feel doubly rewarded.
Unfortunately, the Hamlet that Shakespeare’s audiences knew they were going to see is not the Hamlet that most modern audiences know they’re going to see. One of our key jobs in presenting the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries is to shake the dust off for our audiences; the moment our Shakespeare starts feeling like a lecture on the Great Works of Western Civilization is the moment we start losing their attention.
One of the reasons I was really excited to be offered the chance to direct Julius Caesar with Sweet Tea Shakespeare is that it’s a great political/philosophical piece that speaks directly to the American republic at this particular juncture of its history. It’s also full of passion (even some sex), violence, and black humor. Fortunately, since everyone knows that Shakespeare is well written and philosophical, I just have to worry about telling myself “it’s a comic book, stupid,” and making sure any of the lengthy speeches are actions that need to happen for the characters to figure out who is going to die and why.
When our modern entertainments are based on larger than life characters who powerfully feel their swelling passions, that’s not a sign of the death of adulthood, that’s a sign that we’re more or less where we’ve been since Shakespeare started putting pen to paper, and those of us who still bring his works to life should take the opportunity to try to restore Shakespeare’s work to the status of popular entertainment in the public imagination.