Today marks 400 years since William Shakespeare died (he was also born on the 23rd April). It is St George's Day and across the country his work is being commemorated by the public and institutions with all 37 of his plays being shown as ten minute films across the Southbank, with the BBC showing new versions of his plays on TV, The Globe have spent two years performing Hamlet to almost every country in the world and President Obama is in London and apparently has Shakespeare to thank for his election catchphrase "yes we can".
And yet I think the best way to commemorate William Shakespeare the playwright, is for the nation to collectively agree to produce, perform, watch and teach LESS Shakespeare plays.
Shakespeare's huge body of work and the consensus of its artistic merit have made it too easy (laziness, fear and greed) for institutions from the government to educators to national theatres to theatre companies, from actors to the general public to invest in Shakespeare plays "show me something I'm familiar with so that I know I’ll be entertained."
Imagine if in the 1600’s audiences refused to see the latest play by Shakespeare because it was new and unknown “Do you fancy that new one, As You Like it?”
“nah, let’s go to a reading of The Franklin's Tale – you know what you’re getting from Chaucer.”
The force feeding of Shakespeare has reduced the playwright's power to provoke, excite, engage and challenge. It is a disservice to his work to bore and confuse teenagers forced to study his plays in class for English GCSE when the whole point of ‘plays’ is to see them 'played' (acted on stage) and yet GCSE drama exam boards are dropping the live show requirement*
This constant repetition of Shakespeare is lazy and harmful. We should not regurgitate our past or force it on our neighbours. It is both to the detriment of what art stands for and to the creation of new art.
Art should and must evolve. Take visual art movements. From the Renaissance to Mannerism, Baroque, Neoclassical, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Pop Art and Post-modernism - one thing art doesn't do is stand still.
Imagine Banksy forced to paint Romantic landscapes over and over because that's all audiences want to see. His outdoor anarchic stencils and sculptures have never existed because he can only create new versions of Constable watercolours. Because Romanticism never moved on we never had Tracey Emin, Barbara Hepworth, Damien Hirst or Antony Gormley…
We’re in a complicit cycle of cultural repetition that instead of making Britain Great is reducing the potential of having future great playwrights in Britain.
The only way for progression within these restricted circumstances involves being inventive with Shakespeare – from changing the time periods, sets and costumes to choosing how much (or how little) of the text to perform, from drunk Shakespeare, to one-person Shakespeare, outdoor Shakespeare to all female Shakespeare to gender reversed Shakespeare.
As much as I support all-female Shakespeare theatre companies like Smooth Faced Gentlemen, Manhattan Shakes, and all female productions like Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse and female Hamlets like Maxine Peake – and I know that making these gender changes were not straightforward and I think they should be celebrated – it only solves half of the problem.
It’s wrong for institutions from the government setting the curriculum to publically funded theatres to force Shakespeare’s body of work to be the dominant cultural currency of the UK.
And it is currency – William Shakespeare (and descendants) do not benefit financially from the consumerism of his work, nor do future Shakespeare’s - playwrights of today.
As arts funding continues to be hacked and dismembered we are reduced to solely Shakespeare – a reduction to our cultural heritage much in the way that Newspeak removed words from dictionaries in Nineteen Eighty Four (ironic that this is happening to a person who invented so many).
It’s my belief that we will never achieve gender equality in theatre if we continue producing Shakespeare plays at the current rate. I believe this for three reasons:
1 Gender Inequality in Playwrighting
17% or less than a fifth of theatre productions are written by women. Is it because less women than men write plays? or the more likely explanation that less women’s writing is chosen to be produced. Shakespeare plays are even removed from many calculations of analysing productions by the gender of playwrights because of the proliferation of his work.
2 Gender Inequality in Acting
Only 16% of the 981 characters Shakespeare wrote were female**. So we have female actors with less roles available to them than men, with less speaking parts and with only a sixth of the stage time and presence as men.
Given the prevalence of Shakespeare and that the majority of Shakespeare plays are still produced in a conventional fashion (as far as casting by gender is concerned), female actors will be unable to achieve gender equality on stage with men.
3 Gender Inequality in Shakespeare’s Characters (and the effect on modern audiences)
Female characters in Shakespeare. Their actions (and inactions) are shaping the young minds of today even if we caveat it with “that’s how it used to be”.
I have to preface these thoughts with - I am not an academic or scholar, I have not read all 37 of his plays and I am not an actor.
Juliet in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ her only ‘career’ option is to get married to a man chosen by her father & although it is a rebellious action to choose another man (Romeo) and get married in secret, she is so in love with Romeo that she forgives him for killing her cousin and she decides to kill herself (at only 14 years old) rather than to go on living when she finds Romeo dead (who has killed himself when he thinks that Juliet is dead).
Juliet’s actions reinforce unhealthy pressure on teenage girls to think they must have a boyfriend and if they don’t their lives have no meaning or purpose. Juliet is not a positive role model for teenage girls yet British teenagers are compelled to read this play at school.
Hermia in ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ is told by Duke Theseus that if she doesn’t marry who her father wants that she will either be killed or forced to become a celibate nun.
Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ who when spurned by her lover (Hamlet) and treated cruelly by him goes mad and kills herself.
Desdemona in ‘Othello’ is faithful and loving yet untrusted by her jealous insecure husband – Othello kills her when he is told that she’s been unfaithful.
Lady Macbeth is an ambitious woman, unable to have any career or success in her own right because of her gender, seeks to be the great woman behind the great man. Hers is a complex character yet the way she talks about her children "bash the brain of the babe that sucks her breast" implies that if you have ambition as a woman you cannot also be a good mother – if like the witches you operate outside the norms associated with your gender you become figures of hate, disgust, supernatural, feared – and a scapegoat for Macbeth’s evil deeds. A nagging wife. An ambitious wife – let that be a lesson to you for having hopes outside of your gender.
Similar case with Cleopatra in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ here we have a female leader but she can’t just be a competent female leader she has to be a seducer of men and cause men to lose their heads and battles and lives.
In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Beatrice says she doesn’t want to get married yet by the end of the play (a jolly comedy romance like a Richard Curtis film) Beatrice and Benedick get married.
‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is about subjugating and oppressing Katherine so that she becomes a submissive wife.
There are women who dress as boys – Rosalind in ‘As You Like it’ and Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ but they do this so that they can get closer (in disguise) to the men they love and revert back to women’s clothes when they get married.
Shakespeare plays are contemporary portrayals of women’s lives in all of the worst ways:
Teenage girls thinking they need to have a boyfriend (Romeo & Juliet)
Women feeling pressurised to get married (all the comedies)
Women suffering domestic violence (Othello, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew)
‘honour killings’ (Othello, threatened in ‘A Midsummer’s Nights Dream)
Women having little presence in the military, politics or power (King John, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, Richard III, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar
The few female leaders misuse power, are mad, bad or dangerous to know (Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth and King Lear.)
Would any Shakespeare play pass the Bechdel test? We’ll struggle to find a feminist role model in Shakespeare plays - who was writing over 400 years ago at a time when women had little or no legal rights or freedom.
How can we see more female protagonists on stage?
Instead of looking inwards, backwards and projecting this outwards - sending Hamlet to every country around the world (as The Globe theatre has done) why don’t we produce more plays by renowned foreign playwrights? Why don’t we produce more plays by historical female playwrights (like Aphra Behn?) why don’t we produce more new writing? Why don’t we teach a gender equal number of female playwright texts to GCSE & A’level students?
Shakespeare repetition is suffocating growth and I think if Shakespeare were alive today he’d say – “I’ve been dead 400 years – what’s new? What else have you got?”
I think he’d be disappointed.
(c) Wendy Thomson 2016 @topgirls
New artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre aims to get much greater proportion of women on the stage http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jan/05/shakespeares-globe-emma-ric...