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Shakespeare Retold for the 21st Century

in Current Issue/Views

by Jana Záhoráková

Shakespeare’s ideas explored by new generations of artists. By nblythe30. CC BY 4.0, pixabay.com.

In almost all of his works, Shakespeare himself made use of similar plotlines and stock characters in his plays, so it would probably not surprise him that we are still recycling his material today. Particular emphasis is placed on anything that can achieve the unappealing task of bringing his work closer to teenagers. In the quest to do this, the first step is often to get rid of the archaic language, which is a pity, since it was Shakespeare’s extraordinary use of language that made him stand out from the rest of his peers (Craig 62). Nonetheless people that create movies, plays and other forms of art often opt for keeping the plot, which is the least original part of the plays. This article will look more closely at some ways, in which writers have tried to bring the Bard closer to us all so far in this century.

The movies of the early 2000s

At the beginning of this century, an interesting series of movies came about. All for some inexplicable reason starring the actress Julia Stiles, and more importantly, all transferring the content of Shakespeare’s famous plays into high school environment to make it more enjoyable for teenagers by placing it into a setting of interest to them. Some of them follow the plot directly, others only lightly. The purpose of all of them is to bring the Bard closer to the young generations and they are good entertainment even if the person watching does not know the Shakespearean original.

10 Things I Hate About You / The Taming of the Shrew

Probably the most famous adaptation out of the three movies here, which is why it is going to be discussed here, even though it was made in 1999. It is very much worthy of the exception: it stars a young Heath Ledger and an even younger Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The high school environment is a good place for a romance, however tangled. It also makes the kind of obvious decision to make the Katherine character, Kat, a feminist. And a very angry feminist at that. She is angry about the immaturity of her peers (especially the boys), as well as her younger sister Bianca. 

The girls’ father, who is an obstetrician obsessed with the thought of his two daughters becoming teen moms, refuses the idea of dating. When he finally agrees to let Bianca go on a date, it is with the caveat that her older sister Kat, goes on one first. In order to secure a date for Kat, Cameron, Bianca’s admirer, convinces Joe, another admirer of Bianca, to pay an outsider, Patrick, to pursue Kat. This starts up a number of interactions that are both charming and funny – a very welcome combination for a romantic comedy. 

There is not as much ‘taming’ as in Shakespeare’s play, which would not play out very well in a story told in the present day. Instead, there are many humorous scenes, such as people blaming Kate’s bad attitude on PMS, Patrick and Kat playing paintball and the father forcing Bianca to wear an artificial pregnant belly before a date, and Cameron posing as a French tutor to Bianca, even though he does not speak a word of French, (which is inspired by the Shakespeare’s play) to name a few. The film is only loosely based on its Shakespearian original, so it seeks to strengthen the connection in other ways; Kat’s best friend is a minor character, who is in love with Shakespeare and the Renaissance culture and there is a homework assignment based on a Shakespearian sonnet number 141. It is this poem that Kat writes after finding out her boyfriend was paid to take her on dates that gives the name to the whole movie.

Kat is not much of a ‘shrew’ in the sense of a woman being violently temperament without a reason, even though she is often times called bitch. Rather, we see Kat grow from a non-conformist who despises the idea of romance to helplessly and in spite of herself in love. Kat can appear to be bitter (for reasons revealed later in the movie) but above all she is a young woman sick and tired of high school politics and lifestyle, eager to distance herself from such petty ways, she is dreaming about her future in a university far far away.

O / Othello

Again, the environment of high school seems very natural for a heightened sense of competition – especially in a sports team. In this case, it is basketball that substitutes war efforts and to the victor belong the spoils. There is also a prologue from Hugo (Josh Hartnett) (the character of Iago in the original), which doubles down as an epilogue as well, about flying – being jealous of birds; the name of the basketball team is Hawks and Hugo steals its mascot – a live hawk.

In the movie O, the soldiers from Othello are transformed into high school basketball players. By Mídia, CC BY 4.0, pexels.com.

Hugo is the son of coach Goulding (Martin Sheen), which makes him envy Odin’s (Mekhi Phifer) (the character of Othello in the original) success even more. Especially when during an awards ceremony at the school, the coach, touchingly claims to love Odin as if he were his own son. Already at the beginning, this teenage Iago has a lot more reasons to act out in the way he does than his model, although there is not much reasoning behind his wanting to kill Desi. The fact that Odin, after receiving his award, decides to thank Michael (Andrew Keegan) (the character of Cassio in the original), rather than Hugo, only accelerates the surfacing of his hateful feelings.

The poisonous remarks made by Hugo to Odin first culminate in a loveless first sex experience for Julia Stiles’ Desi that essentially turns into rape which Desi tries vehemently to justify. Among the updates are the heavily hip hop influenced soundtrack, Hugo taking steroids to keep up with the pressure of playing on the team. Even Odin opts for drugs when the jealousy situation reaches its height and he cannot sleep which affects his game.

There is a citation from Macbeth as a nice nod to another Shakespeare tragedy: during a class, a teacher remarks:I have given suck and know how tender tis to love the babe that milks me”(O 46:37). But this line by Lady Macbeth is only mentioned by a teacher in class and not referenced any further. 

The movie touches upon race but very superficially. Desi and Odin have a conversation about how Odin (the only black student at the school) can say the ‘n-word’ but Desi cannot, even though, as she says: “ [her] people invented the word” (O18:06). Even Hugo, in his attempts to spite Odin against Desi, invents the rumour that Michael and Desi called Odin “the nigger” behind his back (O 01:05:02).

Hamlet / Hamlet

Set in the dizzying frenzy of metropolitan New York, this movie keeps part of the original Shakespearean text and compensates with state-of-the-art technology. For example, Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), who is an art student in this version, uses diverse audio-visual tools to ponder his own destiny. Some of his soliloquies are intimately spoken to video recorders. During the opening no physical ghost appears on the scene, but Hamlet is haunted by previous recordings he has made of his father either alone or walking with his mother. Later, though, his friends alert him to the apparition walking around the premises of Denmark Corporation.

Throughout the film, Hamlet often wears a knitted hat with a black suit and solemnly frowns at the sight of his mother’s new-found happiness in a glistening limousine to the sound of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 In C Minor Op. 68. The famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” is prefaced by a monologue on TV by an Eastern monk talking about how people need other people to actually inter-be rather than be; that no one can be alone. Instead of staging a play, Hamlet presents a collage of old movies he has made titled The Mousetrap

The actors have the unenviable task of keeping their monologues and dialogues fresh in the modern environment and some manage this better than others. There is indeed some interesting casting in this movie; apart from Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Ethan Hawke as prince Hamlet, comedian Bill Murray plays the cunning Polonius, Liev Schreiber his son Laertes, Kyle MacLachlan the treacherous Claudius, Sam Shepard the King and Diane Venora his Queen. 

Some of the technology used onscreen is outdated in 2019. For example, Hamlet copies his death sentence from Claudius on a floppy disc and the fax is used twice as an important communications tool. Ophelia, stricken by madness after her father’s death, wandering aimlessly about, scattering polaroids symbolizing her memories about and then finally drowns herself with mementos of her love from Hamlet in a fountain in the lobby of the corporation. The final fight starts with swords, as in the original, but after two hits by Hamlet, Laertes pulls out a gun and shoots first Hamlet and then himself. Hamlet, dying, then uses this gun to kill Claudius.

Plays inspired by Shakespeare’s world

In the grand tradition of Edward Bond’s Lear and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the Royal Shakespeare Company regularly commissions young playwrights to create plays as if in conversation with Shakespeare (Burnett 251). Two of them will be discussed in some detail and then the rest will be mentioned in a brief survey.

David Greig’s Dunsinane

Dunsinane treats the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a piece of propaganda spread by Malcolm in order to recruit the British army in securing the Scottish throne for himself. Part of the propaganda are stories about Macbeth being an overtly despised tyrant, his wife committing a suicide, and the whole nation eagerly awaiting the return of Malcolm. Greig relies on real life facts about Macbeth, for example; the fact that he ruled for 20 years in Scotland at a time, when it was normal for kings to keep the throne for less than a year, the fact that his wife outlived him, and that she had a better claim to the throne. Grouch, as he refers to Lady Macbeth, plays a very important role. She is the main figurehead of the resistance against the British army. In reference to the famous scene with Lady Macbeth’s scarlet hands reddened by the blood of the murder she helps to commit, Siward looks at Grouch’s hands to check for the traces of her sin.

Lady Macbeth: “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh!” (Shakespeare) By it’s me neosiam, CC BY 4.0, pexels.com.

In portraying the civil war in Dunsinane, Greig draws a parallel with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the propaganda being the story of weapons of mass destruction and the character of Siward, introduced at the end of Macbeth, a well-meaning Englishman caught in a conflict he can barely handle. According to Greig, he plays a role similar to Tony Blair’s. His inability to understand the culture of the occupied country makes him desperate to end the conflict. His desperation will lead him to stray more and more from his morale principles. 

Coupled with the high-stakes game of war politics is the simple survival of the young soldiers stranded in an inhospitable wasteland with nothing but enemies surrounding them. Greig concentrates, apart from the higher-level politics, on the lives of these young soldiers. From how badly they are accommodated to the new situation they find themselves in. In order to emphasise how dispensable these soldiers are (they don’t even have names in the play and their dialogue is marked with a dash in the script). Even Siward’s own son dies in the war. Greig explained in an interview that when he was considering the inspiration of the war in Afghanistan, he realised that the soldiers in the Shakespeare’s play had very similar conditions when attacking the tribal and barren landscape similar to that of Scotland, so he decided to play with and extend this parallel. 

There is a shift in the title from personal Macbeth to spatial or geographical Dunsinane. Greig has mentioned how he was always a little bit dissatisfied with the fact that the most famous Scottish play was written by an Englishman, so he decided to correct this by rewriting it according to his own will.

Roy Williams’ Days of Significance

This play is very loosely based on Much Ado About Nothing. It takes place in the 21st century. It is very popular with young people because of the use of some strong language and the overall perception of youth culture. The main message of the play is that we cannot expect boys who are in their early twenties and were brought up in a whirlwind of parties and drinking benders to act morally in a tough situation that war can bring into their lives. 

The first act depicts a typical night out for the boys before they leave for Iraq, drinking heavily on the streets, chasing a police woman, and singing Britney Spears’s and Robbie Williams’s songs which were outdated even in 2007 when the play debuted .There is a lovely dialogue from two lovers playing off of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedic or Ben and Trish.

The second part is a lot more intense. It is a scene from their lives abroad. At first, there is a Skype call between Ben and Trish, interrupted repeatedly by the other soldiers in the barracks. One of them gives a report: “now don’t you go around worrying, UK, we are looking out for your interests here, on the side of the angels, telling the Arabs to their faces, yeah ʻOi, we’re British, behave yerselves!ʼ” (Williams 50). Thus summarising the feelings of the soldiers unanimously. They think they are fighting on the right side and that authorises them to do anything to their enemies. Williams lets the audience see the boys in their natural habitat first so that the viewers can judge them accordingly, fully understanding their background before they went to war.

Williams is a black author and in an article, he mentioned how he purposefully decided not to make any of the young soldiers black because the death of a young person is equally disturbing to him whether it happens in a warzone far away or in a ghetto nearby. There is a sergeant who is black and therefore is prone to be disobeyed by the young boys.

The last part is a look back at what the boys have done in the war. Similarly, to Dunsinane, the emphasis here is on the young soldiers and the ways they deal with life situations, which is not always the way the society and their closed ones might expect.

There is also an interesting shift in the title from the carefree Much Ado About Nothing to the days the boys are being raised significant because they shape their views on the world.

Other plays commissioned by the RSC

Not all the plays commissioned by the RSC became as popular as the two previous examples. There is also Dennis Kelly’s The Gods Weep which combines the plot from King Lear story with the modernized environment of big business and global economic crisis which escalates into a civil war. Unfortunately in the words of the playwright, the work itself made for a very messy play. Not even the solemnity of Jeremy Irons in the main role could help this. Another play is Rona Munro’s Indian Boy which selects the Indian boy that Oberon and Titania argue over in A Midsummer’s Night Dream and follows his story in a world continuously threatened by environmental issues (Burnett 251). Leo Butler’s One of These Days, or as it was later renamed I’ll Be The Devil, is a reaction to The Tempest and takes places in a British-occupied Ireland in 1775 and presents a very dark take on a love story (Burnett 251). Regime Change by Peter Straughan reworks Julius Caesar into a wickedly dark comedy set in contemporary Istanbul and stretching one passage in the Shakespeare’s play into several years (Burnett 251).

Shakespeare meets Twitter

The RSC, apart from commissioning new plays, has also enlisted the power of social media and the digital product agency called Mudlark in order to bring the Bard closer to the younger generations. In an online event in 2010, the RSC transmitted Romeo and Juliet via Twitter posts and YouTube vlogs as a real life occurrence. It also enabled the actors to communicate directly with the audience. It took some four thousand tweets and five weeks to complete. It involved Julia dreaming about meeting her own Cullen (Edward Cullen from the Twilight series), Mercutio calling the Capulets the c-word and alluding to using his right hand as a date instead of a large-breasted girl who declines him. The whole extravaganza played out on the website www.suchtweetsorrow.com which is now unfortunately disabled. Or perhaps it was too intense and too inarticulate. As Charlotte Higgins puts it, it is improbable that Romeo and Juliet would be so stupid and paraded their secret love affair on Twitter of all places.


Photo by Ľubomíra Tomášová.

Jana Záhoráková

Jana is excited to be a brand-new member of the Re:Views crew. She enjoys watching movies and a number of TV series as well as, swimming and travelling. She had previously  attempted to study English and American Literature in Prague but did not succeed and enjoys the friendly student atmosphere here in Brno. She is a combined student so when she is not reading or sleeping (her two favourite pastimes), she is working away in an office doing administrative work.

 



Works Cited

10 Things I Hate About You. Directed by Gil Junger, Touchstone Pictures, 31 March 1999.

Burnett, Mark Thornton, et al., editors. The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts. Edinburgh University Press, 2011. 

Craig, Hugh. “Shakespeares Vocabulary: Myth and Reality.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 1, 2011, pp. 53–74., doi:10.1353/shq.2011.0002.

Greig, David. Dunsinane. Faber Drama, 2010.

Hamlet. Directed by Michael Almereyda, Miramax Films, 12 May 2000.

O. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, Daniel Fried Productions, Chickie the Cop and Dimension Films, 31 Aug. 2001

Williams, Roy. Days of Significance. Methuen Drama, 2007.

 

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