If you know me at all, you will know that I love Shakespeare. I am one of the biggest theatre nerds you will ever meet, and I particularly adore anything that was penned by the great Bard himself. His plays really are wonderful, and honestly hilarious once you can learn to think in Elizabethan English. I can never quite decide on a favourite as there are too many to choose from, but I generally enjoy the comedies the most – particularly As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Taming of the Shrew.
One of the big questions that many people ask to this day, however, is why do we still like Shakespeare? Or rather, why do we still know about him and his works? Why haven’t his scripts and poems died off by now? It’s been 400 years after all, surely we shouldn’t have a clue who he is? So why do we?
What’s interesting is that we keep coming back to him. We keep returning to him and his work and people never get mad about it. I am the first person to stand up and talk about how much I hate the current Hollywood trend of remakes and sequels of classic films from years ago, as well as TV Network’s insistence of dragging out shows for season after contrived season. It may be slightly controversial, but I’m a big advocate for letting content die a natural death. Yes, your film/ tv series etc was good at the time, but don’t drag it back into a remake or sequel 10 years after the fact unless you have a really good idea that is actually worth it. While a bit off topic, The Incredibles 2 is a perfect example of this – there was a long period of time between the first and second film, however the story they wrote and presented was very interesting and a refreshing take on the original which made the film and story worth revisiting. But to just regurgitate the same content over and over again just gets boring.
With Shakespeare, however, we generally seem to have a different attitude – we’re always all for it. I always get excited to hear there’s a new production of Shakespeare play. Or a new film based on its works, or really anything to do with Shakespeare. It’s interesting to see what spin they’ll put on the story this time, whether it’s a famous tale like Romeo and Juliet, or a lesser known play like The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s also fun to see different actors’ interpretations of characters. I personally love seeing how they have interpreted the texts themselves as well them putting their own spin on the famous speeches – like when David Tennant played Hamlet and completely nailed the “To be or not to be” speech.
In my opinion, the reason the Bard’s plays are so popular for the media is because a Shakespeare play acts a blank canvas. Yes, there’s story and yes, he gives you the characters and the setting and all that malarkey. However, you can do pretty much whatever you want with it. For example, I once directed a production of The Comedy of Errors; one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays about two brothers separated at birth who end up in the same town with hilarious mis-identification ensuing. The plot is standard Shakespearean fare; lots of bawdy jokes and general slapstick comedy that we played on when performing it. However, we decided to set it in a circus, with each of the characters representing a different circus act – Antipholus as a lion tamer, Luciana as a bearded lady and so on. As crazy as it sounds, with the right costumes and aesthetic staging it completely worked. You can pretty much do whatever you want with a Shakespeare play and it’ll turn out great. It’s even done by the professionals, with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s designs always being a bit out there and wacky – and I really love seeing what they come up with.
You can even completely reinvent them. For example, a lot of great rom-coms and “Chick flicks” have been based on Shakespeare plays. There’s She’s the Man, about a girl trying to prove that she can play football just as well as a guy can by impersonating her brother at college, is based on Twelfth Night; Ten Things I Hate About You; about a guy who pays another guy to take out an angry feminist so he can go out with her sister (and is one of my favourite Shakespeare adaptation films, nay favourite films ever) is based on The Taming of the Shrew. It’s easy to take the stories, characters and themes out of their 16th century setting and plonk them into a modern day without a second thought. Sure, you’ve got to change the language and the style (unless that’s what you’re going for – looking at you, Baz Lurhmann) but otherwise you can take your pick of settings and go wild. It’s even fairly easy to get the meaning of the language across to the audience now; many words in the English language originated from him so once you scratch off the old words it’s simple to follow. Will was a bugger for making up words, and an even worse bugger for innuendo, so if a teenager actually sat down and read one, they’d love it! I’ve always said that you could set most of his work in an American high school and no one would be able to tell. I mean, look at The Lion King! One of Disney’s most famous and beloved films is based on Hamlet. You heard right. Hamlet. With lions! If you can set one of his plays on the Serengeti, you can pretty much set them anywhere.
Of course, a lot of people are put off by Shakespeare as they are quite hard to read due to the previously mentioned language barrier. I struggle with paying attention sometimes and I adore the things, so I completely understand why someone new to reading them would be put off. But there are resources that can help with that, for example seeing it live can help with aspects of the story. But even better, read synopses before you see them. Wikipedia, despite its flaws, is a great resource for basic plot lines – it’s always the first place I go when I start a new play. Or there is an amazing website called No Fear, Shakespeare – I believe it’s a part of SparkNotes– which has basically translated a lot of Shakespeare’s most famous plays into modern language, making it so easy to absorb. Not all of his works are on there, but definitely enough to get you started.
So, in conclusion, why do we still like Shakespeare? Why do we still love and watch or read his plays…?
In short, it’s because they’re good. And you’d be hard pressed to find me anything better.