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January 19, 2012


Don Z. Block

It is difficult to get the play Shakespeare wrote partly because Shakespeare is not a modern man, and directors fear that modern audiences lack the imagination to suspend disbelief and accept what Shakespeare and his audience probably did. When Hamlet bemoans the fact that he must be both minister and scourge, I think he is talking about being the instrument of the angels and the devil. If he is the first, he is doing the right thing. If he is the second, he is tainting his soul. Such an idea works today only if one is watching a flick like The Exorcist. When Macbeth soliloquizes about life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he sounds like a modern man in a Camus novel, but to Shakespeare’s audience, he probably inspired horror: here is a man who is truly damned, one who will suffer unspeakable, hellish horrors after he dies.
For similar reasons, it bothers me that so many directors think they have to perform Shakespeare in modern dress to make him understandable to a modern audience. Does that not insult the audience? I can still recall the climactic scene from Olivier’s Merchant of Venice where Shylock in a fairly modern courtroom begins sharpening his knife as he prepares, right there in the courtroom, to remove a pound of flesh from the merchant. And isn’t Shylock’s forced conversion a happy ending since he will now be humanized by the mercy found only in the true faith, one that strongly resembles Shakespeare’s Anglo-Catholicism? And how can one pretend that the ghosts in Hamlet are not really there? And how can one make sense out of King Lear unless one accepts the notion of a Great Chain of Being? A king must remain a king! He cannot give away his kingdom and expect order.
Shakespeare is more than interesting when we are experiencing Shakespeare, but it is painful to experience what a director does to him when that director thinks that he, not the play, is the thing.

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