Does William Shakespeare have a place in the contemporary world? Over 400 years after their creation Shakespeare’s works are still held in the highest regard. His plays are taught, read and performed around the world, but is it merely because we think that they should be or because they are truly great?
I pondered this question as I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Novello Theatre. I thought back on all of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve seen live.
For some cynics it is easy to dismiss Shakespeare as tired and dated. Some may say his plays are predictable and follow a formula. His comedies all have the same elements, as do his histories and tragedies. There is truth in this, but it wasn’t the plot elements that what made Shakespeare great, but the insights and language.
Ah yes, the language, to some dense and seemly incomprehensible. No one talks like that today, so why should we listen? No one talked like that even in Shakespeare’s time. His use of words made dry language poetic and lyrical. His phrasings and most famous quotes have become part of the cultural lexicon.
Shakespeare managed to tap into the universalities of humanity. His works have stuck around because whether it is through drama or comedy he struck nerves that still reverberate today. Many of his observations on love, relating and people are as true today as they were when they were first written.
Once, during a performance of “Othello” I felt the air be sucked out of a room as an entire audience gasped when Othello strangled Desdemona. That is a testament to the raw power of Shakespeare’s work.
In the case of my most recent venture into Shakespeare the entire audience was laughing long and hard at the antics of the mischievous fairy Puck, an inept acting group and the assortment of other characters in perhaps Shakespeare’s oddest play. Yet behind all the foolery, Shakespeare laid a wry satire on class, love and theatre itself.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, like most new productions of Shakespeare, was given a contemporary setting. It is almost as if directors fear that audiences won’t connect with the material otherwise.
Although updating the material, while keeping the original language results in some awkward references that don’t fit in present day, when done right it can prove very clever. It further shows the versatility and relevance of Shakespeare’s work.
Shakespeare knew his audience was a mix of low and high class and he played to each accordingly. His comedies would feature sophisticated play on words and witty banter as well as slapstick, physical comedy. This is what made Shakespeare work then and it is what makes him work today.