Shakespeare in Context

by George Hatjoullis

The announcement that Emma Rice’s tenure as artistic director of the Globe Theatre is to be terminated has created something of a furore (especially from my eldest son, a postgraduate student and intern at the Globe). The Globe was created as a physical space that replicates, as far as possible, the conditions in which Shakespeare would have staged his plays. Rice’s use of modern lighting and sound clearly goes beyond replication. The board judge this is too much of a deviation from the original vision of the Globe.

In one sense the board are correct. One does not need a replica of the Globe in order to use modern technology to stage the plays. They could be staged at the O2 if one wished to be fully contemporary. This offers scope for a mass audience, a cascade of light and sound, and a huge screen on which to project the action. I am surprised such venues have not been used to stage some traditional art forms in a modern context. Perhaps there is no demand or perhaps no one has sufficient imagination to create such demand.

One wonders what Shakespeare would have made of the furore. The function of theatre at the turn of the 16th Century was quite different to its social function today. Shakespeare wrote in a functional context closer to that of Ancient Greek theatre than modern theatre. There was a stronger political role.The physical replication of the context in which his plays were performed, while interesting and good for tourism, contributes comparatively little to our understanding of the plays. Their enduring value lies in the space that they provide into which contemporary meaning can be interjected. They are thus rendered relevant to every age and quite timeless.

The Merchant of Venice provides an interesting example. If you click the link it will take you to a blog that I wrote some time ago highlighting the way this play anticipates some modern financial theory, and modern financial crises. Yet, it is mostly famous for its alleged anti-Semitism. It is not difficult to see how this play could be read as anti-semitic and perhaps this is what Shakespeare intended. Oddly, when I first read the play I read it as an attack on anti-semitism not an expression of it. It demonstrated (to me) how the constant oppression and alienation of a minority can result in self-destructive vindictiveness. It was an attack on the oppressors not the oppressed. But this is a very modern reading.

One need only look at the incidence of mental illness amongst minorities to get some sense of the modern relevance of this interpretation. It may have even wider significance. The minority that probably interested Shakespeare was not, however, the Jewish population, but rather Catholics in England. Shakespeare’s plays often resonate with the tension between Catholics and Protestants that we know existed at the time. Was this not intentional? It is certainly in keeping with the political nature of theatre in Ancient Greece.

Shakespeare was also an entertainer and theatre was as important in entertainment as TV is today. Just as many TV dramas and Soaps draw on contemporary social and political themes so did Shakespeare, but he still needed bums on seats to make a living. I would hazard a guess that artistic merit mattered less to Shakespeare than bums on seats. He wanted to play to packed houses not a few discerning patrons (unless of course those discerning patrons paid a premium price). The Globe theatre is not very big and can probably ensure full capacity by promoting an ‘authentic’ space with tourism alone. It does not need to be innovative and indeed, in sacking Emma Rice, is making a virtue of not being innovative. Innovation and modern technology can be applied to stage Shakespeare in other venues. But this diminishes the Globe, reducing it to the level of a medieval reenactment  in the grounds of some crumbling castle. Is this what Sam Wanamaker intended?

Some of my visits to the Globe have been at night and I have noticed the use of electric lighting. Modern technology has already intruded. We are now arguing about to what degree it should intrude. This seems a trite and pointless debate. If the entertainment experience can be enhanced modern technology is worth considering. If the meaning and richness of the plays can also be enhanced then it is a must. We must be careful when trying to preserve and retain authenticity not to fossilize the past.