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Wherefore Art Thou Messing With Shakespeare?

A perennial topic of discussion among lovers of English literature is the unique appeal of William Shakespeare. What is it about Shakespeare that has kept his productions popular for over 400 years? Is it his language? Is it his imagination? Is it his appeal to experiences and feelings fundamental to the human experience? No! Judging from recent trends in the production of his works, Shakespeare has remained popular because his writing is easy to understand, because creative directors have struggled to make his plays more "accessible".

Examples of "accessible" Shakespeare are not hard to find. Among the more recent adaptations is the movie version of Romeo and Juliet starring Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio as star-crossed lovers wearing tacky clothes, driving fast cars, shooting guns and shouting at people in chopped up iambic pentameter. I can't help feel that something was lost in the translation. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but does it really mean the same thing when its new name is goddam mother-fucking rose, dude?

Just last night, I walked out of an accessiblized version of The Taming of the Shrew. The director had the characters wearing zoot suits and swing dancing as they learned how to play the lute and discussed their plans to win the dowries of fair maidens. The first act was chock full of kicking and stomping signifying nothing. Although the cast had been carefully instructed in a variety of swing dance moves, no one had bothered to teach them how to act. If I had wanted to be In the Mood, I would have gone to a drive-in movie. Give me my money back, Kate.

Why is it necessary to keep bringing Shakespeare up to date? Of course he's behind the times - he's been dead for hundreds of years. Everyone knows that it's embarrassing when old folks try to act like they're still young. Grandpa doesn't need a nose ring, and Shakespeare doesn't need to learn about modern love. Shakespeare was with it in his own times and has influenced style and language for generations. It's the strength of his words and the ideas, not prom-theme costuming, that has kept his work popular. The play's the thing.

On the other hand, perhaps I protest too much. Maybe people really do need to have Shakespeare's works updated according to a current cultural context to compensate for the fact that he uses funny old words. Maybe his plays do indeed need a contemporary soundtrack. In fact, I have a couple ideas of my own to help today's crowd figure out all those old tales told by an idiot:

  1. Much Ado About Nothing - Some kids go to the mall after school and flirt and gossip about each other a lot. Britnney Spears comes by in the middle and rides the carousel, dancing on top of a blue horse and singing about boys.

  2. Midsummer Night's Dream - After watching Ally McBeal, an out-of-work actor falls asleep and dreams that Calista Flockhart can act. Then, he tries to eat spaghetti and meatballs while riding a bicycle in the woods. He wakes up feeling like a real ass.

  3. Othello - OJ! Enough said.

  4. Hamlet - This great dane gets really depressed because his owner has a new boyfriend and doesn't take him on very many walks. He gets in trouble for biting the mailman and contemplates suicide for awhile, but then a perky Cocker Spaniel on the canine suicide hotline tells him about how to get a hold of veterinary antidepressants and he learns how to wag his tail again.

  5. Twelfth Night At Studio 54 in the waning days of the disco era, some old college friends experiment with gender identities, drink cocktails and shake their booties.

  6. The Merchant of Venice Beach - Tony took a big loan to buy some really great weed, but how to sell it? He starts up herb4you.com, with cut-rate prices and next day delivery. Hilarious consequences ensue!

I know this leaves a lot of ground to cover, so if you've got any bright ideas for accessible adaptations of Shakespeare, let me know. What about Julius Caesar set after the end of the Civil War...




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