21 January 2007

Whatever Would Shakespeare Think?

That’s the question my mother’s been asking about tonight’s viewing on the ABC. They’ve been screening a British series called Shakespeare Retold, which began with Macbeth set in a restaurant kitchen followed byMuch Ado About Nothing in a television newsroom. Tonight it was The Taming of the Shrew transposed to the political arena. Since I quite enjoy modernisations, and since Waking the Dead had been canned in favour of the cricket, I decided to check it out. I read the play in Year Twelve English, where we also watched the Elizabeth Taylor film adaptation and the modern teenage version 10 Things I Hate About You, and I was interested to see what other permutation the screenwriters could come up with.

I’ll probably never stop marvelling at the number of variations upon a Shakespeare it’s possible to create. The bare bones of the original were all there: A shrewish spinster, a beautiful younger sister who rids herself of an unwanted suitor by promising to marry when Katherine does, and a Petruchio left contemplating marrying money after his father was so inconsiderate as to die and leave him nothing. But Katherine was a potential opposition leader who needed to improve her image, Bianca was one of those famous-for-being-famous types, and Petruchio was, to quote his best mate, an unstable, unbalanced exhibitionist. Shakespeare would have recognised it, though I doubt he envisioned his leading man as an occasionally-cross-dressing earl. But then that’s the fun of such modernisations: Seeing how far the story can be stretched while still keeping something of the original.

The purists might think it’s a sacrilege, but I think of it as highly complimentary to Shakespeare and his work. It’s a tribute to the quality of his plots that they’re still seen as worthy of telling and retelling. And it’s a tribute to his characters that we can still relate to them after four hundred years, and fit them so easily into any number of settings.

Any author would be enormously pleased just to have their work persist for four centuries in the original form. I’d be thrilled enough to write something that would last four decades. But to have your work not only endure, but to remain so relevant that events and characters can be plucked out and deposited in the present day and the story still ring true, is surely an even greater honour. I like to think that Shakespeare would be happy to see that his plays are still performed, in whatever manner; and that they are considered significant enough to update.

Of course, his opinion of the casting of Heath Ledger could be an entirely different matter.

1 comment:

  1. I have read so little Shakespeare--just what we had to read in school, which wasn't much. I am hoping to read some plays this year and then watch them--my library has quite a few different adaptations of them. I think he would be pretty flattered to know they are still so popular and in so many variations.


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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776