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The comeback bard: A 400-year revival

Chris Armstrong. (Photo: Supplied)

Sometime in the 1990s, a strange thing happened. A slew of movies were released based on the works of someone who, at that point, had been dead over 370 years.

His name was William Shakespeare.

While he was no stranger to new interpretations of his works on-screen, it seemed that this really ramped up in the Nineties. There were screen adaptations of Richard III (1995), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999), As You Like It (1992), Twelfth Night (1996), and Romeo & Juliet (1996, starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio) just to name a few. Kenneth Branaugh, one of the preeminent actors of the decade, was in a bunch of them: Othello (1995), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and a four-hour version of Hamlet (1996), set in Victorian England.

Speaking of the Dane, two other adaptations of Hamlet appeared in the same year, 1990, one starring Mel Gibson, the other Kevin Kline.

On top of that, a bunch of movies were released that were based on Shakespeare’s works: there was the teen romp 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), based on The Taming of the Shrew; the animated The Lion King (1994), which had elements of the plot of Hamlet; and Looking for Richard (1996), which was basically Al Pacino walking around and getting advice on how to best portray the evil Richard III.

The freakiest one, in my opinion, was Titus (1999), based on one of Shakespeare’s most obscure and bloodiest plays, Titus Andronicus, and directed by Julie Taymor, the brilliant mind behind the Broadway version of The Lion King.

And then….it seemed like Shakespeare just sort of vanished. Sure, there have been other Shakespearean movies made in the last 23 years, but not nearly to the extent of the last decade of the 20th century. If the 1990s were the decade of “isn’t Shakespeare totally awesome?!” then the early-21st century was more like, “….meh…not so much.”

We did have other things on our minds, after all. The attack on the Twin Towers, the Iraq War, the economic collapse of 2008, the election of Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, just to name a few. So maybe there wasn’t a lot of willingness to give attention to some dead white guy who wrote some scripts that only a few people seem to understand – and most of them live in Britain anyway.

It would be a shame if this were the case. One of the main functions of art is to make sense of the world, and help the audience (or the viewer, or the reader) find meaning in it. Shakespeare wrote at a time when everything seemed to be changing very quickly. The old rules of “divine right of kings” were slowly being displaced by a rising mercantile class of self-made men (yes, mostly men) who were making a lot of money. Like any period of intense change, everything was in a confusing state of flux, and traditional categories were breaking down.

It is this political and cultural climate that Shakespeare explored, especially with his four main tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello. But in all his plays, the Big Themes are explored: the role of the individual vs. the role of the state; the injustices of a few people owning most of the wealth; the role of honour in society; and how love between men and women can lead either to true bliss, heartbreak, or unrequited passions. Sound familiar? (On that last point, keep in mind that only male actors were permitted on the Elizabethan stage, and Shakespeare did seem to be saying something with all the gender-bending in his plays.)

Perhaps we need a re-boot of Shakespeare to explain the world to us today. Maybe a Hamlet where Elsinore is the name of a giant tech company that continually surveils its customers? A Macbeth where the burning of Birnam Wood is the result of climate change released by an ambitious and merciless ruling class? Perhaps a version of Henry VIII exploring that king’s eerie similarities to Donald Trump?

Although, maybe Shakespeare is on the comeback path again, especially if the Lester Centre’s current theatre season is a guide. This weekend, the students of Charles Hays Secondary School will be performing Something Rotten, a play about two Elizabethan writers who are striving to make it in the shadow of some guy named William Shakespeare. And we have just finished up auditions for our production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare {Abridged}, which will be on our stage in April, 2024.

In both cases, the Bard is more of a target of mockery, but in a fun way. I like to think Shakespeare, who was reputedly a very nice man with a good sense of humour, would be a good sport about all this. Certainly, as a businessman working in the theatre industry, he’d appreciate the exposure.

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