Arts and Culture

Really, Why Is Shakespeare Still Selling?

Blasphemous question, I know. But help me here. Why aren't more bored by the Bard?

By Steve Burgess 25 Aug 2011 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture and travel for The Tyee.

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Never out of fashion, he keeps pulling them in.

Long before the sun sets on a beautiful summer evening in Vancouver's Vanier Park, Bard on the Beach is already underway. Tonight it's The Merchant of Venice on the main stage and Richard III in their smaller venue, but there's plenty of pre-show activity. Concessions are bustling and, in satellite tents, dinner service is finishing up for corporate clients treating staff and guests to an evening of cultural entertainment. Twenty-two years into its life, Christopher Gaze has transformed Bard on the Beach into a remarkable success. It's really quite a puzzle.

That's not to disparage the efforts of Gaze and his team -- quite the opposite. They have defied the odds to create a durable theatrical enterprise that has enriched the Vancouver art scene and provided invaluable opportunities for the local thespian community. It's just surprising, is all. By rights Shakespeare ought to be a very tough sell in the 21st century. And The Merchant of Venice has always been the toughest bauble to peddle.

In some ways The Merchant of Venice feels remarkably contemporary. With its blend of frothy romantic mix-up and life-or-death drama, it's a template for the modern date movie. And if your date hates Jews, all the better.

Shakespeare's plays are always lauded for their timeless quality, which is why Shylock makes so many Shakespeareans squirm. Any production of Merchant must tiptoe over the same eggshells, making sure that Shylock is sympathetically portrayed to balance his dramatic role as the unchristian villain. (Casting is crucial, and Bard on the Beach's Richard Newman does the role credit.) Defenders of the play and its author point to the famous, plaintive speech in which the Jewish moneylender pleads for the humanity of his despised minority -- "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" There's little doubt that Shakespeare was ahead of his time with his well-rounded and sometimes sympathetic portrayal of Shylock.

But there's only so much we can expect of Shakespeare. The man never knew he would someday come to be the global face of the humanities. He just knew he had an audience to please. And for me the proof of the play's attitude comes at the end of the trial, with Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity. No late 16th-century crowd would have groaned aloud at the hateful injustice of it, as the Vanier Park audience did. The scene was surely intended as a crowd-pleaser -- the long-anticipated payoff when the villain finally gets his deliciously just desserts (delivered, tellingly, by the wise, virtuous, utterly un-villainous Portia). It was only in the early 19th century that actor Edmund Keane is said to have played the first sympathetic version of Shylock -- previously the role was frequently cast with clowns.

Huh? What did they say?

Merchant may be the trickiest of Shakespeare's plays for a modern audiences. But unless your scholastic studies are fresh in your mind or you are a lifelong admirer of the Globe's resident playwright, any Shakespeare play can be a grind. Saying so will not win you points at a dinner party or literary bun toss. But how could it be otherwise? These are plays written in a language only half understood by untutored 21st century audiences -- and the necessary tutoring is nowhere near as common now as it was a half-century ago.

Universities in North America have moved away from mandatory study of the Shakespearean canon, part of a general dethroning of Western literary tradition. That's a three-hour argument in itself, but the upshot is that knowledge of Shakespeare is no longer a given for post-secondary graduates. I suspect there is a sizable minority of university students whose clearest knowledge of Shakespeare is that he slept with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Movies have arguably become the primary Shakespearean medium for mass audiences (Shakespeare in Love not included). Cinema allows greater visual freedom to demonstrate and underline the meaning of Shakespeare's words and amplify the action of his plays. Some movies and plays take the West Side Story approach and hang a new work on the Shakespearean frame. That can work but it can also fall flat -- Shakespeare is after all more renowned for his words and his characters than for his borrowed plots. But then 10 Things I Hate About You surely found a larger and younger audience than a film called Taming of the Shrew would have done.

For stage productions like Bard on the Beach, the challenge is to keep an audience engaged rather than frustrated. New flourishes must be added to keep things fresh and, perhaps, keep audiences from wondering what the hell that joker was blathering on about just then. Some sections are cut. Even a faithful Shakespearean company like this one knows not to push its luck -- one sequence involving a comic character Launcelot and his long-lost father Gobbo is mercifully skipped over here.

Thou dost grab thy crotch too much

The Bard production of Merchant is set in the 1870s and begins with characters Salarino and Salanio (Shawn McDonald and David Marr) singing contemporary Italian arias, which is a lovely bit of embellishment. Many productions underline the bawdy humour of the plays, this version included, with crotch-grabbing and leering inserted here and there. But the plays were witty too, and much of that wit simply does not come through without knowledge of late 16th-century English. So the broad physical humour can seem forced -- compensation for the audience's incomprehension.

Still, the performance of The Merchant of Venice closed with long and hearty applause. If I suggest that Shakespeare is a tough sell, 22 summers in Vanier Park are there to gainsay my argument. In the cool night air with a glimpse of English Bay visible behind the stage, Gaze's players will continue to hold a mirror up to nature for many summers to come. All's well that ends well.  [Tyee]

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