Whither the Shakespeare purist?

Merchant of Venice
Detail of Byron Company photograph. showing a production of The Merchant of Venice starring Jacob P. Adler. New York : [s.n., late 19th or early 20th century] ART File A237 no.3 PHOTO (size M)
Are you that mythical creature known as a “Shakespeare purist”? Neither am I!

I’m not even sure I know what it means, but I ask because it’s a phrase I’ve suddenly begun hearing again and I thought the idea of Shakespearean ‘purity’ was something we didn’t take seriously any more. (It’s also possible the idea never went away and I’m only now noticing it and taking the time to think about it.) Surely Shakespeare purists don’t believe there’s only one “pure” way to perform Shakespeare, do they?

Or maybe they do. Last summer, after a performance of Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival set in the world of a contemporary army, with guns and muscly men interacting in relatively realistic military environments, I overheard a patron say to his friend, “Do you remember the scene in the weight room?” Then, without missing a beat, he answered his own question, “Of course not! There is no scene in Othello set in a weight room!” [Italics very much his.] He might well have been joking, and I hope he was because as a criticism it seems silly, akin to saying “Do you remember the scene where the female character was played by an actual woman? Of course not! Shakespeare didn’t write female characters to be played by actual women!

Then last fall, I overheard audience members at two different theaters use the P-word to contextualize their response to Shakespeare productions. In each instance — after Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and my own production of Twelfth Night at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company — I heard two different audience members say to their companions essentially the same thing: “I’m usually a purist, but I really liked this.” I didn’t have the presence of mind to approach the speakers and ask them to clarify what they meant (and as the director of one of them it would have been wildly inappropriate), but it seems like they could mean any number of things. What is a person who self-identifies as a purist actually saying?

  • “I usually like four-hour Shakespeare but this is fun, too, I guess.” Or,
  • “I insist Shakespeare be done by all-male companies wearing authentic late 16th-century or early 17th-century costumes.” Or,
  • “For god’s sake, Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t supposed to actually be funny!” Or,
  • “She didn’t take a breath on that comma! The key to understanding Shakespeare is in the punctuation!” Or,
  • “I miss lutes.”

The term seems to mean different things to different people, but am I right in thinking that a person whose first response is to announce they’re a purist is struggling to articulate a complicated reaction to something they’ve seen? In that case, using the P-word is sort of wonderful: They’ve always expected Shakespeare to be done one way, and the production they’ve just seen is causing them to recalibrate their reaction and expectation.

Peter Holland, the McMeel Family Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Notre Dame and since 2017 the chair of the International Shakespeare Association, is a man you would think would wear a badge of Shakespeare purity quite proudly, but this is not the case. In an episode of my Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, Peter explained that when he asks his students to write about Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, several of them will inevitably say something like,

“‘Shakespeare professors hate this film.’ And I say to them, ‘Find one. Give me some evidence.’ They assume we dislike it because it’s exciting and modern and MTV and all the rest of it. In fact, we love it precisely because it’s like that, because it’s finding its own immediacy.”

There certainly may be exceptions — pedants who believe Shakespeare is complicated and difficult to understand except under the finest teaching and most rigorous study and dammit, that’s what makes him great! — but generally I think Peter’s correct that it’s exciting when young people discover Shakespeare in their own way. It’s ironic that Shakespeare’s language, his stories, and his characters are so much a part of our cultural DNA, while — at the same time — some people’s fear of him and dread of reading him when he’s assigned or seeing a production of one of his plays seems similarly encoded. Shakespeare comes with so much baggage he feels pre-judged: People know they’re supposed to feel a very certain way about him because at some point a teacher or parent or a pop-cultural reference told them they should.

Users of the P-word are confessing they’ve pigeon-holed Shakespeare, thinking he can only be this when in fact he can also be this. In the same interview, Peter Holland went on to say that one of the reasons Shakespeare “matters,” is that the plays are “infinitely transformable…Shakespeare isn’t everywhere the same; everywhere he’s different, and that’s what’s so exciting.” Self-proclaimed “purists” are also revealing something delightful: They’re admitting they’ve been startled by something that speaks to them in a way they’re not expecting, and that they still have the capacity for surprise. Shakespeare has been made new.

I have to believe Shakespeare was always trying to surprise his audience, to give them what they want and tell them a familiar story but with unexpected detail and depth. It’s what we should be doing too. If a Shakespeare production doesn’t engage its audience emotionally because it’s too wrapped up in expressing an agenda, too focused on theme at the expense of character, or too concerned with presenting an old-fashioned kind of production because that’s the way they’ve seen it done or think that’s the way Shakespeare is “supposed” to be done, then I think it’s failed.

Holy moly. Turns out I too am a Shakespeare purist.


  • Personally, I don’t mind how people treat Shakespeare to make him more immediate to modern audiences,
    but I think we should remember that Shakespeare was first and foremost a poet, and I feel that to change the language not only changes the plot but also the meaning.
    So why call it Shakespeare at all?
    We may as well change some of the notes in a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue in order to make the harmony or notes more appealing to modern audiences or indeed easier to play ( it’s been done anyway ).
    I just feel that we don’t take the time these days to think about the language which to my mind is the only really beautiful thing about these plays.
    The plots are sometimes daft, the historical backgrounds politically manoeuvred, but the language and the meter often give us a real understanding of the characters psychology – Shakespeare was brilliant at understanding that.
    The language also takes us on a fascinating journey into 16th century culture, religious and superstitious beliefs, costume and politics etc.
    I feel that to change the language in order to make Shakespeare accessible to modern audiences is to admit that we don’t have the time or the will to look at language and love it.

  • Perhaps it’s a testament to the way that Shakespeare is part of the DNA of modern theatre that so many people who have no desire to direct or act in any plays have directorial concepts of Shakespeare’s plays living in their own heads, and everything else is somehow inadequate.

  • Excellent column. I love Shakespeare, as well as Tolkien. I run into a similar theme when dealing with the latter: I wrote a book on Middle-earth politics, based on Tolkien’s books–NOT the movies–and have been accused of folks who have only seen the latter of being a “Tolkien purist.” This criticism seems to me that I look first (and foremost) to the writer’s canon as authoritative. Guilty as charged, since that person actually created the work(s) in question. Mutatis mutandis, the same applies to the Bard–thus I disagree that his plays are “infinitely transformable.” They are certainly transformable in that many of them can be set in time periods other than Elizabethan England (or ancient Rome), of course. But some (post?)modern presentations of Shakespeare just go off the rails and lose the gist of the play. At least this “purist” thinks so. I welcome responses! And again, thank you for this article.

  • I was teaching at a comprehensive school in a poor industrial area and took them to Theatre Clwyd in North Wales to see The Taming of the Shrew, it was staged as a boxing match. The very working class loved it and, to my surprise asked for more Shakespeare. We took them to the Theatre in Chester and saw Romeo and Juliet another success, but not as spectacular as the boxing match.

  • Give me liberty in Shakespeare’s plays! I’ve seen Lear take place in the Congo (worked!), Midsummer’s with the fairies cavorting on bungee cords suspended from the ceiling (really worked!), and Romeo and Juliet on roller skates (not so much). But every production was trying to bring wonder and freshness to stories we’ve all seen many times. I still enjoy seeing Rennaisance costumes, but my version of Much Ado in the roaring 20’s with Don Pedro and Don John being mafia family was extremely well received by cast, crew and audiences. We don’t have to force Shakespeare’s works, most of them, to be accessible to modern audiences, but when a director has a vision for a different place and time, it’s exciting for me to see new ideas and fresh insights to beloved material.

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