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.