Tackling the purists – Why should we be faithful to Shakespeare?

The Globe’s decision to oust new artistic director Emma Rice in 2018 over her modern lighting techniques has sparked something of a media frenzy – but where does purism stand in the 21st century? Is the Globe right to stand its ground, or is just being a stick in the mud?
Emma Rice © Sarah Lee
Emma Rice © Sarah Lee

Neil Constable, CEO, Shakespeare’s Globe, said: ‘Emma’s mould-breaking work has brought our theatre new and diverse audiences, won huge creative and critical acclaim, and achieved exceptionally strong box office returns. [*So far, so good] In breaking the mould, this latest season has generated productive debate concerning the purpose and theatrical practice of the Globe, in relation to the use of sound and lighting technology within our theatre spaces.

‘Following much deliberation and discussion, the Globe Board has concluded that from April 2018, the theatre programming should be structured around ‘shared light’ productions without designed sound and light rigging, which characterised a large body of The Globe’s work prior to Emma’s appointment.

‘The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work. Whilst the realisation of Emma’s vision has been a vital part of our continuing experimentation as a theatre, we have now concluded that a predominant use of contemporary sound and lighting technology will not enable us to optimise further experimentation in our unique theatre spaces and the playing conditions which they offer.

‘As Emma has already so brilliantly and inventively demonstrated, the Globe remains committed to delighting audiences and engaging them in both Shakespeare’s work and the playhouse for which he wrote. We all look forward to Emma’s forthcoming visionary programmes, which are certain to thrill and surprise audiences, as they have to date.’

So there you have it – job done. Audience figures were up, reviews were [on the whole] positive, yet Rice couldn’t keep the purists happy. And why should she?

BBC's Shakespeare anniversary celebrations
BBC’s Shakespeare anniversary celebrations


Back in May Andrew Anderson asked Professor Carol Rutter, a writer, academic and Shakespeare scholar, about her thoughts on purism. Rutter is also trustee at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an organisation that preserves, protects and presents the Shakespeare archive in Stratford- upon-Avon, as well as five buildings connected with his life.

We cannot wreck the plays. Is it possible to do anything with Shakespeare? Well, yes it is. No production can take every edition and destroy it; we will always have the plays to return to. He is a big enough name to survive – Professor Carol Rutter

American academic Carol Rutter has worked on many Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related projects, including a biography of Sir Henry Wooten – the British ambassador in Venice during Tudor times – and a paper on Shakespearean costume which she presented at the London and Stratford World Shakespeare Congress this summer.

Rutter teaches on the English and Comparative Literary Studies programme at Warwick University. She is also director of the CAPITAL Centre (Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning), a HEFCE-funded Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning that works in partnership with Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). At CAPITAL she developed ‘Shakespeare Without Chairs’, a pioneering rehearsal technique used for ‘close reading as three-dimensional literary criticism’.

Her research interests lie in early modern and subsequent performances of Shakespeare’s works. Few people are better qualified than Rutter to talk about the impact and importance of Shakespeare, and also to discuss the pitfalls, problems and opportunities for creative practitioners tackling modern Shakespearean adaptations.

AA:  Should we be purists about Shakespeare’s original plays?
First of all, we’re not Elizabethan audiences. The whole idea of ‘original’ is a delusion. Even if we were able to put together an archival documentary performance of Hamlet, it still wouldn’t be performed to the original audience. Therefore, it would not complete the three areas necessary for an authentic original production: script, actors and audience. Even if you got two of those absolutely right –  which is impossible anyway – we would still be the wrong spectators looking at a museum piece.

Secondly, a play is meaningful in its moment. We are constantly redoing these plays because they strike us as contemporary pieces: they have meaning for us now. We are having conversations with ourselves. It just happens that Shakespeare is so full of meaning that every generation that comes along finds their lives in him. This is not because he was universal, it is because he is retopical. He reinforms the present moment.

AA: What can be learned from examining historical productions?
CR: There are times when it is appropriate and helpful to go back and look at the original plays afresh. By doing so we can regauge their value for the present. For example, for many years we didn’t  even have the texts of the plays: we had Nathan Tate’s version of King Lear with a happy ending, we had Bowdlerisations [expurgated versions by Thomas Bowdler], and we had John Dryden’s All For Love instead of Anthony and Cleopatra.

The generation after Shakespeare were influenced by neo-classical ideas of what a play was. Dryden saw Shakespeare as ‘marred with heaps of rubbish’ that had to be cleared away. He and other playwrights rewrote the original texts and adapted them, as a result academics have needed to go back and rediscover them. Going back to an original text is an important recovery project. It keeps us on our toes so we can ask ‘What should we be thinking about in the present moment?’,

You can see this today with Anthony and Cleopatra. In Shakespeare’s original it is very clear that Cleopatra is a Black queen, and is written Black. But Cleopatra has been whited-out ever since the Jacobean period. One of the important things that critics and directors today can do is restore ideas like the Black Cleopatra. If that is returning to origins then, well, that is kind of important.

A second example comes with the history plays. When Shakespeare wrote about the past he was always writing about the present – so his plays set in the 1450s are really about the 1590s. He is writing about arguments around war and peace that were happening in his time, even if the play is set in the past. His costuming was contemporary Tudor – Cleopatra, for example, is in Jacobean female dress. When today we set the history plays in the Jacobean past we violate the whole purpose of them; that play between past and present that he originally intended.

This is another example of how examining the original performance can tell us how we can reanimate our present productions. If we do the plays now we need to sustain the dialogue between past and present. How do we achieve that – how do we say this is also about us right now?

AA: What questions does Shakespeare ask that are important for the present?
Shakespeare raises all sorts of important questions for the present, particularly around ideas of selfhood. If we are thinking about the biggest themes that Shakespeare deals with, then it is usually a crisis caused by betrayal – and that betrayal is going to come at you from the person who is closest to you. This then causes a crisis of selfhood, and makes the character ask: ‘Who am I?’. Over and over again Shakespeare asks ‘What makes a man?’ and, ‘What is the male self?’ In his plays the female self is the mirror to masculinity; it challenges masculinity and asks difficult and pertinent questions about masculinity. All of these ideas about self are a continuous conversation that we have today, and always will have.

I think he brings up these issues and questions in a very rich, profound and challenging way. They work for kids today in London, Bradford, Hull or Stratford-upon-Avon just as much as they did in the past. And, if these works are to live for another 400 years, it is going to be because young people continue to discover how they can use these plays to have conversations relevant to their present lives.

AA: What about Shakespeare’s own life – is it important we know and preserve the truth about this?
CR: I think we will always be fascinated by the man behind the plays. At the same time, we need to be extremely diplomatic about the absence and lack of information available. It is okay to admit we don’t know everything, and never can know everything.

Shakespeare biography is a field studded with landmines. We know very little about him, but it is a tantalising amount. One of the problems is that people read his plays and use those to fill in the gaps, imagining they are autobiographical. That doesn’t work. Most biographies of Shakespeare turn out to actually be autobiographies of the person writing them. It is a form of narcissism – and that’s okay, as long as they are diplomatic and honest about what they are doing.

One thing I can say is that all the controversy about who wrote the plays is nonsense. Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote the plays. And for an academic like me that is a lot to be getting on with – after 400 years we can’t even put them in an order that everyone agrees with.

On the other hand, it seems to me that a film like Shakespeare in Love is delightful and delicious. This is partly because it has a script written so brilliantly by Tom Stoppard, but was also because it plays with the limits of knowledge that we have, and was upfront with that. So that’s fine – in fact, we could do with more playful work like this.

AA: So is Shakespeare a brand? And do you – through your work with Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – have to protect that brand?
CR: I suppose he became a brand as soon as the first folio was published. His colleagues who helped print the book were saying ‘take him home and read him.’ By putting an image of Shakespeare on the title page and by preserving the names of the principle players they were creating a Shakespeare brand.

That was because they recognised something in this work that was so extraordinary and insightful that the future needed to know about it. And they needed to know it through print, because the performances would of course disappear.

Shakespeare himself was really interested in what is in a name, and how that name is presented in the moment and carried into the future. Hamlet says to Polonius ‘…after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.’ It is a theme he deals with over and over again.

At Shakespeare Birthplace Trust we have a duty to protect and present the five Shakespeare properties and a very extensive archive. We want to make that available to as many people as possible so they can interpret what is meaningful in this legacy. We want to preserve and enhance the enjoyment of Shakespeare for the nation and for the world, because we have a global audience.

AA: Is it possible to use Shakespeare’s name in a negative way?
There is certainly a cynicism around him. There is a wonderful essay about standing on the corner of Sheep Street in Stratford-upon-Avon and looking in one direction at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the other at the Shakespeare Fish Bar. Both of those are possible in our world. And that’s okay – Shakespeare is big enough to carry all of this traffic.

AA: What about with the plays themselves, do they need to be protected?
We cannot wreck the plays. Is it possible to do anything with Shakespeare? Well, yes it is. No production can take every edition and destroy it; we will always have the plays to return to. He is a big enough name to survive…it is going to be fine.

AA: What excited you most about the 2016 Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations?
CR: We’re so fortunate to be celebrating his life, and the lives around him. One of the unfortunate things about the focus on Shakespeare is that we don’t often enough open the angle and look at his contemporaries. He was exceptional, but he was part of a community – actors, writers and others – and he belonged to his period. I would like us to celebrate other Jacobean and Tudor lives too. And, at the same time, it is great to just stand back and say ‘Thank you Shakespeare – you were a product of your time, your family and your schooling…you help us make sense of ourselves in our present. Thank you Billy Big Boy.’