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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Boehmer

The Whirligig of Time: Traditional or Modern Shakespeare?

Why do people love the works of William Shakespeare, a man from 400 years ago? There’s the luscious poetry, the raunchy jokes, the emotional draw of the characters, but more than anything else is one answer:

“Shakespeare is timeless.”

I mean, this statement is true. Using King Lear as an example, Shakespeare was able to blend elements of Jacobean England into a story about a king from the 12th century, leaving dates pointedly ambiguous in an effort to stop himself from committing to one time period. This manipulation can work in favor of the director’s vision to help create connections between the Renaissance and the rest of history, outside the boundaries of a time period. That said, many people argue that these changes are foolish and distract from the play itself; others say they only enhance the themes and meaning by bringing them into different contexts.

So, what is the purpose of seeing Shakespeare performed in a traditional 17th-century setting? Why was I so in love with the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night (2012)? I could not necessarily relate to the Renaissance costumes, the music from historically accurate instruments, or even the cast of men filling every role, but I was still enthralled with the play.

Firstly, and this one may be more personal, but it’s fun to see how it could have been performed! To be a groundling, staring up at the actors like a meerkat, is a genuinely astounding (and fabulously cheap!) experience. I find it exciting to imagine what it was like to act in the 1600s, and to get a glimpse of that image that could connect me to someone 400 years ago is awesome.

While looking at it through a practical standpoint, traditionally produced plays can be extremely educational. Modern productions may not be able to capture all the nuance of why Shakespeare wrote this specific detail about groundlings, or why Fools keep bursting into song. However, when seeing a production done more 'traditionally' some of those missing gaps may finally start to make sense. Shakespeare writes about groundlings as a reference to the people in the cheapest seats (or rather standings) at his theatre. Hearing the Fools’ songs with historical music not only revives that period, but also may reveal how certain things should sound and clarify references to instruments that not many people play today. Traditional plays can open up discussions about ideas of the past and encourage people to engage in not only theatre, but history itself.

After a lengthy analysis of traditional plays, you might be wondering, “What is even the point of doing a play in a modern setting?” To put it simply, modern adaptations of Shakespeare can be used in crucial manners to expose the truths of 21st century society. In 2018, I saw Coriolanus produced by the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. The director Robert LePage combined the traditional story of a Roman legionnaire with a contemporary setting, including some of the most spectacular stage design I have ever seen in a performance. Looking at a summary of the play itself, it seems a bit easy to predict: an upper-class general Caius Martius, nicknamed Coriolanus, aims to become consul of Rome while caring little for those of the lower classes. When he is banished from the city, he goes to the Volsicans, Rome’s enemy, and attempts a siege before his wife and family stop him. Eventually, his ex-enemy, now ally-ish, turns and murders him for backing down.

While this story comes from ancient Rome, the production utilized some technological elements so well that it was hard to imagine it set at any other time. Senate members meet at the bar to discuss the state of Rome, sharp-tongued Volumnia is dressed in chic suits and perfectly coiffed hair, and screens that were used as backdrops display text message conversations between soldiers as they discuss Coriolanus’ betrayal.

However, more prevalent than simply the idea that this story has contemporary themes was watching it and feeling like I was watching the news. This is a man who is being pushed to enter office simply for political and personal clout on behalf of him and his family. The people love him as a military leader, therefore he should represent everyone in a government system he does not know, even when some despise him (she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice). While researching before the production and watching it play out before me, I could not help but think of the 45th President of the United States. Both men were driven by vanity and self-importance to take up a position they were not equipped to handle. Even more, oddly enough, they both react violently to being deposed. Coriolanus is banished, and he, in turn, banishes all of Rome and comes back with an army to fight this loss in power. Sound familiar? What is relevant in Ancient Rome and Elizabethan England still haunts us to this day, no matter how much we want to claim that times have changed.

In the end, it really is up to the production and how effective their ideas are. While this may seem like a wimpy answer, the fact is the line between "solely historical" and "completely contemporary" is often blurred to include elements of both in a way that honors all time periods involved. A more “traditional” production of Henry V at the Globe in 2019 ended with a drum line; a more “modern” production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Theatre in London the same year ended with a jig (albeit to Beyoncé, but a jig nonetheless!). Even if an audience member still prefers one over the other, there is always the chance that one good production could change their mind.

More than everything else, there will always be the risqué humor, the fleshed-out characters, and the poetry that keeps people coming back no matter the time period. As the ever-wise Fool in Twelfth Night says, “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”, as well as his gifts.

Natalie Boehmer is an English student at the University of Toronto.

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