The Shakespeare Problem

by Adam Sobsey on January 5, 2012

An alleged portrait of Shakespeare

Our productions of [Shakespeare’s] plays are mainly cases of the question begged and beating the dead horse. We miss the apparence of his plays because they are no longer strange. They possess charm in the way an inoffensive person does. These plays represent a threat to no-one which is why the rich and powerful love to see them produced. Love to see them produced in productions where the lily is so gilded it, too, falls down in folly. Shakespeare’s lily that is. We look away in horror and say to ourselves, mayhap is this theater? If this is what theater is, what have I done with my life, that I am here and not somewhere else where this is not happening? – Mac Wellman, Speculations.


The gloves are coming off here.

I suspect that most people think critics are the bare-knuckled pugilists of literature. Artists are supposed to be sensitive souls, savants, naïfs, overgrown and tender children. In fact, when I write reviews, I usually do it with a lot of restraint. I seldom say what I often think, which is that such-and-such thing I’ve been assigned to assess is best forgotten altogether (and soon will be). I tend to step cautiously, generously, decorously, in no small part because I, too, get reviewed sometimes. I’d like to receive the same courtesy in return. No one tries to make bad art. My mother said that, after watching one of the bad plays I wrote in college.

When I write plays, I’m joyously free of all that restraint. I write what I want. I air grievances; I make harsh judgments. I don’t care if my argument is missing a point—I don’t care if I’m making an argument. The holes are what the audience fills in; otherwise, why bother writing the play and staging it? As a playwright I am unfair, selfish, rash, wanton, destructive. How can you make drama by being evenhanded? My job is to provoke.

So let me start off with this: Shakespeare is great. We should, as playwrights, worship his greatness. We should even aspire to it (and fail; no matter; fail better). I myself have written two plays that sprang from Shakespeare: Hamlet removed to a truck stop, and Timon of Athens as the story of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. We make theater out of Shakespeare even when we are not making Shakespeare.


Shakespeare is bad for theater.


Shakespeare's first folio

Is there another art form so totally dominated by one figure?

How can this be good for the art form?

There’s an awful lot of pain involved in being a playwright, but for me one of the most painful things is watching, time and again, well-meaning theater companies throw up bad Shakespeare productions. Instead of doing new work, they make the lazy choice to “do Shakespeare.”

That phrase, “do Shakespeare”: I hear directors say it a lot. “I’d like to do Shakespeare this season.” But why? And will any old Shakespeare do? Macbeth? As You Like It? Richard II? Pretty much all the same to you? Grab a box of tunics from Wardrobe and off we go?

I used to feel my innards collapse in disappointment when I heard directors say “do Shakespeare.” Shakespeare as fallback, as easy money. Now the phrase has started to sound actually rather hostile to me. What have they got against the rest of us?


What, indeed, have they got against Shakespeare?

Have you noticed that most productions of Shakespeare are in fact quite bad? Or if not downright bad, then merely boring?

Shakespeare is hard. The language is really hard. Smashingly beautiful, jarringly weird at times, semantically vexing. Fantastically hard. The staging is hard, too. Getting a cast of 30 together is hard. Finding, for example, an old guy who can still remember his lines to play Lear is hard. Getting an audience to sit still for three hours is hard. Getting your production of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Macbeth to stand out from thousands of others is hard.

Thus most Shakespeare productions fail, often in multiple ways. There are star vehicles that miss the point. There are handsome, deadly-dull, pro forma pro-jobs. There are outré “interpretations” like the Romeo and Juliet production I once saw, staged in a bar in “punk rock” and told from Benvolio’s point of view. (Cute. And terrible.) There are the countless community-theater rummages in which upstanding folks who have good day jobs and do acting on the side, for fun, wear doublets and scabbards, mangle English accents, try to duel.

The disservice to the audience is bad. The disservice to Shakespeare is worse.

Shakespeare monument in Stratford-upon-Avon


Some sympathy for the Bard, here, from one playwright to another: plenty of his stuff is lacking. Timon of Athens? Needs work. If you brought something like it into a playwriting workshop, even the nicest future children’s theater director would have to take a breath and say, “I just couldn’t find a way into this.”

In college I chaired the joint student-professor board that chose and produced our annual mainstage season. We were arguing strenuously one day about whether to stage one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, I think Troilus and Cressida. The debate was acrimonious, even personal. We reached no decision, and the hour ended with the board-meeting equivalent of spouses going to bed angry.

In the seething dispersal of the board, I wound up having an exit chat with the university theater’s technical director, an opera-lover in his mid-sixties whose belly protruded almost hornily from the rest of him. I had, and still have, an abiding fondness for him because, in a climate of lethal political correctness—this was the early 1990s—he had no time for the circumspect decorum and restraint that almost freeze-dried my generation’s soul.

A representative board meeting comment of his, anent Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba: “Who wants to do a play about a bunch of dried-up old bitches?”

He didn’t think much better of a student production of Heiner Müller’s experimental Hamletmachine (more Shakespeare, more or less). He went not because he had any interest in such collegiate pretention, but because he’d heard that a couple of good-looking male student actors took all of their clothes off in it. Asked later for his verdict of the show, he replied that he had no opinion about the play whatsoever: “I was just disappointed in how pathetically hung they were.”

It was this old dancing bear of a man who said, in the wake of our board meeting about Troilus and Cressida—during which he’d been a staunch nay voter—that we always forget there are really only about seven undeniably good Shakespeare plays. The rest of them, he said, well, they’re just Shakespeare.

We did Hamlet instead.


I don’t think most people who “do Shakespeare” really understand Shakespeare.

For one thing, his plays are not psychological. Not even Hamlet, which probably invented psychology, but is bigger than psychology; one of the most depressingly narrow ways of looking at humanity ever conceived. Shakespeare’s plays are wild. Read them. See how much they almost defy you to make sense of them? They’re great because they’re untidy. They challenge directors to make stageable order of them without killing them.

a bill for Fiasco Theater's "Cymbeline"

Before I did an interview with Fiasco Theater, who bring their production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline to Reynolds next month, I read the play for the first time. That is a crazy play. I’m not even sure it’s good. Some people try to lump it in with Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” That’s an actual category of Shakespeare’s plays: “the problem plays.”

Cymbeline has a bizarre, out-of-nowhere scene—a problem scene—in which Jupiter descends on the wings of an eagle to deliver a short screed and then a prophecy. Fiasco cut that scene from their production. I think company member Jessie Austrian told me that they gave some of Jupiter’s prophecy speech to another character, somewhere else in the play. I got the sense that Fiasco found the Jupiter scene interruptive and unwieldy. “In our production, we were interested in how the plot was driving forward,” Austrian said.

Which is not very fast or straight. “We value Shakespeare for moments, not plots. Who can remember Shakespeare’s plots?” wrote the playwright Mac Wellman, in his theater essay, Speculations.

Personally, I’d make the weird Jupiter scene a highlight of Cymbeline—it’s the descent of a god, after all, and it totally electrifies the stage—but I mean that as no slight to Fiasco Theater. In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing their work here at Duke, and not only because of Ben Brantley’s rave review in the New York Times, or this intriguing post about how Fiasco “trains” its audience. I’m interested in Fiasco for two reasons: one, they don’t just “do Shakespeare.” Most of their work is Shakespeare, and that means their focus is more deliberate, and tighter.

Paul L. Coffey and Jessie Austrian in "Cymbeline"

Second, Fiasco is a small company, and I suspect that their size will naturally lend compression to Shakespeare, even efficiency. Those may not sound like sexy words to apply to Shakespeare’s plays, but I’m excited about the idea of eschewing the slackness that typifies most Shakespeare—as though all you have to do is toss the thing up on stage and it will somehow do your work for you. I’m excited because I have a suspicion that compressed Shakespeare might help us appreciate his extraneity—which is, I’ve always thought, where his genius lies.


Mac Wellman: “Shakespeare did not even know he was Shakespeare.”

Isn’t it amazing that we still don’t know jack about Will, and probably never will? His mysteriousness has been back in the news recently with the late-October release of the movie Anonymous, the latest effort to “revive the dreariest of snobberies,” as New Yorker film critic David Denby put it: that the straight-outta-Stratford actor named William Shakespeare couldn’t have written such glorious, complicated plays. The Earl of Oxford wrote them, instead, the movie suggests. (Another conspiracy theory attributes them to Francis Bacon.)

"Anonymous" film poster

Who cares? Actually, we should care, and what we should be concerned with is this: better that we don’t know. Knowing all about William Shakespeare’s life would reduce the plays, just as knowing who Homer really was would reduce the Odyssey and the Iliad, to little more than veiled memoir. What’s germane in Shakespeare’s essential anonymity is that we cannot pin any autobiographical certainties on the plays—although people try (see this New York Review of Books article, if you have a subscription)—and as such we are blessed with these complex and masterful theater texts that seem to have emerged ex nihilo. (Or should that be ex cathedra?) It is Shakespeare’s great fortune, and ours, that we don’t really know who he was.

Thus the plays of Shakespeare pose yet another set of problems. If we can’t moor them to an avowed authorial purpose, then what do we suppose they’re trying to tell us? From that uncertainty comes another, almost mischievous part of the greatness of Shakespeare: we aren’t sure what he meant, so we have to keep on seeking by doing the plays.

The artist’s ideal is to have no persona, no identity, no past. Why else would so many of them do their work under aliases? (One of them, Bob Dylan, a Jewish kid from Nowheresville, Minnesota, lied to interviewers and told them he was from the galloping wilds of Gallup, New Mexico. He was just trying to throw them off of his really very ordinary scent, so that the music could just be the music.)

An artist ought to be nothing but the doppelganger who dangles the work before us, so that the work invites scrutiny while remaining inscrutable.


If a playwright today wants to pose problems in the Shakespearean spirit, no one’s very interested unless we give them an “issue” play. I saw one in Chapel Hill a few months ago. Earnest characters trying to do the right thing. We wound up being encouraged to feel sympathy for all of them. I don’t remember what they actually wound up doing, so inconsequential were the outcomes of their actions, which affected only themselves and their sense of self-worth. I remember them feeling guilty a lot. (Well, the playwright just won the Whiting Award. Shows how out of step I am.)

Engraving for "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Sympathy for the poor devils, then? No. Sympathy is the devil, in the theater, and especially in Shakespeare. Hamlet, one might point out, is an egomaniacal jerk. The merchant in The Merchant of Venice isn’t Shylock—it’s Antonio, an upstanding and really pretty bland guy whom the “villainous” (read: Jewish) Shylock totally upstages. Prospero and Oberon both operate from a sort of imperious deviousness that happens to be yoked to a sense of justice. They are complicated men. Shakespeare’s villains and rogues are often his best characters, along with the noble ones caught in their own (or others’) machines. Their motives, like the plots in which they become enmeshed—and like our motives—are twisted.


This brings us to what Wellman described, in an earlier essay called “The Theater of Good Intentions,” as “the implacable dogma of Method acting,” which is still the dominant model in the US. Would you believe that actors still ask directors, “What’s my motivation?”

American method acting is mostly predicated on the idea that people act from “detachable motives,” as Wellman puts it. You should be able to line up objective flush with the guidepole of super-objective, and thus make every action fit into a tidy, uniform overall character scheme that has no loose parts, no wavering doubts. It’s about making actors feel secure, and as a result characters become secure, too—readable, obvious, un-dramatic— under their conservatory-approved ministrations. You have to like them.

Wellman points out what a grave disservice Method acting has done to playwrights, who now are coerced into writing Method-ready plays in which every actor gets to feel like his or her character is a good egg. Ultimately, there is no drama in this whatsoever. What characters do onstage is diluted by the actor’s “process.”

The Method has done its gravest disservice to Shakespeare, with whom it is completely incompatible. The Method is about the ego of the actor, and the reality of the actor, which is limiting; Shakespeare, which is all unreality, is about the limitlessness of the theater.

Richard Jenkins

I should add that really good actors, even those who are Method-trained, are essentially immune to the Method’s perils. In my Senior Theatre Seminar as an undergraduate, we were fortunate to be visited by the actor Richard Jenkins, who was then the Artistic Director at nearby Trinity Repertory (from whose conservatory come the members of Fiasco Theater). Jenkins said something about acting that has always stuck with me: we make it too complicated. Acting at its best, he asserted, is actually reacting. As a playwright, I have always held onto Jenkins’s words: I want to write plays that give actors the opportunity to react to one another, the scenario, and the environment. Then we don’t have to watch them act so much. It keeps them fresh and alive on stage.


To my thinking, we did have a little Shakespearean Renaissance movement in U.S. theater, about a generation ago. The aforementioned Mac Wellman, along with playwrights like Maria Irene Fornes, Len Jenkin, Jeffrey M. Jones, Ntozake Shange and some others, spent the ‘70s and ‘80s bringing language back into the theater. Demotic language, borrowed language, poetic language, sometimes all mashed together: aria-like soliloquies crashing into monosyllabic dialogues; people talking over each other; people chanting or singing or reading from occult books.

These playwrights marshaled all of this language into wild stagescapes: fantasias, alternative histories, apocalypses, benders, orgies of violence. Some of these plays, like some of Shakespeare’s, were totally inscrutable, and indeed some of them aren’t any good at all. Buried in them were politics, longing, intrigue, love, savagery. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Wellman’s The Professional Frenchman, which includes all of the above plus a snowman who comes to life, a paean to legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Sipe, and a voiceover trip to Spitzbergen. A descent by Jupiter on the wings of an eagle would not be out of place.

Those writers made barely a dent in the national theater consciousness. In truth, the wildness of their plays needed more structure, and they needed to breathe more. There is so much claustrophobic anxiety in some of them that there isn’t enough theater. Nonetheless, I think we will catch up with them another time.

Shakespeare statue in Lincoln Park


Ultimately, and also to return to the beginning, my frustration lies in this: we playwrights work in an art form that prizes the work of one artist far above all the rest, but in the wrong ways. And with this choking paradox: if one tries to write in the Shakespearean mode, one is generally derided; the dramaturgy of our greatest dramatist is basically off-limits to the rest of us.

So I write far fewer plays than I have ideas for, because I despair of ever getting a company to produce them. I used to believe, as a consequence, that we needed a ban on Shakespeare. I came around, though. What we need is a ban on bad Shakespeare—“realistic” Shakespeare, “touring” Shakespeare, “doing Shakespeare”—which will awaken us to what Shakespeare is really about. And if Shakespeare is rightly theater’s guiding light, then good Shakespeare, in turn, will remind us what theater is really about.

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