Can we modernise Shakespeare? Yay.

Nora Galland 12 February 2014

To begin with, modernising means ‘adapting to modern habits’, so it involves a process of appropriation, based on the director’s personal interpretation of the play. I say ‘personal’ because each adaptation throws a particular light on a play, giving it an atmosphere of its own, thus making the adaptation an autonomous work. However, it is worth noticing that the modernised play does still have a dialogical relationship with the source text. I’d rather not use the adjective ‘original’ insofar as it would echo the theory according to which we, humble people, should revere Shakespeare by not changing anything about the play in the performance. Guess what: the ‘original’ Shakespeare text does not exist!

We have to bear in mind that, in Shakespeare’s time, the plays were first performed and then they were published in a quarto or a folio format. The text was not considered as sacred  in a way as it is today, so it was not crucial at the time to keep only one version of the text. There are many differences between the text of the quarto and the folio for the same play. The texts that we have access to nowadays were born from a merging of the folio and the quarto texts – different according to the editions.

Interestingly, Shakespeare began to be considered a classic with the reopening of the theatres in England in 1660 after twenty years of prohibition. His plays were adapted by more and more people and thereby made accessible to more and more people: the Shakespeare myth thus emerged.

You might think that Shakespeare’s texts are so famous around the world that everybody knows them or that there is nothing left to say about them. This is wrong, methinks.

Modernising plays enables the spectator to experience the play with a new perspective. Whether you like the modernised play or not, it will not leave you indifferent: you will love it or hate it, be disgusted or angry, be hesitant or shocked… The aim is not to make you love the modernised version of a play but to make you think, and then wonder what your personal interpretation of this play is. Jorge Luis Borges has the same conclusion in his short story ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’. It is about a man who is obsessed with Shakespeare and who ends up having the memory of Shakespeare. However, he is gradually overcome by it, forgetting his own self by letting himself be absorbed by Shakespeare’s memory. He finally decides to pass it on to someone else to be able to truly understand Shakespeare again. As Peter Brook once wrote in Evoking Shakespeare, “it is only by forgetting Shakespeare that we can begin to find him”.

See the other viewpoint here.