It would be very easy to write this article in argument against specific relocations of Classical texts. I could rally against the countless Hamlets and Macbeths set predictably in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia or moan about a terrible production I saw of A Comedy of Errors set in the gap-year zone of Thailand. But, that would miss the point. I am arguing against relocations of any kind, congruous or incongruous, innovative or drab, completely pointless or extremely effective. The group of texts I’m going to focus on all sit within the genre of Renaissance drama, the most performed and most relocated genre in the English language.
As students keen to make our mark on literature, or on Oxford University or on the whole world, we tend to ignore the factor of context. Biographical readings of texts are unfashionable and the historicist approach to literature was binned in the 1980s. But, an understanding of context, especially for a genre as politically involved as Renaissance drama, is essential. Let’s use Macbeth as our case study. Macbeth was most likely written in 1606, post gunpowder-plot as a compliment to James I. James I thought that his Royal Stuart line was descended from Banquo, so the use of Banquo as Macbeth’s earnest, upstanding dramatic foil, (rather than his recorded position as an accomplice to Duncan’s murder) serves as a compliment to James I. Of course, this particular point might be hard to draw out in a production, but by changing the context you destroy the potentiality for addressing it at all. Renaissance texts are rich with historical and contextual allusions that fall by the wayside when an interpretation takes precedent over a text. But this loss of meaning does not only come from ignoring specific contextual allusions, but from the language itself. Language is dependent on context, and the language of the Renaissance, the most fast-changing language that England had seen yet, is extraordinarily dependent on its context, partly because lots of the words used in Shakespeare, or Marlowe or Jonson, are made-up. Rather than skating over awkward phrases in twenty-first century adaptations of Renaissance texts, we could leave the plays in their original context and not have to excuse every “hempen-homespuns” with a pleading nod to the audience. In a Renaissance production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “hempen-homespuns” could be used to make a political comment, but in a modern production it falls rather flat as another ‘funny fridge-magnet’ Shakespearean jibe.
Literature, for those of us that don’t want to trawl through heavy history books, is a wonderful means for accessing the past. Setting plays that are so heavily influenced and enhanced by their historical context elsewhere closes that opportunity off to us. If treated with respect to historical significance of character, plot and language, audiences could learn about the political ramifications of Hamlet’s Gertrude acting as an impression of the ageing Queen Elizabeth, or Banquo’s similarity to James I, or the divisive issue of Englishness in the seventeenth century providing them with a much fuller impression of the period, rather than several impressions of individual plays.
I don’t particularly buy the argument of the sanctity of a play, or the sanctity of an author’s intentions for a text, but I do believe in a sanctity of a historical context so closely tied with the literature of its period. And, adhering to this seemingly inaccessible context whilst making it interesting is a much bigger achievement than manhandling a text with another one of those original interpretations.
We think theatre ought to be surprising, illuminating and delightful. There’s not the time or space to go into those in depth, but suffice to say there are many species of all those things, and many ways to find them. And a classic play definitely doesn’t have to be relocated in order to do that. They wouldn’t be great if they did. But to declare against the entire possibility is ludicrous. Does it really need saying that sometimes it is a bad idea? Sometimes, however, it’s galvanising.
That much is obvious, unless, of course, you think the text occupies some hallowed ground, into which we ought never to step unless we’re balancing a headdress of the appropriate era. In that case, at the risk of disappearing in a cloud of our own delicious farts, we suggest that texts neither should be, nor can be, held down. Insisting on locating them in their original context doesn’t demonstrate some debt of honour to the writer, and you have to be the Globe to achieve any interesting degree of historical authenticity. It shows fear and ignorance about the capacity for texts to shine lights far beyond the contexts in which they’re conceived. For us, this is the most heinous crime: refusing texts the privileges of their immortality is like putting eagles in an aviary. The reason Shakespeare and Jonson and Marlowe are great is precisely because all the poetry and power they wield can be felt wherever you are, and whatever time period you’re from. It’s an obvious drawback to enjoying classical literature that we won’t understand all the puns and obscure references, but we wouldn’t get those just for pretending we were still in the seventeenth century. To deny these texts their timeless qualities denies them all the things that make them wonderful. If you want to debate whether or not they are wonderful, that’s a different question (good luck to you).
So, let’s assume nobody would suggest such narrow minded readings of these plays, and that the problem comes not from the notion of relocating, but from the likely and frequent consequences. “How many times do we need to see Macbeth in the Third Reich?” Indeed, but the question there is actually, “How many times do we need to see Macbeth?” because otherwise you need only swap “Third Reich” for “original setting” and it’s a different pickle but very much the same jar. Everything turns stale with overexposure (even pickles), and the variation of interpretations helps to prevent that. As for variance amongst the plays themselves… underestimate the diversity of these writers at your peril.
The question that follows ought to be: “does the context work?” A totally incongruous, insanely detached one might struggle to enjoy the warmth of a distant text. Unsurprisingly, the way to avoid this is the same way to avoid a generally dull production: work upwards from the text. If the ideas and themes being interrogated aren’t in the text in the first place, then they’ll stand naked and ridiculous in the relocation. But find a context that can celebrate whatever areas of the play you’re gripped by, and in terms of its literary coherence it will find new life – life that the writer never knew it could have. And what’s more, in the stage, costumes, marketing and make-up, you can create a rich, sophisticated and unique aesthetic to hang upon your text.
A successful relocation, like a successful original setting, has to come from the text. It’s a way of exploring and excavating the genius of the playwright. Certainly, it might result in a necessary suppression of other themes, but staging these complex plays, be they relocated or not, always requires such sacrifices. No actor ever captured all the potential of Hamlet in one performance. That’s why he and his contemporaries just keep coming back. And long may we welcome them.
Heck Collective present their own version of Jonson’s Volpone: VOLPORNE XXX at the Keble O’Reilly theatre from Wednesday to Saturday of 7th week.