Why do we still watch Shakespeare?

Chasseriau's "Macbeth Sees the Ghost of Banquo," 1854

OK, this is going to be my most annoying blog post yet, and it will reveal how uneducated and simple I am, but since I posted that blond picture of me, I have nothing to hide. Here goes.

We saw “MacBeth” last night at a Shakespeare theater down the street, and it was a great little production — passionate, unsettling, bloody. This director decided to go modern, and so the characters talked on cell phones and wore camo fatigues and combat boots while Lady Macbeth slutted it up in shimmery cocktail dresses and a bra-and-panties set that challenged even me to keep my eyes on her face.

And yet just before intermission, I looked over to see my boyfriend sitting low in his seat, struggling to keep his eyes open. I was having the same problem. During the break we chugged big cups of coffee and I said, only half-jokingly, “Why don’t they speak English?”

Now, I love the way the Bard plays with language. I love reading him, love how a phrase of his I thought I understood for years can takes on new meaning when I see it in a new (mostly perverted) light. But hearing Shakespeare’s words come from a guy wearing gel in his hair and a bullet-proof vest just annoyed me. And as I sat in a theater in 2011, I wondered why we were watching a 400-year-old play with language so clunky and outdated that even the actors were choking to spit it out?

I turned to the sage of the Internet, the Google search bar, and asked it my question: Why do we still watch Shakespeare?

I found a few fawning sites, and then I found this, from a senior English major in Utah. He was grilling a 13-year-old named Abe about Shakespeare and “Othello.” His words are in italics.

Why do you think we pay so much attention to Shakespeare now? 

Abe: Because of so much attention that the plays got then.

At this point I interrupted Abe to explain one of the reasons I think we still read/watch Shakespeare today, and that is because he treats feelings and behaviors that are timeless.  I explained to Abe that many of the emotions in the plays were relevant then, are relevant now, and will be forever, because they’re part of the human experience.

Ugh, seriously, dude? Take your English Majorism elsewhere. The kid is trying to tell you something. He thinks the popularity of Shakespeare’s work may be greater than the actual work. And you know what? I agree with him.

Don’t get me wrong. Our modern vocabulary is loaded with an astounding number of Shakespearean references. The guy could write. He was an incredible wordsmith. But we don’t quote him verbatim today, do we? Most of us don’t say, “He hath eaten me out of house and home” or “‘T’is neither here nor there” or “So wise so young, they say, do never live long.” Doesn’t it make sense, then, that the modern ear would struggle to understand just what those actors on stage are saying?

No, I don’t think we should rewrite Shakespeare, but I don’t think the Bard has the corner on the human experience. We have plenty of modern plays that deal with love, violence, betrayal, even regicide. Let’s do to Shakespeare’s stage plays what they did to “Cats” on Broadway — retire them for their irrelevance, and take them out only for special occasions.

Or maybe I’ll just save my naps for the theater.


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