It is a question that many are asking, most recently that fine actor, Juliet Stevenson, who earlier this year argued that “some Shakespeare plays, where history has overtaken them, should just be buried.” She reckons that The Taming of the Shrew, a play in which “a man marries a woman he doesn’t love and enjoys using his patriarchal authority to crush her” cannot be made acceptable, and in Merchant of Venice the anti-Semitism is “inescapable.”
I totally agree that Petruchio’s behaviour is not acceptable and I don’t think any director should act as an apologist for the character, and the anti-Semitism of Merchant is inescapable. But that strikes me as a very good reason why we need directors who are willing to wrestle with these plays. Do patriarchal attitudes still exist? Of course they do. Is anti-Semitism widespread? Indeed, it is, both in society and in theatre as recent events have proved. It’s not about trying to make the unpalatable more palatable, it’s about recognizing ourselves in plays written so long ago.
Rather than thinking that we should just bury the plays, I am all for directors like Abigail Graham—currently directing The Merchant of Venice at the Globe with Sophie Melville as Portia, Eleanor Wyld as Jessica and Adrian Schiller as Shylock—who are trying to reclaim the play and using it to confront our own prejudices. All great Shakespeare revivals are about now and then, here and there, the context in which the play was written and the context in which it will now be received by a contemporary audience.
From 2021 performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Of course, we could argue that Shakespeare continues to have a bigger bite of the production cake than any other playwright and for that reason alone we should give some of the plays a rest. Though that would be a mite tricky for the Globe which has Shakespeare in its title. As Ola Ince’s recent Romeo and Juliet suggested, there are ways to re-imagine a play which was written over 400 years ago that give it contemporary relevance, and to do it in a fashion that offers a safe way for audiences to experience difficult subject matter. Romeo and Juliet is and should be upsetting. Providing trigger warnings is the responsible thing to do, and one way to ensure that plays which do not confirm to 21st century sensibilities can still live on.
I’m not sure the Globe would be fulfilling its remit if it simply decided only to revive those Shakespeare plays that are considered acceptable and that would, in any case, make for very dull productions. How we read these plays in performance will depend very much on how the director approaches the text, the hard graft dramaturgical work that has been undertaken, and the context in which the production is presented. In the case of the Globe that includes superb background materials for audiences and teachers that grapple headlong with issues of racism, gender and sexuality in Shakespeare’s plays.
Some seem to be regularly bobbing up and down in outrage and claiming that Shakespeare is on the verge of being cancelled. I doubt that very much and hope that Graham’s revival of Merchant will offer a reminder that while the easy option is to just to bury the Shakespeare plays which we find unacceptable, it is bolder and braver to look at them afresh and see how they reflect us back to ourselves. It may be uncomfortable but it’s necessary.