Whose tragedy is it? The clue to how Shakespeare viewed that question is in the title, when it comes to dramas such as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice; and many of his other plays.
But do we see Hamlet or Othello or King Lear in the same way that Shakespeare saw them? Or even how A.C. Bradley, writing in 1904, saw Shakespeare’s later heroes as “something colossal, something which reminds us of Michael Angelo’s figures.” He went on to add that “they are not merely exceptional men, they are huge men: as it were survivors of the heroic age living in a later and smaller world.”
Perhaps not in the era of #MeToo. Othello kills his loyal wife out of jealousy. Lear brings down disaster on himself and his youngest daughter because of ego. Hamlet treats Ophelia with casual cruelty. Ophelia appears in just five scenes in Hamlet, rendered almost voiceless with just 58 lines, while Hamlet certainly likes the sound of his own voice.
How might we stage these plays in an era where we don’t necessarily assume that the male character whose name gives the play its title is the most interesting person on stage? Katie Mitchell solved the problem by giving Ophelia her own play in Ophelias Zimmer at the Royal Court in 2016, an evening in which the teenage Ophelia is drowned not by her own hand but by the rising tide of patriarchy.
But an entirely new play is not always necessary, as Phyllida Lloyd’s ground-breaking all-female Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy proved. Comprising Julius Caesar, a mash-up of both parts of Henry IV, and The Tempest, the trilogy which frames the plays as being performed by the inmates of a women’s prison, has been a game-changer, demonstrating that how we see the plays is changed by who performs them: in this case an all-female cast of different skin colour, with bodies of all shapes and sizes, and many different kinds of voices.
Richard Twyman’s incisive revival of Othello for the Tobacco Factory and English Touring Theatre also makes us look at the play afresh and question whether the play is even about Othello at all.
As Susannah Clapp in the Observer (26 Feb 2017) declared, it was a production which made her “want to argue with Shakespeare’s title and ending.” She went on to write: “There are Desdemona and Emilia dead at our feet. Emilia has made her great analysis of male and female relations. And Othello stands over them to say that it is all about him. Really?” In Twyman’s revival, Desdemona’s sorrowful exclamation “O, these men, these men!” becomes a touchstone and a cry which echoes down the centuries to our own time.
You can’t ignore the context in which Shakespeare’s plays were written, but what you can do – as you can with any great play from the past – is to recontextualise it for a modern audience. The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, Trump-inflected production of Julius Caesar is an example of that, just as Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Richard II could be read as a critique of squabbling self-interested politicians in the age of Brexit.
Often, the audience does the work for themselves. Henry V means something very different in Laurence Olivier’s film version, made at the height of the Second World War, than it did in Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre revival in 2003, which went into rehearsal just two days after the US-led invasion of Baghdad.
Some plays present particular difficulties for modern audiences and directors. How do you stage The Merchant of Venice so that you don’t condone its anti-Semitism or The Taming of the Shrew in an era in which beating your wife can land you in prison for assault?
With Othello, Twyman doesn’t just emphasise how the women are portrayed but also makes the play seem smartly contemporary in its exploration of Othello as a Muslim in a Christian world nervous of Muslims. Just as Islamophobia flourishes in our own society. Othello must subjugate his true self – he publicly wears a Christian cross – in order to be accepted by the sleek-suited men who run the Venetian state. In the process, he loses himself and falls prey to Iago’s poisonous whisperings. Twyman’s production cleverly plays on the ways both the women of the play and Othello are both ‘othered’ in a patriarchal Christian society where only white men can be “one of us.”
It is not just Shakespeare’s plays which are subject to shifts, sometimes sudden, in sensibility. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s mid-20th-century musical Carousel in which Billy abuses his wife, Julie, contains a moment when Julie tells their daughter, Louise, that “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you—hit you hard—and not hurt at all” Try telling that to the thousands of women and children living in refuges in fear that their abusive partners might find them.
The recent revival of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein looked equally doubtful in the era of #MeToo, with Natasha Tripney in the Stage observing that the way it depicts power relations between men and women and its use of female stereotypes makes it “damaging” and “just not funny anymore.”
Because they are less plastic, these shows are far harder than Shakespeare’s tragedies to stage in ways that make them seem relevant to modern audiences. Great plays are often slippery and have a changeling quality. In the hands of a good director, they mutate and their meanings transform. What the best contemporary directors appreciate is that if you view the plays as not just Othello or Hamlet’s tragedy, they can be prised open like an oyster to reveal unexpected pearls.
What has happened in the Lear family to make Goneril and Regan behave as they do towards their father? What is it about the court of Denmark that renders Ophelia almost speechless?
In Twyman’s Othello, Desdemona is no passive doll waiting to be broken but a smart, modern young woman full of confidence and sure of her heart. The tragedy is that she lives in a society – very much like our own – which is as suspicious of women as it is of Muslims. This is not just Othello’s tragedy, it is our tragedy too.