Featured Content: Shakespeare Today
“Shakespeare is simultaneously entirely a product of his time and invariably ahead of it, and indeed ahead of our time, so that some new dimensions of Shakespeare studies may strike us as having always been present in Shakespeare’s language, embedded in the fabric of his composition and lying dormant to await the momentous occasion of ‘discovery.’”
—Shakespeare in our Time
Shakespeare is performed hundreds, if not thousands of times each year, in translation and in original practice, around the world, from the most humble community stages to the most magnificent national theatres. This month we celebrate Shakespeare today with a focus on innovative Royal Shakespeare Company productions and cutting-edge criticism on the state of Shakespeare in our Time.
Believed by scholars to be Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, Julius Caesar is an unprecedented kind of political play. The fast action and compelling rhetoric have remained relevant since the play was first performed and it has rarely fallen out of vogue, including in the last century.
What is it like performing characters as mighty and flawed as the figures of Julius Caesar? Subscribers can watch this interview with the cast of the most recent RSC performance as they speak about their characters’ strengths and flaws, how they’re frequently deeply intertwined, and how Shakespeare is always applicable to the current day. To learn more about what the real Julius Caesar and Brutus were like, subscribers can watch this fascinating interview with famed historian Mary Beard.
Using Julius Caesar as an example, one could easily assume a direct line from classical Greek and Latin sources to Shakespeare. In her essay “The Classics as Popular Discourse” Coppélia Kahn complicates this relationship, showing how Shakespeare drew not only on actual Latin texts, but also on commentaries, digests, abridgements, reference works, anthologies, colloquia, and more. Looking at references to Pompey from Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Kahn shows how Shakespeare’s portrayal of the classics, through jokes, deliberate misquotations, and mistakes, suggests he drew on popular, contemporary sources for inspiration.
The Tempest has long been one of Shakespeare’s most popular—and most divisive—plays. Each generation brings new readings and analysis, with long-standing debates on the genre, the characters, the plot, and even the storm itself. Read the authoritative Arden Shakespeare Third Series edition, edited by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, to decide for yourself, and use the play tools to keep track of the various characters and when they overlap.
Alongside the wide-ranging interpretations have been remarkably different stagings. After the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran saw a video by Intel in which a whale swims through three cinema screens before emerging from one to swim out over a crowd of people, he knew he wanted to incorporate this technology into a production of The Tempest. Two years in the making, the production features Mark Quartley’s Ariel, visible onstage, while also appearing as a computer-generated avatar that can fly around and appear on all different types of surfaces. This ground-breaking collaboration with Intel and Imaginarium Studios changed the field forever. Watch the clip below to learn more about the production.
Just as new technology enables new modes of performances, new approaches to theory and teaching open up new avenues for understanding the Bard, on stage and in the classroom. In “Pluralizing Performance” Diana E. Henderson discusses how, only recently, the approach to teaching Shakespeare has moved beyond close readings of the text to include examination of stage performances in many forms, including an opera performance of The Tempest.
King Henry IV Part I seems to have been an incredibly popular play in its time, reissued in a second edition in the same year, a rare occurrence in the late 1500s. A history play, based in part on the king’s reign from 1402-3, 1 King Henry IV deals with themes of identity, honor, and kingship, centering around the rivalry between foils Prince Hal and Hotspur. The play produced one of the most beloved comedic figures in Shakespeare’s canon, Falstaff. Rumor has it that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with the character that she “commanded” Shakespeare to write a further play that saw Falstaff in love: The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The RSC’s 2014 Henry IV I & II, starring Antony Sher as a celebrated Falstaff, were lauded as “plays [that] embrace the whole range of human experience.” Take a peek behind the scenes with a clip below on stage fighting between Alex Hassell as Prince Hal and Trevor White as Hotspur.
Despite a movement to expand the canon beyond dead, white, males, Shakespeare remains a central figure in the English and Drama classroom. David Bevington in “The Classroom” offers an explanation: “students and teachers and critics alike find that no other writer can go beyond his ability to challenge, to interrogate, to illuminate, and to insist that we rethink ourselves and our cultural heritage.” Indeed, Shakespeare has often been at the heart of new theories of literary criticism across the ages. Today is no exception: Karen Raber’s Shakespeare and Posthumanist Theory provides an entryway into a theory that still defies a singular definition by discussing its application to several plays, including The Tempest and Henry IV Part 1.
Career focus: Succeeding on Shakespeare’s stage
Preparing for an audition presents plenty of challenges; preparing for a Shakespeare audition is another beast entirely. In Mastering the Shakespeare Audition Donna Soto-Morettini offers a step-by-step guide to preparing specifically for Shakespeare auditions, from acquiring the tools you’ll need, to choosing and preparing a monologue, to planning your rehearsal process. Unlike a standard monologue practice, this book provides creative ways to engage with the mysterious puzzle that is Shakespeare—and your acting will benefit.
The relationship between the United States and Shakespeare is long and storied. At the moment, over 200 theatres in America dedicate a substantial portion of their repertoire to performing Shakespeare. In his impressive book Directing Shakespeare in America: Current Practices, Charles Ney compiles best practices on directing Shakespeare, including interpreting the text, managing the various stages of production, and even the rehearsal process. Gathered from interviews with over 60 prestigious directors and artistic directors across the United States, this is an essential book for anyone engaging with Shakespeare today.
Once thought to be impossible to stage, King Lear has enjoyed a new, elevated status in modern times. Now considered by some to be Shakespeare’s greatest work, the play has been staged more often in the last fifty years than in the previous 350 years of its performance history. For Performing King Lear, Jonathan Croall interviewed two dozen directors who have staged the play in London, Stratford, and elsewhere, and twenty of the most distinguished actors to have undertaken this daunting role during the last forty years, offering insight and guidance into the creation and performance of the mad king.
Patsy Rodenburg is one of the most celebrated international acting coaches today, having worked with prestigious companies around the world, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Court Theatre, and the Moscow Art Theatre. Watch the video below for an introduction to her highly sought-after techniques and exercises in Movement, Speech, Body and Vocal Warmup, available in a six hour masterclass on Shakespeare in the Present.