Considered by many to be the best dramatist in the English language, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) wrote comedies, tragedies, as well as history plays that continue to be produced around the world. He was also a poet and actor of note.
Dennis Kennedy is Emeritus Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, where he held the Samuel Beckett Chair of Drama and Theatre from 1994 to 2006. He is the author or editor of many award-winning books, notably The Spectator and the Spectacle, Looking at Shakespeare, Foreign Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Asia (with Yong Li Lan), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, and The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance.
Simply Charly: Before you became a scholar of English literature and theater, how were you first exposed to the works of William Shakespeare? What was it about the playwright that captured your attention?
Dennis Kennedy: I read Shakespeare in high school and was fascinated by the language. I also acted in school plays and musicals and probably was attracted to the hammy side of Shakespeare, the stupid kind of acting that treats the words as heavy music for declamation. At the University of San Francisco, I was impressed by a course given by John Gleason, a most erudite teacher, who recalled the conditions of Shakespeare’s time with conviction. But it was a production of King Lear at the Actors’ Theatre of San Francisco, directed by Herbert Blau, that most affected me. Much later Blau became a friend, but at the time I was about 20 and had never been exposed to the possibility of radical interpretation. What he managed to do—while remaining relatively faithful to the text—was to re-imagine the play entirely. I saw then that Shakespeare existed in two time zones: the period of his lifetime and the period of my life. Because these two zones are incompatible and hugely different in culture and attitude, they have to be bridged to make sense. But they can’t be bridged. That’s the paradox of any work of art from the past that manages to get itself accepted in the present. It’s not a matter of what sometimes is called “timelessness,” because nothing is timeless. Everything is part of history, which means everything is confined by time; we can’t really know the past. But in trying to bridge the gap between past and present, we can try to make a work from the past mean something to us so that we understand it on our own terms. Sometimes we distort it, wrench it, or twist it, and thus are nominally unfaithful to its creator, but it’s the effort to bridge that matters. It matters much more than a simplistic notion of fidelity.
SC: You have written a number of original plays, which have been performed in theatres everywhere from New York to London. Did you incorporate any Shakespearean elements in terms of staging or narrative structure into your productions?
DK: No, I’m not interested in that. Well, I suppose because Shakespeare was extremely good at character and narrative structure, even with highly complex plots, he’s always there as a model for a playwright, even unconsciously. But I think it would be bad practice to imitate him. We have a different way of apprehending stories now. Because of the prevalence of film, TV, music videos, cyber gaming, and instantaneous communication, we are more attuned to speed—in certain ways we’re able to grasp a narrative line more quickly. This doesn’t mean we’re superior to Shakespeare’s original audience; for one thing, they were better prepared to process information orally than we are, to stand still for hours and listen, whether to sermons in church or actors in the theatre. Shakespeare is a rhetorical dramatist, meaning he conveys ideas, action, and character through the words the actors speak. We prefer images. But images are everywhere in our world, so our problem is to sort out what’s of value in the flood of images and information around us. When you have much of the world available on your phone, you tend to get impatient with lengthy narrative development. That’s one of the problems we face today, and the reason so many Shakespeare films and theatre productions cut the text down, sometimes savagely.
SC: Shakespeare is arguably the best-known playwright around the world. What do you think sparked this lasting interest in his work beyond his native England, particularly in non-English-speaking countries?
DK: That’s difficult to answer because there are many reasons and not all of them apply everywhere. For example, at the end of the 18th century in the German states, Shakespeare was seen as a revolutionary by progressive artists and audiences, partly because he violated the norms of the French neoclassical models. So Shakespeare became a flag for a political movement in opposition to the royal establishment. But a century later in Japan, he was seen as virtuous because the new government wished to promote all things modern, by which they meant Western. Ironically, Shakespeare in Japan was modern precisely because he was a classic in the West. Of course, in both cases, there was something in the Shakespeare texts that appealed to a variety of people, but it wasn’t always the same thing. Sometimes it was the characters, with their in-depth psychology; at other times it was the stories; at still others, it was his growing international status in itself. This is why the issue of Shakespeare’s “universality” is so complicated. A lot of people, including some Shakespeare scholars, like to claim that his works transcend time and place, and can appeal to all people everywhere. First of all, that’s not true—there are areas of the world where Shakespeare is not admired. More importantly, though, what is ignored by such claims is that people’s response to Shakespeare at different times and places has almost always been determined by the culture they find themselves in. So Shakespeare, partly because of the large canvas of his work, can be a different poet and a different playwright at different times and places.
SC: You’ve done a lot of research about the relationship between a performance and its audience, most recently in your book The Spectator and the Spectacle. So who were Shakespeare’s contemporary spectators and how did they interact with his plays? Is there evidence to suggest that his plays drew in an audience from beyond the British Isles?
DK: We don’t know enough about this, or at least I don’t. We know he was one of the most popular playwrights of his time—though that popularity was the property of his theatre company rather than being invested in his name. Spectators probably knew the names of the actors better than Shakespeare’s. We know that some of his works pleased Queen Elizabeth and at least one offended her, and we also know his company was highly privileged at the court of her successor, King James, who became their official patron. Macbeth, by the way, produced at the beginning of his reign, is deliberate flattery of James, who had been (and remained) the King of Scotland and claimed descent from Banquo. But theatre is ephemeral—it disappears and leaves behind imperfect traces—and it wasn’t valued in Shakespeare’s time as what we’d call High Culture. It was more like daily TV shows. So not many records survive that help us understand how his works were received by the variety of people and social classes who attended performances. Oddly, some of the documents that do survive were written by foreigners—letters home by visitors to London, including students and diplomats, who were struck by the theatre because they’d not seen such a thing before.
SC: You edited and contributed to the book Foreign Shakespeare, which was first published in 1993. In the foreword of the book you point out, “Shakespearean studies and theatrical productions have been Anglo-centered” (p. 1). Over the last 20 years, do you feel that we have moved away from this Anglo-centered approach? Moreover, how has this approach affected our understanding of Shakespeare’s plays and their impact?
DK: Yes, I think there has been an enormous change since then, though by no means all due to me. A growing number of scholars and critics have begun to see the value and the inherent difference of “foreign” treatments of Shakespeare, and through international theatre festivals and non-English-language films have been exposed to new approaches that are outside the rather staid Anglo tradition. The issue here is two-fold. First, the problem of translation: as the Italian proverb puts it, every translator is a traitor. Translators today tend to put Shakespeare’s lines into a contemporary voice. For us, Hamlet is a series of well-known quotations, but in Polish, it can sound like a new play. We have to accept that Shakespeare in French is not and never can be equal to the glorious familiarity we have with the verse in English, just as Molière in English is a long way from Molière in French. But modern translations may have a hidden advantage because they can be more accessible to the audience than Shakespeare’s antiquated English is to us.
Second, we have to acknowledge that Shakespeare, like many aspects of culture, has been affected by globalization, no matter how you define it. At least in developed countries, people are much more aware of the “foreign” than they were 20 years ago—in food, clothing, language, and image. A process of inter-culturalization has been going on for a long time. It is connected to both colonialism and global capital, and not everything about it is admirable by any means. The access provided by easy travel, satellite television, and especially the Internet, has created a supermarket of cultures, which allows people to pick what they want with little regard for origin or embedded meaning. For Shakespeare, one positive result that couldn’t be accomplished even a few years ago is that you can now download a film, or access a segment of a theatre production online. For example, you can see clips on YouTube or elsewhere of Vishal Bhardwaj’s wonderful film trilogy, Maqbool, Omkara, and Haider, which are adaptations of Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet transferred to various languages and locales of contemporary India. They are extremely foreign to Shakespeare, and at the same time, they are Shakespeare.
SC: In 2005, you directed a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Chinese Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. What were some of the challenges you faced putting on a play written by a 16th-century Englishman for a 21st-century Chinese audience?
DK: The big one was language since the production was in Chinese and I speak only a few words of it. I had very competent interpreters at my side, but working with actors through a translator is tedious and slow, and you can never be positive you’re being understood properly. The translation of the play that we used also was a problem because its language sounded a little old-fashioned to some of the actors, who often changed the words without my consent. Sometimes the interpreters told me about a change; sometimes they didn’t. And while I grew pretty good at identifying when an actor didn’t understand what he or she was saying, I was not capable of telling whether the tone of voice was actually appropriate. Since As You Like It is about love, sex, and gender identity, I tried some things that mixed up the gender of the characters and actors. The four sets of lovers were played alternately by men and women. This was unusual in China and a bit of a shock to the actors, as I had created another layer of trouble on top of those troubles already present. I think it worked in the end—at least I was told it did—but perhaps it seemed a bit exotic to the audience. I was trying hard not to be exotic, to keep the action and the characters believable and real, on a level of common understanding with the spectators, but it’s possible that the production moved into a kind of refined or arty realm despite my intentions. One newspaper called it a “sex change” production.
SC: You are on the advisory boards of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive (A-S-I-A) at the National University of Singapore and the MIT Global Shakespeare project. What kind of work do these organizations do?
DK: They are both online archives of international Shakespeare performance. They contain a large variety of accessible materials, from clips and complete films of performances to documents and pictures relating to preparation and reception. Anybody can go to those sites and get a good deal of helpful information about the uses of Shakespeare worldwide.
SC: The U.K. government recently announced that it would be donating $2.7 million to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into Mandarin. In the process of translations, how do you preserve the nuanced humor, innuendo, and general play on words that distinguish the playwright’s famous works?
DK: The short answer is, you don’t. You can’t. The long answer which we don’t have time for, involves making choices about equivalents in poetry, references, and jokes. The translation of any classic play is tremendously complicated, and the translator is usually faced with having to lose something in order to gain something. The best of the Shakespeare translators succeed fairly well, but they do so with full knowledge that they are providing a substitute or equivalent experience, not the original.
SC: Plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth are staples in high school curriculums around the world. Why is the study of Shakespeare still relevant today?
DK: It isn’t automatically relevant. It has to be made so. Sometimes I think we ascribe superman status to Shakespeare out of desperation for a hero and overlook the difficulties. I have doubts about whether high school students should be forced to study Shakespeare—forcing somebody to do something often creates resentment, and sometimes lifelong resentment and avoidance. I don’t mean that Shakespeare’s plays should vanish from the curriculum, but we need to rethink how we go about teaching them. Studying Shakespeare is work, yes, but should be pleasant too. Many teachers today rely on films of the plays to garner enthusiasm, which is a good start. Baz Luhrmann’s restless film called William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) is a fine example of how Shakespeare can be seen through the lens of contemporary popular culture. Watching films of the plays, however, is not a substitute for reading aloud. Actually doing scenes in the classroom, scenes that are rehearsed by students, and then performed for a small audience, is the best way to get inside the texts and see how they work as dramas that can still appeal to us. We should also take students to the theatre, if possible because even a poor production has something to teach us. And sending students to do original research in alternative methods of performance, the kind that can be done on those websites I mentioned, is a great way to ask questions about what place Shakespeare has in our own culture.
SC: Beyond the world of academia, Shakespeare has had a major influence on today’s pop culture. His plays have served as inspiration for numerous Hollywood films, such as West Side Story, which is a musical version of Romeo and Juliet. What are your thoughts on these modern adaptations?
DK: Shakespeare has been part of pop culture since the middle of the 18th century. Of course, pop culture now is much more widespread and various. Because Shakespeare has entered deeply into our tribal memory, especially in English-speaking nations, you can find him in advertisements, songs, jokes, parodies, and even Halloween. He’s in TV shows, films, and all over the Internet. It’s hard to think of another writer or artist with such immediate name recognition. This is a burden as well as a benefit. Extreme familiarity with a cultural object lessens its use value; you might say there is too much noise around Shakespeare and not enough signal. In a way, we have to ignore the prevalence of Shakespeare in order to get to a Shakespeare we can understand as part of ourselves.
Photo: Ted Jones