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The Tempest
The Globe, London

Munira Mirza
posted 26 May 2005

'Now my charms are all o'erthrown/And what strength I have's mine own/Which is most faint'.

As Prospero departs from the stage in these closing lines of The Tempest, Shakespeare too takes his leave of the world and bids farewell to his audience. In this, his final play, most critics see Shakespeare's contemplation of the transience of the imagination and his own mortality. It is a fitting play for the Globe theatre this season, as the artistic director, Mark Rylance, also takes his leave from the project he has devoted his life to for the past ten years. In doing so, he has nurtured the Globe into one of the few institutions in London to win popular support, as well as critical acclaim.

Rylance defied all expectations for the Globe, a project lambasted in its early stages of development as being nothing more that a tourist trap for American holiday makers, eager to 'see a bit of Shakespeare' in the old country. The reconstruction of the Elizabethan stage, replete with historically authentic detail, was viewed with scepticism by many Shakespearean critics who felt distaste for the idea of a return to 'how Shakespeare was performed in his day'. The reaction to the Globe reflected the attitudes of an established generation of critics who regarded Shakespeare's texts as immortal and transhistorical. To confine actors to Elizabethan dress and stage directions was considered a travesty. The fashion for Shakespeare in the late twentieth century stage was to reinterpret his works for the modern day, using contemporary costume and stage settings. Productions such as Deborah Warner's Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, not only unearthed his less famous plays, but presented a radically new vision of their meaning. Her bloody and violent interpretation of a less well known play set the standard for reading the bard anew.

But the penchant for novelty and shock may have had its day, especially with the rise of New Historicism. This academic school sought to re-examine Shakespeare in light of his own contemporary society. The 'founder' of New Historicism, and arguably the most interesting critic of Shakespeare in recent years, Stephen Greenblatt, began to ask questions of the playwright that might lend new insight into his words. What did he read? What were his politics? How did he learn about other countries? How does his presentation of monarchs relate to actual news events in England at that time? How important was his alleged Catholicism? And of course, the most obvious question of all: was Shakespeare gay? These questions may have been asked previously but never in such a systematised way. The unearthing of archives and new historical documents also made such enquiry increasingly possible for this new generation of scholars.

The answers to the New Historicists' questions are intriguing and point to new theories about Shakespeare's intentions. They suggest a playwright whose opinions are elusive but extremely well-informed by texts circulating in London at the time. Shakespeare was reading ancient classics but also contemporary continental humanists such as Montaigne and Erasmus. He was reading stories about voyages and colonial expeditions that would fuel his imagination for his later 'romance' plays. Shakespeare's company was also in the thick of political intrigue, once being paid to perform Richard II on the eve of an attempted rebellion against Elizabeth I. New Historicism uncovered social and cultural trends that shed a new light on Shakespeare's characters, in particular his female leads. James I's obsession with witchcraft and pamphlets about the licentious nature of women reveals the world in which Shakespeare created memorable characters such as Portia, Juliet and Beatrice.

New Historicism has been rightly criticised for sometimes having too much of an anthropological bent and attributing meanings to Shakespeare's drama that appear far-fetched. In its most theoretical form, this academic school has sought to elide the divisions between reading history and reading literature. It has sometimes placed too much emphasis on the importance of texts in 'constructing' the world in which Shakespeare lived. History is reduced to what is written at the time.

Yet, for all this, New Historicism's greatest achievement is to return focus to Shakespeare's theatricality - something that had been lost in endless academic readings of his work. New research explored the use of space on the stage and the routine by which actors would perform their lines. We can understand the constraints he was writing within when we know how censorship was handled by the Lord Chamberlain's department. Even the layout of the inside of the Globe tells us what kind of audience Shakespeare was writing for and how he could predict its response and behaviour to certain plot twists, character changes and linguistic tricks.

Most notably in his 'problem plays' (eg Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure), which are both comic and tragic, the academic emphasis traditionally focused on the language as it was written. The New Historicist approach reconsidered these plays, as they would have been performed. The result is a fuller appreciation of Shakespeare's wit and how his use of comedy underlies, rather than contradicts, his tragic sensibility. When performed as intended, these plays cease to be 'problem plays' but attain a kind of unity of human experience almost impossible to discern on paper.

The Globe theatre is an experiment in trying to revive the Elizabethan approach to Shakespeare - an approach that, in the past, has been wrongly equated with wearing 'authentic costume'. Long gone are the days of the dreadful BBC three-hour versions of Macbeth for schoolchildren, with worthy English actors in corsets reciting lines in the Received Pronunciation. The Globe has shown that the Elizabethan stage was dynamic, physical, and bawdy. Most importantly, it has shown a genuine respect for the audience's intelligence. Its productions have been self-referential and intelligently directed, yet the quality of acting has made the language more accessible than perhaps any other Shakespeare I have seen performed. At times it doesn't work. The current performance of The Tempest has only three actors playing the whole cast of characters, involving a breathtaking number of changes within each scene. This is extremely difficult to pull off and an audience unfamiliar with the play might be confused. However, if you have the time to read the play beforehand, you should be able to keep up and will be rewarded with a skilful, playful performance.

There is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to do Shakespeare; the only condition of success is the power of imagination to bring his language to life on stage, in whatever context. The Globe has been uniquely successful in this respect and has built a loyal public for its work. I hope it will continue to do so for the next ten years.


Till 2 October 2005

 

 
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