Shakespeare: UR Doin it Wrong

Posted: December 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

I could write a lot of posts about about this. Hell, I could write a whole blog about this if I saw theatre more often. BUT! I’ll try and keep it to this one post. And keep it as brief as I can.

I love Julie Taymor, like, a stupid amount. I have never NOT liked one of her movies. They’re not all perfect (but TITUS certainly is, if you ask me.) Tempest was definitely worth seeing, the acting was spectacular (for the most part) and if you’re a giant costume nerd like me it’s worth seeing in theaters. But overall it was pretty disappointing and a lot of the problems with it were problems that occur in many Shakespeare productions, hence this post.

A few things to consider when doing Shakespeare:

Read the text.

Michael Almereyda I’m looking at you. Read the text so many freaking times you could rewrite it your damn self (ok, maybe not *quite* that many times but close) Understand what people are saying, what they’re doing, why they do and say the things they do and say. This should not need to be said And, yet. Almereyda’s Hamlet was so freaking bad I prayed for Zombie Shakespeare to rise from the grave and wreak bloody vengeance upon him. This is mainly because I suspect he read the cliffs notes and called it a day.

This was delightfully NOT true of Tamor’s Titus. It’s a really hard script to work with and she made it make sense. She made sure there was motivation in places where motivation didn’t seem to exist. She mined the text’s lush imagery and put it into her film. It was awesome.

Tempest, on the other hand, had numerous times where the text seemed completely ignored. When characters said that Prospera was violently angry she should have been violently angry. When multiple characters say that Caliban looks like some kind of crazy fishmonster, he should look like some kind of crazy fishmonster and not just a black guy with a little body paint.

Fishmonster? Seriously?

(for a minute my brain tried to justify this by thinking that maybe these characters had never seen a black guy and then I remembered that they just came back from freaking Africa)

Which brings us to

Shakespeare is a little bit racist:

Luckily, the cause of social equality has advanced a bit in 400 years. So, while Shakespeare wrote some pretty progressive stuff for the time, he also wrote quite a bit of stuff that was pretty damn racist and sexist. You can’t ignore these things.

You can no longer play Merchant of Venice as a wacky romantic comedy where an evil jew gets his comeuppance. I mean, I guess you could but I feel pretty confident that wouldn’t be cool with that and they might tell you so with pitchforks and torches.

Caliban is a really racially problematic character. He is every horrible genocide-and-slavery-justifying-stereotype they had going at the time. And that just doesn’t fly today. That needs to be addressed. The most common, though not exactly perfect, solution is to cast a white dude, dress him like a crazy fishmonster, and really play up the whole “We’re only mean to you because you tried to rape Miranda” thing. You could also deal with it by making Prospero a bitter, tyrannical, jerk who eventually learns that mercy and not enslaving people is probably the better way to go. No one ever seems to go that route, though it makes the play make WAY more sense.

What you cannot do is just hire a black guy, dress him up like a racial stereotype and hope no one calls you out on it. Because that’s not cool. And it’s confusing to an audience that (it would be hoped) has been raised to believe that slavery and racism are BAD and not really something a character we’re supposed to empathize with would engage in.

Nope. Not racist at all.

Pretty people can act, too.

I promise, there are pretty people on this earth who also know how to act. For the love of all that is holy PLEASE hire these people to play your lovers. Baz Lhurmann I’m looking at you! It really doesn’t matter *how* pretty they are, it’s boring to watch them fall in love if they’re as animated as cardboard.

Now that's what I call acting

Abandon Shakespeare voice. There is no set voice for Shakespeare. Yes, your voice should be resonant and connected to your breath but you don’t need to make every line sound like a proclamation from Gandalf the Grey

There are still WAY too many actors who perform like so:

To be, or not to be… something something, this is deep, yadda yadda kill myself, mrfl mrfl…something about death.

How did anyone take this movie seriously?!?!?

This drives me up a wall more than anything.  Yes, Shakespeare wrote a lot of words.  Yes, a lot of those words don’t quite have the same meaning that they did 400 years ago.  Yes, it takes some extra work to know the meaning of each word your saying and why you’re saying it.  But guess what?  There is a whole freaking wing of academia devoted specifically to telling you the meaning of each word you’re saying and why you’re saying it.  And no matter how hard it may be to read, those words express universal human emotions in the richest and most enduring way possible.  Those emotions are in you, they are complex, just like the words you’re saying.  Give them the richness and complexity they deserve.

Luckily, Shakespeare Voice was largely absent from Tempest, which is one of the reasons I do strongly recommend seeing it.  The vast majority of the acting was superb.  The subplot that normally makes the play drag, ended up being the best part, mainly because Tom Conti and Alan Cumming are freaking GODS.  I think Alan Cumming is one of the best Shakespearean actors I’ve ever seen simply because he does the opposite of Shakespeare Voice.  Every word that comes out of his mouth sounds as natural as it would if it was modern day dialogue.  The audience has no trouble knowing what he’s talking about because he knows exactly what he is talking about.

I was going to embed one of his scenes from TITUS but youtube wouldn’t let me.  So instead of an illustration of his acting, you’ll have to settle for an illustration of how cute he is.


  1. “To be, or not to be… something something, this is deep, yadda yadda kill myself, mrfl mrfl…something about death.”

    I totally want this one a tee shirt.

  2. […] made sure no one was using the dreaded SHAKESPEARE VOICE (discussed more thoroughly in my post, Shakespeare UR Doin it Wrong) Otherwise we would only have one shot at this and I didn’t just want this show to be good, I […]

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