We are now in an odd, reversed position when it comes to William Shakespeare and Richard III: all of a sudden, and for the first time, we seem to know where Richard III’s head is, but not where to find Shakespeare’s.
I’ve written in previous instalments of this series about the relationship between Richard III (the man), Richard III (the play), William Shakespeare, and history.
Essentially, my argument is that William Shakespeare was, for various reasons to do with his class position, his family, his career, and the historical moment and social milieu in which he found himself, peculiarly well placed to dramatise social energies, feelings, anxieties, and vertigos, which still speak to us today. He was writing at the dawn of modernity, during the years immediately following the end of the medieval, in the immediate aftermath of the English Reformation… all of which is related to the fundamental fact that he was writing during the transition from feudalism as the dominant economic form of English society to capitalism. We still live with the energies and dystrophies of modernity, since we still live in capitalist society. Indeed, Shakespeare has in some ways only become more relevant as capitalism has become more predominant. He dramatises some of its foundational myths, legends, conflicts, and anxieties. He offers a still relevant interrogation of much foundational bourgeois ideology that has gone on, in mutant form, to become hegemonic. His drama is based on people torn apart in social struggles, and though feudalism is long dead in Western Europe, we still today understand the feeling of being pulled between the imperatives of capitalist society and other non-capitalist instincts. As I said before, I don’t claim that any of this constitutes any particularly original insight on my part… though I may be slightly original in claiming that part of why we continue to find Shakespeare compelling is because he wrote about life during the phase of ‘primitive accumulation’ and, at least according to David Harvey drawing on Rosa Luxemburg, primitive accumulation has never quite gone away. Capitalism has always accumulated primitively, and this has only become more noticeable in the Western world with the rise of neoliberalism, which has cannibalised social wealth built up during the years of social democracy. Moreover, Shakespeare is embraced and performed in many other parts in the world than Europe, including places wracked by even more violent and rapacious forms of present-day primitive accumulation, usually practiced via Western economic and/or military imperialism, and/or corporate extortion.
One of the ways in which theatrical performances attempt to express, mediate, or emphasize Shakespeare’s continued ‘relevance’ is through modern dress productions. There’s an interesting irony about modern dress productions. They are almost the rule rather than the exception these days, and yet you still hear people say they dislike them. And yet it would be fair enough to describe what Shakespeare and his company did on stage at the Globe and the Blackfriars as modern dress productions. It appears that they did not generally try to present the past as looking much different. Julius Caesar, King Lear, and many other Shakespeare plays are set in ‘the past’ and yet 16th/17th century actors would have performed many of these roles wearing 16th/17th century togs. The main thing was that the costumes should be interesting, gorgeous, visually arresting. Theatrical companies and theatre managers seem to have bought expensive and luxurious aristocratic clothes from servants who were left them in their masters’ wills. The masters would have expected their servants to sell the clothes and make some money. Indeed that would have been the point of the bequest, since ‘sumptuary laws’ strictly controlled what you were allowed to wear according to your social position, and servants would have been in a lot of trouble if they’d gone around wearing fine and dandy upper class clobber. Early Modern theatrical companies considered costumes hugely important, and spent a lot of money on them.
The Peacham Drawing is the only surviving contemporary illustration of the performance of a Shakespeare play by Shakespeare’s company. It shows a scene from Titus Andronicus, a Roman tragedy and one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (probably written in collaboration with George Peele). The drawing (which is housed at Longleat, interestingly enough) shows an attempt to reflect the classical subject matter in the costumes, but also shows other figures on stage in 16th century clothes.
Now, obviously, you can’t object to modern dress. I’ve seen some great modern dress productions. And theatre isn’t just a dry exercise in exploring theme and context. It isn’t the job of a production to analyse the contextual historical significance of a play. The job of a production is to turn words on a page into an enjoyable evening. However, I confess there’s a part of me that grieves when a modern dress production scrambles the meaning of a play into incomprehensibility by cloaking it in irrelevancies.
I saw Patrick Stewart play Macbeth on stage in 2007, and as good as he was (and he was), and as good as the rest of the cast were (and they were), and as cleverly done as it was done (and it was done cleverly), the decision to give the production a ‘soviet’ feel, with Macbeth becoming a kind of Lenin/Stalin-figure (as in Animal Farm, the two are misleadingly elided), seemed an example of grafting an anachronistic extra layer of valences and implications onto a text already rife with valences and implications of its own which don’t, if we’re honest, have much to do with the history of early-to-mid 20th century Russia. It didn’t help that the toying around with communist imagery seemed to amount to little more than window dressing, justified in the programme by strained and forced analogies between Shakespeare’s tale of political tyranny and modern totalitarianism. This analogy really is deeply ahistorical and misleading, tying a deeply facile mainstream view of soviet communism to a reductionist view of Shakespeare which has him as a sort-of liberal moraliser who addresses ‘universal’ faultlines in human nature. This is, of course, perhaps the most fundamental and common – or do I mean hegemonic? – underlying view of Shakespeare… and it’s wrong and stupid.
I mean, on the most facile level, the tacit assumption of a production which likens Macbeth’s rise to the rise of Lenin/Stalin/Communism is that it presents, in a simplistic and abstract (and thus allegoricalised) way, communism as an irruption of tyranny which mysteriously negates what we could call ‘normal freedom’. The mystery of where the negation comes from it one issue (the answer really does seem to be: ‘bad guys’, with a side order of that old favourite ‘human nature’). Also, this ‘normal freedom’ is inevitably going to be associated, by implication and via normative assumptions, with non-communist forms of the 20th Century. The presence of communism as a negation implies its purported opposite. We can acknowledge that Stalinism was greatly more authoritarian than Euro-American democracy while, at the same time, not endorsing the way in which it was, and is still, portrayed as an irrational and endlessly hostile evil in capitalist ideology, which seeks to absolve Euro-American imperialism as a corollary. The association of the irruption of Macbeth’s semi-supernatural and blood-caked rise to political power with communism is automatically going to work in the same ideological system, even so long after the Cold War. Indeed, in 2007 – which was before the sudden upsurge in conscious ideological management in the entertainment industries which was necessitated by the Great Recession, etc – this very reiteration of such ideological Cold War narratives only becomes more abstract and allegorical precisely because it lacks a present-day real-world referent.
Moreover, the use of the Early Modern text to conveigh such supposedly near-allegorical eternal verities of liberal politics can only work by distorting it and its historical context, and by association our understanding of Western Europe’s own political history. The freedom that Stalin/Macbeth seems to negate is an assumed basic ‘normal’ level of social existence upon which tyranny suddenly wreaks havoc… and yet, as we’ve seen, the social norm in Shakespeare’s society (let alone medieval Scotland, which is where the play is nominally set) involved things like sumptuary laws, a strict and state-imposed universal dress code which both ruthlessly enforced and publicly illustrated complex and subtle gradations in social status. Surely, by modern liberal mainstream standards – which are the standards with which the production chooses to associate itself since it sets itself in a kind of abstracted mid-20th Century which is then clucked at moralistically – this would be seen as ruthlessly repressive, an intrusion of the state into personal lives, a ‘totalitarian’ measure. This tacitly misrepresents the play as coming from a set of assumptions grounded in a liberal consensus about social freedom. But that’s anachronistic, and thus effaces the true historical nature of Western societies. Not only that, but it also sets up a tacit false opposition between this implied past, which has had all its own authoritarianism scrubbed away, and the history of 20th Century Russia, which is set up as an example of an irrational tyranny which arises from ahistorical causes. Whatever you think about what communism was, what it became, and how the whole thing happened, at the very least you have to admit that we’re not being given any insight here. On the contrary, the record is actively being disorted… and guess what, the distortion runs in an ideological direction which tacitly positions communism as an irrational evil which stands in opposition to assumed eternal standards of what could be called ‘normal freedom’, i.e. ‘us’.
You could argue that the job of a theatrical Shakespeare production is not to give us historical insight on communism… and you’d have a point (which is also kind-of my point)… but then why invoke the aesthetic of soviet communism in your re-summoning of Macbeth? Okay, it makes everything look pretty… it all takes place in a kind of deracinated, soft-gothic, ‘dark’ mid-20th century… but you end up with little more than ‘soviet chic’ as a decoration on top of what are, basically, some very dull and hegemonic ideas. The dull and hegemonic ideas also happen to actively distort the text by de-historicising it, even as extra layers of history are slathered over it.
Shakespeare’s plays are very rooted in their own time and place, and ignoring that not only diminishes their complexity but also sends them off free-floating into a sort of cloud of thematic vapour, where they become ‘about’ atomised and reified idea/things like Ambition and Evil and Love, etc. This isn’t just bad for them as texts, it allows the very ideological co-optation I just described, through the shearing away of historical context. This isn’t (usually) a big conspiracy of course, it happens almost by accident, almost as a self-organizing phenomenon, when these texts land in a sea of hegemonic ideological assumptions without any of their original historical embeddedness… and I’m now drowning in so many mixed metaphors that even the Bard himself would raise an eyebrow and say “steady on mate”. And he liked his mixed metaphors did the Bard.
To be clear, I’m not worried about historical ‘accuracy’ as such. One of the mistakes I at moments made when I wrote about ‘The Shakespeare Code’, and about Merlin and villains, was to allow myself to sound like I was assessing the quality of fictional texts set in the past based on how ‘accurate’ they were. That’s not what I’m about. Shakespeare himself paid little attention to historic ‘accuracy’ when setting his own plays in the past. Plays like Pericles and Timon, both supposedly set in ancient Greece, are stuffed with inaccuracies and anachronisms… and, more profoundly, are fundamentally based on peculiarly Early Modern habits of thought, ideas fashionable in 16th/17th century English literary culture, etc. Famously, Shakespeare puts references to mechanical clocks into Julius Caesar. History, as a discourse and field of study, didn’t really exist in a form we’d recognise in Shakespeare’s time, so it’s hard to know how he (or any of his contemporaries) could really have gone about investigating historical ‘accuracy’. And they didn’t. They read their classical authors like Plutarch, and took it from there. Similarly, they were not remotely shy about projecting contemporary perspectives on British history back onto their own recitations of events from the chroniclers. Many of the characters in Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Parts1-2, Henry V) seem strangely aware of the looming possibility of the Wars of the Roses as a punishment to be visited upon the land if Richard II is deposed, or if monarchical legitimacy is not then restored, etc. Shakespeare is writing stories about the past based in the thoughtworld of his present, based on his world’s perspectives. At a crude level, he is hooking his writing into then-current anxieties about the sucession, and the possible political consequences for everyone if it turns into another argument.
This is why I like so many of the productions in the later end of the BBC’s Complete Dramatic Works of Shakespeare series. As part of the funding deal with Time/Life, the producers of the series were limited to producing the plays in historical costume. The early part of the series, as produced by Cedric Messina, unfortunately tended towards very literal-mindedly rendering the plays in a style very directly based on their subject matter. The production of Julius Caesar, for instance, does the whole thing in togas. They even hired the guy who directed I, Claudius to direct it, because he had experience doing in-period Roman stuff (though the idea that I, Claudius represents a faithful attempt at representing Roman history is laughable… what with it deriving so much of its power and wit from filtering Roman history through the manners and mores of the late-19th/early-20th Century upper middle classes of imperial Britain). By contrast, when Jonathan Miller comes in as producer for series 3, the series branches out a bit in ambition, becomes more textually aware (they even change the titles to look like the pages of the First Folio), and starts using its remit more flexibly, pushing as far as possible against its limitations, an approach which continues when Shaun Sutton takes over for the last lap. In this latter half of the series, you get productions set in a non-specific and generic past, productions where the setting and costumery is based on paintings (the excellent version of All’s Well That Ends Well seems to take place inside a Vermeer canvas), and productions where the resolutely and distinctly 17th Century concerns of plays like Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, etc, are emphasized by simply setting them in the 17th Century, no matter that they ostensibly take place in ancient Rome, ancient Troy, and ancient Athens respectively. It really is hard to beat the frisson of history one gets from seeing these fascinating plays performed in such a way as to shine a spotlight onto the historical context from which they emerge. (It helps that they’re all excellent productions of endlessly engaging plays.)
Shakespeare was writing them in the 17th Century and for the 17th Century. He was (quite consciously, I think) using them as a way of interrogating and negotiating the meaning of his society as it underwent vertiginous and disorienting change. You might be tempted to say “No Jack, he was writing popular entertainment in order to make some money” and I’d agree with you, but I’d add the wrinkle that what he wrote about was popular with so many people precisely because it addressed things about their changing world that they wanted and needed to see presented in a discursive, dramatic, thoughtful, interrogative way.
And this is what you want from drama. And it’s what Shakespeare provides, in spades. However, I actually think that you lose some of the wide-ranging power of these dramatic and discursive interrogations when you confine them or narrow their scope by imposing overly specific systems of references on them via themed modern dress productions. The Patrick Stewart Macbeth I mentioned above is a case-in-point.
Relatedly, via the ideological marker of what is called ‘totalitarianism’, there is the famous stage production of Richard III starring Ian McKellen, which was later adapted (partly by McKellen himself) into a film. This film is set in an alternate 1930s England, just after a historically relocated version of the Wars of the Roses. Richard’s usurpation of the crown becomes the rise of a modern dictator, and as Richard finally achieves power, he is saluted by massed crowds of chanting, marching, uniformed fanatics. Red banners unfurl behind him, bearing his symbol – the boar – stylised in black on a white disc, and looking uncannily familiar…
But we’ll go into that another time.
See, I told you all that stuff about Hitler last time wasn’t just a pointless diversion.