Happy 2012! This post is the first in what will likely be a series related to my PhD proposal process.
Since making the decision to pursue at PhD, I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time reading, researching, and formulating questions and ideas for the proposal. At the moment, I’m looking to examine the development of Shakespeare iconography, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and its ongoing effects on Shakespeare performance practices. I’ve been noticing that Shakespeare as text-icon and Shakespeare as man-icon developed in different ways and at different times, and I’m curious as to how those developments affect productions of Shakespeare’s plays in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The ideas are still very much in process, but I’m attaching here the first thoughts that I put down onto paper as a ‘proposal draft’ (although the final proposal will certainly look very different). I’m posting it because, at this stage, I’m very open to thoughts, ideas, and concerns about the work so far. Suggestions for the ever-growing bibliography/reading list are also most welcome. Please keep in mind that it is a very, very rough draft, and I wrote most of it on an airplane…
Poet, Text, and Icon: the development of Shakespeare iconography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its ongoing effect on Shakespeare in performance
The major research question that I’m looking to explore is: what implications does the development of Shakespeare iconography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have on Shakespeare in performance in the twenty-first century? In particular, I’ve become fascinated by the tensions between the iconic poet and the iconic text. Each develop at different paces and in different ways throughout the long theatrical period referred to as the Restoration, and yet I believe that both exert a powerful force upon contemporary attitudes toward and productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare as poet developed as an icon quite early in the Restoration, but his renown continued to build throughout the period, climaxing with David Garrick’s Jubilee in Stratford in 1769. Garrick himself, however, freely adapted Shakespeare’s texts throughout his career, indicating that the height of Shakespeare’s plays as icons in their own right had yet to be reached at the time of the Jubilee. On twenty-first-century stages, Shakespeare’s iconography is firmly established as hegemony; he is the ‘national poet’ of Dobson’s title, but the text of his plays has, over time, become just as iconic as the man himself.
Although Shakespeare the man was revered from the early years of the Restoration as part of ‘the happy Triumvirate’ of Fletcher, Jonson, and Shakespeare, his position in that group of exalted pre-Civil War playwrights rests on the ‘widespread view of [his] plays as virtually unmediated expressions of Nature’ (Dobson 2001: 30, 32). In other words, the person of Shakespeare was seen to have created rough but fixable poetry which the early Restoration adaptors were only too happy to polish up; he was seen as having possessed an instinctual genius that needed pruning and editing in order to produce truly great plays.
Thomas Shadwell’s ‘1678 alteration of Timon of Athens explains the adaptor’s right to have his name on the title page instead of Shakespeare’s by prefacing it with a description of the crucial work he has carried out on the text in question: “Made into a play. By Tho. Shadwell”’ (Dobson 2001: 33). In the Restoration period, adaptations of Shakespeare tended to radically alter the text and plot of the plays; in the twenty-first century, adaptations tend to keep the text as intact as possible while lifting the play and dropping it into a set of circumstances different to those of its origin (cf: Rupert Goold). Dobson points out the tendency during the earlier years of the Restoration to ‘modernize Shakespeare’s language to make it blend in with their own’, a practise which resulted in productions which fit the theatrical trends of the time, despite the implicit rejection of Shakespeare’s unaltered texts as old-fashioned (Dobson 2001: 123). In the twenty-first century, however, this trend is reversed: we exalt the universality and timelessness of the plays, and yet we keep their texts unaltered, sometimes resulting in ‘museum piece’ Shakespeare that feels out of joint with contemporary theatre as a whole.
Somewhere along the line, Shakespeare’s iconic status changed from an iconic poet to an iconic text written by the iconic poet. Over time, adapting and altering his texts became an edgy and daring way to do Shakespeare rather than the norm. Major companies in the twenty-first century seem more than willing to adapt Shakespeare at a surface level: we drop the intact text into such locations as Baz Luhrman’s ‘Verona Beach’ and Rupert Goold’s vaguely Soviet dystopia. We might cut lines here and there to keep the running time down, but the text is always taken from a reputable edition of the Complete Works and never cut in such a way as to substantially alter the plot.
While Dobson argues that the Restoration adaptations between the Exclusion Crisis and the Jacobite uprisings ‘cumulatively […] seem to demonstrate the timeless value of the plays they individually set out to rewrite and replace’, I will argue that the twenty-first century has reversed this equation, seeming to show that the plays are out of date despite our best efforts to emphasize the continued relevance of their now-ancient poetry (Dobson 2001: 97). What do we gain by either a surface-level modernization of the plays’ contexts or a strict adherence to the so-called ‘original’ circumstances of their playing? What might be stand to gain by chancing a radical, Restoration-style adaptation of the iconic text? Suppose someone were to stage Davenant’s Macbeth or Tate’s King Lear or Durfey’s version of Cymbeline; would such a production tell us anything about the validity of the way we ‘do’ Shakespeare? Take it one step further: suppose someone were to write an entirely new adaptation of a Shakespeare play in the spirit of the Restoration adaptors. Criteria would include a radically altered plotline, divers new characters, scenes, and speeches, and at least one added song or dance. Who would do it? and, perhaps more importantly, who would pay to see it?
With all this in mind, I would like to explore the following research questions:
Group 1: Shakespeare as Icon
What events led to the development of Shakespeare as both an iconic personage and an iconic text?
What is the relationship between the iconic text (the Folio) and the iconic man (the Bard)? How has that relationship developed?
Do any of Shakespeare’s contemporaries come even close to his iconic status? Does this make us any more or less willing to adapt their plays?
How and why have the specifics of Shakespeare-worship changed over time?
When and how did the unaltered text, particularly the First Folio, develop as an iconic, idolized element of Shakespeare?
Modern editions make copious changes to the Quarto/Folio texts; why do so many students and practitioners of Shakespeare then practice reverence for texts that are already altered from the ‘originals’?
Group 2: Shakespeare Performance Trends in the Twenty-First Century
How do twenty-first-century productions of Shakespeare on major stages compare to overall trends in theatre practice? In other words, has Shakespeare kept up with the times?
Do twenty-first-century audiences reject productions that include radically adaptive elements such as Rupert Goold’s recent version of The Merchant of Venice and Julie Taymor’s ‘Prospera’ film version of The Tempest because of legitimate artistic objections or simply because they ‘break the mould’ of what Shakespeare is supposed to look like? Is there a clear distinction between these two things?
What is the value of studying ‘original practices’ (ie, cue script, the Globe, all-male casts, etc.)? What is the value of Shakespeare’s Globe? What do we gain from (fragmented) reconstruction? Where does the Globe fit into contemporary theatre?
Is Shakespeare in the twenty-first century more successful as a vehicle for innovation and spectacle or as a vehicle for re-creation and reconstruction? What sells Shakespeare to contemporary audiences?
What are the implications of retaining Shakespeare’s iconic status?
What are the contemporary forces working against Shakespeare as icon?
Group 3: Shakespeare in Adaptation
When does a production of a Shakespeare play become an adaptation? How is a twenty-first-century definition of ‘adaptation’ different to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century definition?
Does adaptive intent matter? Must an adaptor be aware of himself as an adaptor, and, conversely, is a production an adaptation if there was no directorial/authorial intent to adapt?
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