It is my firm belief, evolved over the past eight years of study (and likely to change at some point, pending further study), that any notion of “fidelity” to an “authentic” Shakespearean/early modern/classical text is, from a theatrical perspective at least, outdated, irrelevant, and unproductive. This is one of the reasons you’ll find me defending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project (though not the only reason). We can’t wake Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries from the grave to ask them what they meant. Even if we could, we might find that they–like so many living artists today–intended nothing at all, or not as much as we would have liked.
“Oh, ‘to be or not to be’? Yeah, I always hated that one, such a pretentious bit of poetry, but we had to cover a costume change somehow, and I thought, I dunno, Hamlet’s probably pretty depressed by this point in the play. It’s not that deep, y’know? You don’t have to read anything into it” (all spoken of course, in Ben Crystal’s best OP voice).
But as committed as I am to the idea that our collective love of Shakespeare is, to a certain extent, destructible and arbitrary, I am still a beneficiary of and a participant in a system that perpetuates his propping up. Without Shakespeare’s primacy, I wouldn’t have a job.
So this is where today’s (because there is one every day) thesis/existential crisis moment comes in: if the idea of fidelity to a classic text is irrelevant, and canon is fundamentally destructible, changeable, and arbitrary, why bother studying and producing texts like Shakespeare’s at all?
I don’t have an easy answer. Like many of my thesis crises, it comes out of a certain degree of over-thinking. The canon is, even as it continues to be destructible, changeable, arbitrary. Shakespeare is a cultural touchstone; studying how and why this came to be doesn’t make it any less true. Canonical/classical texts, too, allow us to critique them in ways that wholly new texts (if there are such things) often don’t, or can’t. To what extent does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead resonate precisely because it’s a brilliant piece of intertextuality, as opposed to a stand-alone work? (Yes, of course, it is also a stand-alone work, but I think you know what I mean.) I’m currently developing a project that asks modern women to respond creatively to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I could quite easily create a piece of theatre about 21st century feminism without reference to Measure for Measure; but Shakespeare simultaneously grants me cultural capital with which to advertise the eventual performances and affords me an opportunity to create a piece in which a diverse group of women speak back to a white, masculine canon. Then again, to what extent is a piece about modern feminism necessary and timely as a result of that same canon?
I’ve procrastinated long enough, but I wanted to throw this question, this crisis, out to the universe. Is it possible, or even desirable, to escape from the grip of “authenticity” and “fidelity” in Shakespeare and early modern performance? And what would the implications be if we did? In the meantime, why continue to produce these plays?