How About Studying Other Playwrights For A Change?
Tasked with reviewing Amazon’s King Lear, I searched for it, and discovered fourteen (FOURTEEN!) film versions dating from 1917 to the present. Immediately I wondered: Why was this one necessary? I hoped to see something revelatory in this latest iteration. I didn’t find it.
The acting is exemplary, overall. One cannot fault Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, or Emily Watson. It’s pretty to look at, though film has never done William Shakespeare justice. The directing, a bit over-the-top, wants to make up for the incomprehensible dialogue. The ensemble performs the piece at such a rapid-fire pace that I had to make sure Aaron Sorkin didn’t direct it. Nope. Richard Eyre. He attempts to make plot points clear to the unindoctrinated, like when Anthony Hopkins practically gropes Emma Thompson’s uterus while yelling “barren!” But unless it’s punctuated like that, there’s no chance of deciphering the dialogue as you go along. The only way modern humans can glean what’s going on in a Shakespeare play is if they’ve studied it. Don’t bother watching if you haven’t read the play.
So allow me to deliver the gist. Dad is the King and he’s lost his mind and no one has the balls to take the car keys to the kingdom away from him. It’s a wonderful vehicle for Hopkins to scream and rant. But is it necessary? More necessary than the 13 versions that came before it?
I’d argue that none of them are necessary, that this persistent regurgitation of Shakespeare reinforces the patriarchy. The insistence (abetted by many scholars) that no one will ever write better plays than this long-dead white man smacks of white supremacy.
How we tell our stories and who we let tell them belies who has power in our culture. Shakespeare’s work comprises more than five percent of American theatrical programming. He’s author of at least 75 percent of the plays read by high school students. This may be the result of calculated decisions, or lazy ones. Or both. While most high school English curricula now include books by living writers—many writers of color—the plays read are almost all Shakespeare. This is problematic for several reasons.
First, introducing plays on the page to students with Shakespeare is akin to asking them to do calculus without teaching them multiplication. Plays are rarely part of middle school curricula, so when you hand freshmen Romeo And Juliet, they end up overwhelmed. It’s written in a dead language and it’s dense. Most people’s first impression of non-musical theatre is that it’s hard, tedious, and boring.
Second, the Shakespeare-dominated curriculum presents theatre as a dead art instead of an inclusive, ever-evolving art. Most Americans don’t have access to theatre outside of what they read in school; and since they’re primarily taught Shakespeare, many conclude that all theatre is outdated epic poetry that makes them feel stupid. Less than ten percent of Americans go to the theatre. Teaching Shakespeare at the expense of plays by living authors greatly diminishes potential audiences.
Third, the plays are alienating to a diverse America. “But the universal themes! The non-traditional casting!” Don’t kid yourself. The Bard Of Avon wrote plays almost exclusively about white people. Mostly male ones. Often very privileged ones. The “Shakespeare is universal” argument actually argues that everyone should see themselves through the lens of the patriarchy.
Women and people of color need stories about women and people of color, written by women and people of color. The LGBTQ community needs stories that openly acknowledge their existence and their struggles. I’m not suggesting we abolish Shakespeare, but we could stop worshiping him and lift up other voices. Other stories exist, and the storytellers are out there. Maybe Amazon, and theatres, and teachers should look for them.