The Magazine

Shakespeare in Trouble

Mute Cordelias, cross-dressing Hamlets, and other willfulness

Dec 13, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 13 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The coup de grace occurs when one of Portia's suitors, the Prince of Arragon, arrives. Says Shakespeare: "with train." Says the Shakespeare Theatre: with dwarf, racing silently about making lewd gestures. As if modern audiences cannot take Shakespeare straight without some camp conceit for comic relief.

If this were the story of just one theater (albeit one the Economist calls "one of the world's three great Shakespearean theaters"), it would be an amusing curiosity. Unfortunately, the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington is not at all unique. Modern artists everywhere feel impelled to draw mustaches on the work of the great. It is, in part, an act of defiance. But it is more often a sign of desperation, an unwitting acknowledgment of the smallness of our time.

And yet, despite these travesties, the Bard still triumphs. We are still moved. He still speaks to us above and around and despite these febrile attempts at translation and improvement. That is the good news. The bad news is about us, plagued by a narcissism that forces even Shakespeare to struggle to be heard above our preening din.

Across town, the rival Folger Shakespeare Theater is putting on a production of Hamlet in which the role of Hamlet is divided (within each performance) among four actors, three of whom are women in cross-dress. Says Kate Norris, one of the quarter-Hamlets, "We have so much fun on this thing." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were executed for less.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.