Of Snobbery and Shakespeare and Doctor Who

I am a snob.

This should come as a surprise to a grand total of no one; I’ve mentioned it before and, as a point of interest, we (The Association of Douchebag Hipsters) have a support group now. I mean, to wit: I refuse to see the movie before reading the book. I think any pizza not originating in New York is worthy of little more than a judgmental glare. My favorite band is Neutral Milk Hotel.

But, here’s the thing: I like to think of my snobbery as coming from a place of something like integrity. There’s a sincerity to it – I really do like Neutral Milk Hotel, New York pizza, and reading. What bothers me is what I think of as lazy snobbery. That’s the kind of snobbery that leads a person to, for example, dismiss an otherwise fantastic production of one of Shakespeare’s plays because it excised a single line from the four-hour-long original and that was THE MOST IMPORTANT line and the play is meaningless without it and man, what is up with culture these days? Because, while I suppose that sort of criticism could come from a sincere concern about maintaining the integrity of the greatest ever author of the English language, it seems to come more from a place of showmanship. It seems to stem from a desire to make sure everyone else knows how cultured and well-educated and perceptive the speaker is, to the point of not letting anyone else have any fun.

This is the same kind of snobbery that rails against modernizations of Shakespeare’s work. These people apparently think that any production not staged with 16th century clothing in British accents in an open-air theater with catcalls from the audience and preferably all the female parts played by men is, if you’ll excuse my alliterative indulgence, Shakespearean sacrilege (in fact, I think they have a support group as well). This, I think, is patently ridiculous and completely irrational. As I see it, there are two types of modernizations, total and partial. A total modernization would be something like Ten Things I Hate About You. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Ten Things I Hate About You is in any way high art, but it is perfectly entertaining and, basically, a continuation of the tradition that Shakespeare himself embraced. The movie takes a previously told story, an archetype embedded in the zeitgeist, and uses it as inspiration for commentary on its own cultural-historical context. Shakespeare did the same thing with even older stories, and so a total modernization is a perfectly legitimate use of the Bard’s plays.

But where a total modernization uses Shakespeare to find new meaning, a partial modernization works to find the meaning in Shakespeare. The David Tennant version of Hamlet is a good example of this (and let’s just get this out of the way. Yes, I hunted down a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays to watch for fun largely because it starred an actor from a nerdy British television show. And I spent most of a Friday night watching it. Then I did this again with a friend. Moving on.) This production is set in a weird convergence of past and present, with modern dress and props, but no attempt to update the language or relationships between the characters. It’s as though someone bodily lifted up Shakespeare and plopped him down in the twenty-first century.

And, well, I think it’s brilliant. Because, see, I love Shakespeare; it’s an occupational hazard of being an English major. But lots of people don’t, and the most common – and, honestly, the most disheartening – reason I hear for this is that they don’t “get” it. And the thing is, I can tell you exactly why they say that: it’s because they see the complex language, the unfamiliar cultural assumptions, the tropes which have fallen out of use, and they get scared. They get intimidated, because they can’t find a handle, a way in. But really, when you get down to it, Shakespeare is telling stories, and they’re universal stories, that we retell and reenact all the time. Romeo and Juliet is about the rush of being a teenager, about the immediacy and idealism and sense that we’ll forever be at this point in life. Hamlet is about figuring out what kind of adult you want to be, and about how to deal with a world that is suddenly far darker, and simultaneously more wonderful, than you could have expected or can now handle. Othello is about trust and betrayal and the susceptibility of good men to evil. And once you have a grasp on the basic story, then you can go and dig through all of the language and symbolism and themes, because that’s the fun part; that’s what makes Shakespeare’s take different than, say, John Hughes’. But really, the point is the story, and how it can reach out over years and empires and religions and still mean the same thing, still touch a floundering soul in the same way.

Which is why I love the partial modernization ethos of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet (which I suppose is what I should call it as opposed to “the one with the Doctor”). Because, see, dress and props represent a powerful cultural dialogue. They’re a sort of shorthand, a way to save words. If we see a man who is wearing a tuxedo but is barefoot, we know exactly what that stands for – it makes a rapid and potent nonverbal statement. I don’t have to explain this statement to you; you don’t even have to think about it on a conscious level; it just speaks to a subliminal area of your cultural conditioning.

Sure, it’s possible to make this sort of statement using period dress. You could have someone standing on stage with their – doublet, I suppose, undone or something. But all that would happen with that is that the audience would have to translate that to a man wearing a tuxedo barefoot. Partial modernizations get rid of the middleman, and in doing so, force you to lose the detachment with which many people approach Shakespeare. Understanding the visual dialogue gives you a way in. It tells you that, yes, the language is weird, but here’s something you do understand, and it points you to the story that you also understand.

Look, there are plenty of other reasons to recommend the RSC 2008 production of Hamlet. The performances are simply outstanding. Notably, Patrick Stewart, as both Claudius and the Ghost, plays to perfection a man who is deeply convinced of his own irredeemable evil, completely in control of any situation, and simultaneously strangely sympathetic. And David Tennant – well, I won’t go all fangirl on you, but he is fantastic. He plays the character throughout his whole body, captures the wit and playfulness and despair and desperation and confusion and tragedy of Hamlet, sometimes all together in a single glance. He possesses the unique talent of making Shakespeare’s language seem natural, colloquial even. His performance is, in a word, riveting – even by the fifth act, when I was (to be perfectly honest) distracted and fidgety and tired, I couldn’t tear my eyes away when Tennant was onscreen. Additionally, the production teases out the humor from the Shakespeare, as well as the tragedy and even some of the viciousness. This is an engaging, emotional representation of the play, one that, in many ways, speaks to a primal sensibility.

Is this faithful to the original? Who knows? Really, who cares? It’s fantastic. Yes, this is, in many ways, Shakespeare for people who don’t like Shakespeare – let’s be real, it stars the Doctor and the main character spends most of the second and third act wearing a t-shirt. But it’s also Shakespeare for people who love Shakespeare, who see the commonalities underneath all the foreignness and who want other people to see that, too. Because, no, this is not an exact replication of the production that was put on in the 17th century. But that production would be useful only as a historical artifact; this one is something alive. We’re not seeing the play in exactly the same way Shakespeare’s audiences did, but we’re feeling it the same way. And that, I think, is the most faithful one could ever be to the Bard.

Oh, and one last thing: because PBS is freaking AWESOME and you should totally support it and tell the government to not take away all of its funding, you can watch the entire production for free here.


4 responses to “Of Snobbery and Shakespeare and Doctor Who

  1. I think this production of the play seems pretty great. I’ve seen pictures and watched some scenes, and the RSC seems to have done a good job in their modernisation of the play. It all fits together.

    I’m so bummed I didn’t discover Doctor Who and David Tennant until after this was playing. I wish I would have gone and seen it. And now I can’t even find a decent recording of it to watch! But hey, at least I got to see Tennant and Tate in Much ado about nothing a couple of years later. That was pretty awesome too!


    • I LOVED their Much Ado…I saw the recording of it, but I’m so jealous you got to see it live! I mean, that’s my favorite Shakespeare comedy, and there are very few people who are as good at making Shakespeare understandable as Tennant. Did you try the PBS link for Hamlet? Not sure what countries it works in, but it’s worth a shot!


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