James Shapiro is a Shakespeare scholar and a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of eight informative books that each have uniquely shared a new light on Shakespeare’s works. Shapiro’s latest book Shakespeare in a Divided America was ranked as New York Times Ten Best Books of 2020, the following interview is about the adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays and its amenability to today’s global concerns.
I have become familiar with professor Shapiro’s work by reading one of his books Shakespeare and the Jews that guided me through writing my MA thesis in 2013 and he kindly responded to my email about the book and afterward graciously agreed to be interviewed by me for the Iranian theatre journal Shaneh (The Stage) in 2016 that was published during the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and focused on the adaptation of Bard’s works on modern performances.
Niloofar Mohtadi: Shakespeare is one of the most successful playwrights whose works have been numerously adapted on stage. What is in Shakespeare‘s works that attract artists?
James Shapiro: It would be a mistake to say he is popular because his works are universal, for I don’t believe that they are (and it is possible to imagine societies for whom Shakespeare holds little value). But for those of us who live in cultures sharply divided by the same issues that Shakespeare wrote about—war, nationalism, imperialism, individualism, tensions over sexual identity and orientation, and intolerance to racial and religious difference, censorship—the plays will continue to appeal to modern writers and audiences.
NM: Which one do you think is more successful, an adaptation of Shakespeare plays that are totally loyal to the text or modern performances that loosely based on the plays?
JS: If I understand your question correctly, I don’t have a preference. I’ve seen modern plays (and films) that were brilliant adaptations of Shakespeare– and I’ve sat through some quite terrible ones. The same holds true for modern performances of his plays. I helped to advise a terrific example of the latter for the Public Theater in New York City that staged for free in Central Park in 2016. The play was the rarely staged Troilus and Cressida, a tragic love story set in a war zone, Shakespeare’s version of the Trojan War, and the actors dressed in army fatigues and carry AK-47s. It was a powerful production—all the more so for the light it casts on what has been going on in the Middle East for the past fifteen years. Adaptations of any kind are only as good as a director’s ability to grasp what’s really at stake in the Shakespearean original and how that earlier work speaks to modern-day concerns. And few things fail as badly as misguided adaptations.
NM: Translation of Shakespeare’s plays in other languages is somehow an adaptation itself in terms of conveying the allusions, word plays, or poetic diction of sonnets, what do you think about the role of translation?
JS: Translators have a special burden since they have to deal not only with another language but with one that has changed so much over 400 years. Here again, what matters, in my view, are two things: immersion in what is Shakespearean, and a reason for translating or adapting a particular work at a particular time in a particular way. The degree of difficulty is great. But I have seen quite brilliant versions of Shakespeare in my travels, including Tokyo, Berlin, and Tel Aviv.
NM: You have probably watched plays that are adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays but they lacked the form or context of the original work. As a Shakespearean scholar do you think there should be rules for adaptation of Shakespeare? For example, level of loyalty to the dramatic language, form, and plot or conveying the concept of the original play, etc. in other words what are the limits for adaptation of Shakespeare?
JS: Most people think that Shakespeare professors are old-fashioned about adaptation and flatly reject any deviation from the sacred scripture of Shakespeare’s works. That caricature is very far from the truth. On the other hand, lines could and should be drawn. Here’s a recent example. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the US has been staging Shakespeare for over 70 years. An investor from Silicon Valley, who had trouble understanding Shakespeare’s language, gave the Festival millions of dollars to render all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern American English. The cost of this—to the language of the plays—was far too high, and ignored the real problem: that the directors and actors in Oregon didn’t know what they were saying. The problem then was not with the audience but with the theater company. It’s very clear to me that the very best artists, those steeped in Shakespeare’s original, can create very powerful adaptations. I am thinking here of the recent Indian film version of Hamlet, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, set in war-torn Kashmir as a good example. Liberties are taken—but the end result is very Shakespearean.
NM: There is a book called Shakespeare, Persia and the East by Iranian historian Cyrus Ghani that debates a theory that Shakespeare was familiar with Persia and even mentioned the culture and demography of the realm like Persian clothes or Persian prince in his plays like King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. There are also many indications and allusions from world cultures in Shakespeare’s works and most of his plays are based on stories and sources in other countries like The Merchant of Venice which was based on Il Pecorone, so can we say that Shakespeare is one of the biggest adaptor playwrights of world literature?
JS: That’s a very good point: Shakespeare adapted the works of others far more than he created his own stories. In fact, of his thirty-seven or so plays, only two (Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest) are not lifted from another writer’s plot. Shakespeare’s borrowings were truly international, from timeless myths circulating in Asia to Italian novella, to even (in his late, collaborative, and lost play Cardenio) to Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Shakespeare read widely, was curious about the world, and lived at a time when Elizabethan England was coming into contact with many nations around the globe; so it is no surprise that traces of so many cultures find their way into his plays.
NM: There have been so many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works in Iran or Iranian works performed in international festivals have you seen any of them?
JS: Alas, not yet—though I look forward to doing so, especially so now that there is a strong possibility of warming of political relations between Iran and the Western powers.
NM: In the wake of political and social changes including the rise of populism and racial injustice during recent years many have recalled them similar to Shakespeare’s tragedies, do you think adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays have become more relevant?
JS: The transformative movements of the past few years—on the Right and Left–give a greater urgency to Shakespeare productions and adaptations. The best of these will use the plays to highlight political and social divisions that the plays themselves wrestle with, while redirecting our attention to moments in the plays that we have for too long overlooked.
NM: Theaters around the world are still challenged by COVID-19 lockdown, but there has been a great deal of innovation in terms of new forms of performances, Shakespeare has mentioned the famous plague outbreaks of the sixteen century in some of his plays in a very subtle way such as “A plague on both your houses” in Romeo and Juliet do you think any of Shakespeare’s plays has particularly tapped into such global health crisis? Or any of his plays are amenable for being adapted to address the uncertainty of life during and after a pandemic?
JS: After the plagues in London of 1592-94 and 1603 ended, audiences once again flocked to see the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I expect that they did so because the plays were crucial in providing clarity in uncertain times. I expect the same to be true in the aftermath of Covid, and know of exciting productions in the works in both Britain and America. Even as we won’t be the same post-pandemic, neither will the reception and interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays. There is enormous pressure on those in the theater world to seize the moment, to make Shakespeare’s works—all of them–timely and urgent.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.