Shakespeare: to be, or to be Remixed?

Katie Ricks

We all know what a remix is, right? Most of the time we hear of remixing songs- the original song is done in a different style, but the lyrics and usually something else recognizable remains the same. Was Shakespeare keen on changing things? What if Hamlet was done in 80s vernacular and warm-up wind suits? Would he have approved? Could he stomach King Lear performed with traditional Chinese culture and dress? In short, does remixing work, or is the original the best?

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In Stratford, Ontario at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, remixing is a common occurrence. During the 2019 season, Othello was set in modern dress, with a minimalist set and scene changes projected onto a geometric backdrop. The only visual thing that may have been shared with Shakespeare’s original was the thrust stage where the play was held. This recent mix of Othello included men and women with both brown and white skin in the cast-something that was unheard of in Shakespeare’s time. White men and boys were always used as cast members and would be dressed and painted too relate the appropriate character.

Another tactic used by modern directors is to adjust the script itself. Shakespeare’s Old English for some, can distance the audience from the story because of the language barrier. Not to mention some of his plays uncut are in excess of three hours long. For modern audiences, sometimes that’s just too long. Directors also make choices to cut in order to streamline the plot to make the story more palatable for the watchers.

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Here are two different gowns worn by Zoe Caldwell as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra performed in 1967. (Special thanks to the team at Stratford Festival archives for the photos and tour!) The design and colors are not typical of the Renaissance period, but do have a certain groovy vibe about them.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, another Shakespeare play that has been remixed often, was this year at the Stratford Festival set in the 1950s. Poodle skirts, pompadours and rolled up blue jeans swept the stage in this comical act. The throw-back feel of the play added a certain charm the audience could identify with in their own lives. This charm would have been out of reach if the Renaissance period dominated the stage. Let’s face it, most women in North America today don’t know what it’s like to wear a corset or be involved in arranged marriages.

So would it have been important for Shakespeare to identify with his audience? I’m sure he still had to sell tickets. I wonder if he would have enjoyed the 50s, or this new millennium? What could he have done with digital projectors and real smoking cigarettes?