By Grayson Ruhl
On September 17, An-drew Hartley, Russell Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, presented a humorous yet stirring lecture, “As We Like It: Staging Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century” in Gailor Auditorium. Hartley discussed the temporal and cultural gap between present-day people and those of Shakespeare’s time. This gap, he argues, has caused Shakespeare to become “arcane” in matters of diction, and some have argued that this makes him less relevant. Some have even argued that it is time to do away with teaching Shakespeare and acting out his plays, as his writing is now only applicable to a “different country”—that of his own time. Hartley argues that it is imperative to teach Shakespeare and keep him relevant: it is our responsibility to educate and entertain people through his works.
Hartley first describes the gap that has caused this disparity between the old and the new—Shakespeare’s time and our time. He notes that many fervent Shakespeare zealots desire the most authentic readings and plays of Shakespeare—real Shakespeare—that is not watered down by our vernacular to help present-day people understand. Such modern translations of Shakespeare often render new possibilities for people to relate to Shakespeare, yet they lose pieces of the old, original texts. Hartley describes Shakespeare as a language that must be translated delicately if it is to be understood and retain its authenticity. For Shakespeare’s original texts to be fully appreciated, we must immerse ourselves in his culture.
Hartley then suggests ways to bridge this gap, although there is no easy solution. Simply providing vague gestures to the way plays were con-ducted in Shakespeare’s time may not be respectful; rather, we must “keep Shakespeare both original and playable.” Barriers to connection, such as archaic language and references, between the audience and play staff must be broken down: cutting or changing words that will “drag the audience into the gap” is essential. Hartley explains that if the text is not clear to intelligent audiences, audiences who might not be familiar with Shakespeare, we have failed in staging Shakespeare for the twenty-first century, thus rendering him less appreciable. This isn’t about “cutting Shakespeare down;” it’s about keeping him relevant.
Shakespeare’s play, The Taming of the Shrew, presents a problem in staging Shakespeare to fit our time. The play can easily be argued to be misogynistic, which calls into question whether or not we should stop producing it or perhaps alter it entirely. Our attempt of sheer traditional readings is sometimes problematic in cases such as this one. Hartley explains that Shakespeare is “a tool in the theatrical making of meaning,” which means that as cultures evolve, their criticisms of Shakespeare mutate. Hartley then listed criticisms of Shakespeare from the past—ridiculous and far-fetched political theories—that aimed to black-list Shakespeare. There is always something to criticize and baggage to tie to Shakespeare, but his stories are now our stories; they belong to us, and we have an obligation to maintain them. Hartley concluded his lecture with a painfully current example of Shakespeare’s relevance to our present state. He quoted a passage from Sir Thomas More that described how people act maliciously toward one another: “For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought, / With self same hand, self rea-sons, and self right, / Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes / Would feed on one an-other.” This play, unfortunately, is relevant to any time period. After the lecture, Sally Burgess (C’16) explained, “I appreciated his acknowledging of the elephant in the room which we encounter when dealing with Shakespeare. I agree that it’s important to discuss these cultural and temporal gaps.” Like-wise, English Professor Virginia Craighill noted, “His talk will inform the way I approach teaching Shakespeare in 101. I’ll let the students own the text.” Hartley’s lecture provided an unshakeable defense of Shakespeare studies and presented excellent solutions for bridging the gap between the old and the new to keep Shakespeare relevant and enjoyed.