TIME-TESTED:

SHAKESPEARE ‘S ENDURING POWER


Although William Shakespeare was decidedly a man of his day, his plays refuse to be bound by the confines of any one time or place. While other playwrights’ works have been hugely popular in their own time only to be forgotten by subsequent generations, Shakespeare’s writing continues to feel utterly new to every generation that encounters it.


What makes his plays timeless is his sense of metaphor, his ability to enclose many character studies in rich thematic envelopes that easily survive----~ and translate----from one period to another. Many of us, for example have at some point felt the disappointment of not living up to a parent’s expectations In watching this same archetypal situation play out so profoundly between a king and his son in Henry IV, we experience a distant circumstance as intensely familiar


It helps enormously that Shakespeare often set his works in locations that are fanciful (Illyria in Twelfth Night) or foreign (Cyprus in Othello). This puts audiences at enough of a remove that we can view our own behavior illuminated by Shakespeare’s brilliant perceptions, with fresh eyes.


Shakespeare also possessed an uncanny sense of which s aspects of human experience remain complex and surprising over time. For example, he is one of the greatest analysts ever of the nature of power and the fragility of justice in Measure for Measure an apprentice nun is ordered to forfeit her virginity to save her philandering brother’s life. Is this just? In such crisis, does familial duty outweigh responsibility to one’s soul? Should power be subverted when it seems arbitrary? We struggle with these very questions today. Despite their enduring themes, Shakespear’s plays would not retain much power were it not for his very thrilling storytelling. . His conflicts are immediate , his characters compelling, his complex plotlines exciting. Consequently, other artists cannot resist remaking Shakespeare’s stories as their own. Notable results of these reworkings include-----Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, and the musicals West Side Story and. also Kiss Me Kate.


Throughout his works, Shakespeare employed a kind of scenic crosscutting, jumping between multiple subplots in the course of spinning one vigorous tale. The technique is akin to that used in modern film editing, which is surely one of the reasons thc film industry never tires of drawing upon his work for inspiration. Think of such far-ranging cinematic adaptation’s as the drama 0, a reworking of Othello; the teen remedy 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming of the Shrew; Baz Luhrmann s modernized Romeo and Juliet; or more faithful treatments such as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet. It has famously been said that there are no so all parts only small actors, and another reason that Shakespeare s work endures is the three dimensionality of even his smallest roles. In the movie Shakespeare in Love, a strapping actor describes his company’s latest play, Romeo and Juliet. “Well,” he begins. “there’s this nurse .,.“ since that is his assigned role, We laugh at the actor’s ego, but the nurse is in truth an extraordinary comic character. Shakespeare’s ability to create idiosyncratic and memorable smaller roles has made him beloved by actors and audiences for four centuries.


Finally Shakespeare’s plays remain immediate because their language is so very breathtakingly alive. Much of our contemporary speech comes from his writing, the very way we structure our idioms and expressions owes a vast debt to his poetic imagination . For Shakespeare, language was malleable, always ready to be reinvented and expanded upon. Hundreds of words and phrases we use every day ----from assassination to lonely, foregone conclusion to fair play — -are Shakespearen coinages. His plays still feel vivid to us because he verse is muscular, experiemental, and startling. Listen to them, we sense a poet reveling in the infinite possibilities os his miraculous mother tongue. He make us rethink the way we express our deepest thoughts and thorniest ideas. And he wakes us up to the experience of being alive in the world today.

                                                                         —CAREY PERLOFF






                                                   CAREY PERLOFF is the artistic director of

                                                   San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.



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