The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death is upon us. With all the endless public proclamations of 'No Sweat Shakespeare' and 'No Fear Shakespeare', it is hard not to detect a certain, hovering anxiety: what if the Bard were actually not so universal and timeless, so transparent and immediate?
In Michael Winner's film adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval (1988), there is one immortal moment. Anthony Hopkins plays Dafydd Ap Llewellyn, the earnest director of an amateur theatre troupe. He defends his choice of The Beggar's Opera with the assertion: "John Gay's work is as relevant today as it was in 1728!" And, just from the over-intense way he says it and from the embarrassed silence that immediately greets it, you know he has revealed the exact opposite truth: that it's not relevant at all.
Why this desperate need to assert that Shakespeare is always and everywhere relevant? Isn't it OK for works to be '; of their time', even (perish the thought!) 'dated'? Isn't it, sometimes, their datedness that makes them interesting? Isn't it alright for some works to be foreign or unfamiliar, cryptic or inaccessible?
Filmmakers including Jacques Rivette, Carmelo Bene and Federico Fellini certainly thought so, when they plundered (respectively) the relative obscurities (for a contemporary audience) of Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, Jules Laforgue's Hamlet or the Consequences of Filial Piety, and Petronius' Satyricon.
It is no doubt true, as Elisabeth Bronfen and many others has argued, that each generation, in each part of the world, re-invents its own Shakespeare, for its own needs. A quick glance at the TV series House of Cards, which swiftly stacks up its implicit and explicit references to Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth, is enough to convince anyone of this.
However, this phenomenon does not completely explain the cultural reflex of automatically designating Shakespeare (and a few other select works and authors) as the immortal Canon that must be revisited, reinterpreted, refashioned, as if we were all bound by a sacred duty to do so.
But maybe the answer, from a sociological perspective, is obvious. Where today would educational curricula, and the forthcoming schedules of theatre/opera companies, be without the essential, long-bolstered pillar of Shakespeare? Not to mention those horrid 'filmed theatre' presentations, from London's Royal Court and elsewhere, that are increasingly filling art-house cinemas everywhere, in a pure return to complacent, self-satisfied, bourgeois ritual...
On the other hand, I do not doubt the sincerity of individual artists (whether Kenneth Branagh, Al Pacino 'looking for Richard', or the avant-garde Wooster Group) who feel strongly connected to Shakespeare, and are compelled to — in whatever form — re-present him to the modern world.
Many such practitioners speak of the true essence, soul or spirit of Shakespeare, to which they aspire to be faithful. What the teenage Orson Welles declared in the 1930s remains true: "Remember that every single way of playing and staging Shakespeare — as long as the way is effective — is right".
But what and where is this essence, exactly? How you define it, and where you locate it, determines what you will produce. For Welles, Shakespeare is in the language, the text, the poetry. For Jean-Claude Carrière in his The Secret Language of Film, the 'inner truth of the action' of The Tempest has more to do with the story-situation and how it is staged, brought to life. The recent film adaptation of Macbeth by Justin Kurzel follows Akira Kurosawa's intuition that strong imagery — especially landscape — does not merely illustrate the Shakespearian text, but actively replaces it.
But we can go still further. When the surrealist Ado Kyrou witnessed Asta Nielsen on the silent screen as a female Hamlet from 1921, he celebrated it as "defying all logic or fine literature." He concluded: "A non-academic critic could find there material for an analysis of the latent content of Shakespearian tragedy, and of the strange, unique nature of cinema itself."