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Ysabel Cordova-Elias

The perennial playwright: Exploring the inescapability of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night,” is coming to NKU. Have a look at how Shakespeare earned his timeless fame and the forms his works take today.

February 16, 2023

Traces of William Shakespeare are everywhere. His works have been adapted into countless Hollywood films, his portrait and likeness continue to be a profitable brand, his literature is still taught in schools and his works still performed in theatres. 

But why is Shakespeare and his work so enduring? 

NKU’s School of the Arts will perform Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” Feb. 16-26. Renditions of Shakespeare or Elizabethan works are intentionally produced at least every other year at NKU, according to Theatre & Dance Program Head Michael Hatton. 

Elizabethan-era play scripts are traditionally written in heightened text, a writing style that uses poetic qualities that stylistically distinguishes it from colloquial text and speech. In this writing style, words are chosen for the underlying message and arranged for rhythmic character, sometimes conforming to a rhyme scheme. Shakespeare is known for his use of iambic pentameter in his writing, giving its performances a discernable cadence. 

Elizabethan works are deeply entrenched in the Western theatre canon, said Hatton, making it valuable for students in the theatre program to have experience studying and performing such works to prepare for a future in the field. 

But Shakespeare is also renowned for the universality of his stories and themes. Ideas like love, death, betrayal and power are cross-generational and relatable. These themes are artfully weaved into Shakespeare’s works amid compelling characters and iconic moments that ring bells in cultures across the globe.

The globalization of Shakespeare dates back to colonial Britain’s efforts in the 17th and 18th century to conquer new lands and propagate their culture in the process, a form of cultural idealism that asserted British culture as superior, explained English professor and Shakespearean scholar Dr. Parmita Kapadia. 

“Shakespeare actually started off in service to empire. So the start is a little tricky, because it’s basically about annihilating other cultures and substituting British culture,” Kapadia said. 

But the insertion of Shakespeare’s works into British colonies catalyzed a very diverse body of creative interpretations and renditions of his work that are specific to cultures. Kapadia calls this “indigenous Shakespeare,” because it is adapted to fit different cultural norms and experiences. 

This leaves modern-day portrayals of Shakespeare in two realms: authentic and creative, spurring an interplay of preserving his originals—in terms of medium, language, setting, costuming and themes—and reimagining them to fit a new picture. Shakespeare reiterations have become a genre of their own, owing to the practice’s viability as a form of creative expression and as a business.

The push and pull of authentic and creative approaches to Shakespeare creates an ecosystem that perpetuates Shakespeare’s primacy in literary and entertainment culture. His works today are a popular backdrop for modern social commentary on prevalent issues, paved by astute incorporation of characters and plot lines that depict layers of society and unorthodox identities. 

“She’s the Man,” a film adaptation of the play “Twelfth Night,” accentuates contemplations of gender and cross-dressing in a modern light through scenes that, for instance, transmute a main setting that is Duke Orsino’s house into a pool, naturally altering how Viola behaves and responds to these stimuli in a way that may be more relatable or entertaining. 

“How does Viola kind of negotiate that? She’s a woman disguising herself as a man, and now she’s being asked as a man to get into a bathing suit. Those kinds of adaptations are not straightforward. They’re much more innovative,” Kapadia said. 

In contemporary Shakespeare theatre productions, a challenge of gripping an audience with these older works rests in conveying the shared human experiences and themes present in the stories despite the antiquated scenery and language of Shakespeare’s original works. 

Literature from any era is bound to be influenced by its respective generation and culture’s norms and surroundings—Elizabethan work is no different. Students work very closely with these texts to fully unveil its meaning, stepping into the past to imagine what a character or scenario may feel like so that this emotion can translate to the stage. 

“Through my acting, my physicality, facial expressions, my voice, I have to make sure that I understand exactly what I’m saying, and if I do and I’m true to that, then the audience will understand it,” Hatton explained. “We can only get that understanding of that meaning by doing that research, by investigating the language and investigating the time period in which the playwright was writing.” 

Student Caitlin Walsh, who is cast in SOTA’s production of “Twelfth Night,” admitted the challenge of deciphering Shakespeare’s language in preparation to perform it. Between heightened, colorful language and obsolete cultural references, it’s not uncommon for her to find herself lost while studying Shakespeare’s works. Still, she makes a point not to rely completely on resources that explain its meaning in layman terms by analyzing it by herself and confirming her interpretations with resources, like No Fear Shakespeare. After all, she will have to perform the script as written come show time.

Shakespeare’s works famously include scant stage direction. In this sense, the plays can be used as a mold across time and space to be lifted and placed in a new setting with the same essential meaning. This potential also alleviates budget constraints of regal and extravagant costuming and set designs, Walsh explained. 

Michael King, director of the “Twelfth Night” production, conducted thorough research to redevelop the setting of “Twelfth Night” for a modern audience. While doing this research, he spotted parallels between “Twelfth Night” and the lives of Prince Rainier III of Monaco and actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly.

“It just seemed to fall into place that the characters in this drama could relate to characters from another time that’s more accessible,” King said. 

Tucked alongside the legacy left behind by Shakespeare’s works is an air of mystery surrounding his life. Little is known about his personal life—his family life, beliefs and personality are enigmas—leaving audiences with mostly his stories to mull over to construct their image of the storied man. In fact, his work wasn’t even compiled and formally published until seven years after his death. 

“That enables us to not get focused on ‘oh he did this in his life and he did that,’”King said. “We can just focus on the plays and find the connections to our lives.” 

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