The Uses and Abuses of Shakespeare in the Park

I experienced some shrill reading this morning when I encountered Daniel Larkin’s attack on the Public Theatre’s free Central Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Our critic is not only annoyed that William Shakespeare’s farce isn’t the Bard’s most consequential work, he’s mad that the Public is carrying on Joseph Papp’s tradition of producing free Shakespeare in the summers at all. Writes Larkin:

“When Joseph Papp began staging Shakespeare in New York City parks in 1954, the city was 90% white, according to the official estimate. In a city that is now less than 50% white, it is no longer democratic, ethical, or representative to predominantly produce the work of a dead British man in this publicly owned outdoor theatre. How might this stage in Central Park — which purportedly belongs to everyone — more equally and authentically honor the heritage and culture of all its citizens.”

It’s stunning language. It’s no longer ethical to put on free Shakespeare in New York City? “It’s time to meet Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Joceyln Bioh, and other BIPOC playwrights,’ writes Larkin, as if Shakespeare is somehow crowding out the recently deceased Shange or as if summer crowds would gather for a light-hearted outdoor production of A Raisin in the Sun. Jocelyn Bioh, meanwhile, adapted Shakespeare’s script, to praise from The New York Times. I’m sure Bioh appreciated the opportunity and the artistry of the work, even if Larkin wishes better for her.

I’ve been reading through older scripts lately, because some surprises can be found and it’s amazing what you miss, even if you study theater. I’d only read Ibsen’s more realistic plays, for example, so I had no idea that Peer Gynt is a romp through northern European mythology, full or surrealism and surprises. Though I did wonder about the point of reading such a play in 2021 as I’m unlikely to see it produced or even to run into others who have read it or would show an interest.

Larkin wants to move some of these older writers out of the way, to make room for new voices. But there are always new things to explore even in history’s most celebrated plays and novels. People are best served by producing what inspires them.

I’m sure Larkin means well and we’re certainly beyond the point of hurting Shakespeare’s feelings. But not all traditions have to be swept away and the Public offers a diverse array of programming year round, both on its main stages, in Joe’s Pub and through its outdoor and travelling troupes.

The Public, and the public it serves, do not need Larkin’s advice.

Random Thoughts About Hamlet

I’m reading Twentieth Century Interpretations Of Hamlet: A Collection Of Critical Essays edited by national treasure, David Bevington, who died in 2019. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about Hamlet and I studied it most closely in high school. My teachers liked to assign it to college bound seniors since Hamlet is a scholar who we meet at a pivotal moment in his life and graduation from high school is often equated with a time when we young people are first asked to make consequential decisions about what we are going to do next.

But, these essays remind me of some things that are easy to forget about Hamlet. Chiefly, he is not some Elizabethan version of Holden Caulfield. He is 30 years old. This is young for a prince, who might envision himself ruling over Denmark for decades starting in his 40s or 50s, ending an aged leader like Lear. But, he was no child. He was a sophisticated, highly eduated adult.

Another misconception I took from my high school years is that Hamlet is a man whose actions are throttled by thought and that this is a story about the dangers of too much philosophy and not enough action. But this is also not quite true. Hamlet is a remarkable swordsman and he is a killer, when pushed. He does not sit trembling in the face of action.

Along those lines, I think that when many of us first read or see Hamlet we have the story ruined for us. We’re told that while Hamlet is away at college his uncle Caludius murders his father the king and then assumes the throne of Denmark and takes Hamlet’s mother Gertrude as his bride. While it’s far too late to complain about Hamlet spoilers, knowing in advance that Claudius is guilty of everything he’s accused of by the ghost of Hamlet’s father can’t help but color how we take in the story and what we think about Hamlet’s character.

It’s easy to forget that from Hamlet’s point of view, Claudius isn’t a known criminal. Hamlet doesn’t know if the ghost is really his father and doesn’t know if he’s dealing with a just request from heaven or some malevolent spirit out to ruin him. Were Hamlet to simply take the ghost at his word and lop Claudius’ head off, we’d have to view him as rash and violent at the very least.

Hamlet, tarred by so many for his inaction, takes an active role in proving Claudius’ guilt, as best he can. There’s the mousetrap play, his own feigned madness and his inteorrogations of his betrothed Ophelia, her father Polonius, her brother Laertes and his own mother. He actively pursues evidence and certainty.

I also wonder if he doesn’t drive himself a little mad. Faking insanity is the best way to lose one’s mind. After all, you are what you think.

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