Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

"How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over In states unborn and accents yet unknown!"

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1

On a warm Tuesday evening last November, the Stata Center hosted events on sustainable energy, bioelectrical interventions to treat neurological disorders, sum-of-squares decompositions of multivariate polynomials, and … Shakespeare.

Diana Hender­son, literature professor and dean for curricu­lum and faculty support, began her talk about her new book, Collabo­rations with the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare across Time and Media, by quoting Oscar Wilde: “He to whom the present is the only thing that is present, knows nothing of the age in which he lives.” She then displayed a reproduction of The Edge of Doom, a 19th-century painting by ­Samuel ­Colman depicting the apocalyptic destruction of a neoclassical metropolis. At its center, untouched by the conflagration surrounding it, is a statue of Shakespeare leaning calmly on a lectern, his legs crossed.

The Shakespeare of that image—the marmoreal Shakespeare whose genius will survive the end of civilization—is, Henderson said, “already an aestheticized re-creation.” She’s interested in Shakespeare the impresario, the wheeler-dealer who wrote scenes that played to the strengths of his actors and resisted publishing his plays because it might hurt the box office. That’s the Shakespeare with whom living artists can still “collaborate,” she says.

Henderson elaborated on two such collaborations: Franco Zeffirelli’s film of The Taming of the Shrew and Kenneth Branagh’s of Henry V. Zeffirelli, she said, collaborated not just with Shakespeare but with the B-movie directors who established the visual grammar of horror films, and with the tabloid reporters who had already transformed his married leads, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, into a real-world version of Shakespeare’s feuding couple.

Branagh, too, reshaped the bard’s text to serve his own artistic ends. The heart of his movie is a loud, stirring Cecil B. DeMille reënactment of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt; but the play’s only fight scene is a comic confrontation between an English buffoon and a Frenchman who surrenders on sight.

In the end, Henderson argues, it is precisely Shakespeare’s adaptability that accounts for his towering reputation. She concluded with her “top 10 reasons Shakespeare is still top dog”; number one was “Shakespeare wrote in a multimedia form in a way that can be reshaped.” But, she conceded, his collaborators shouldn’t get all the credit. Number two on the list was “Shakespeare was really good with words.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Every year, we look for promising technologies poised to have a real impact on the world. Here are the advances that we think matter most right now.

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

What’s next for AI in 2024

Our writers look at the four hot trends to watch out for this year

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.