"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.”