For this month’s installment in examining genre themes in live performance, I thought I would do something a little different since it is my birthday month. I will be looking at three of Shakespeare’s shows that include genre elements and that I have been lucky enough to have been cast in when I was still acting. What I love about Shakespeare is how it has stood up to the test of time. The themes he wrote about are still relative to todays audiences. In addition, I love the versatility in how these shows are presented. Shifting the time period of the setting to help it relate to the current public and find new and creative treatments but keeping the same beautiful poetry is a unique aspect of theatre in general, but specifically with Shakespeare’s shows. In this article we will be looking at Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Each deal with the supernatural, some in funny delightful ways and others in horrifying murderous ways.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) – Macbeth and friend Banquo are met after a battle by three witches that prophesize that Macbeth will be King and that Banquo’s descendants would also become King. Macbeth does not believe this is possible, as he is not inline for the throne, but his wife, Lady Macbeth convinces him that it could be done, and so the two plot and kill King Duncan, the reigning monarch throwing blame on Duncan’s sons. Macbeth rises to the Scottish throne, ut the second part of the witches prophecy unsettles him, so he derives a plan to kill his friend Banquo and Banquo’s son Fleance. The first part of that plot is successful, but Fleance escapes. Macbeth is once again given three prophecies by the witches. First, to beware McDuff. Second, that no man born of a woman will be able to harm him. Lastly that he will remain king until “Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Taking this all to mean that he is safe, since all men are born of women and how can a forest march up a hill. Macduff flees to England and garners support there and returns to battle Macbeth and return the throne to the rightful heirs. In the meantime, Lady Macbeth has been driven mad by the guilt of what they have done and as the battle begins to ramp up, she takes her own life. As each as the prophecies begin to come true and Macbeth learns what the witches visions really meant, he continues to fight until finally being beheaded by Macduff in a final battle and order is restored.
This play has it all, action, adventure, swordfights, ghosts, witches, prophecy, curses, magic, and murder. It is said that this show is cursed and there are documented accounts from most productions of terrible things happening to cast and crew members. I have done this show twice and it was the first Shakespearean show I was ever involved with, being cast as Young Seward, a feisty young kid who fights Macbeth at the end and meets his doom. I have the dubious honor of being the “cursed” one in that production. I was seventeen and while helping with painting the set, a four pound weight used as a counter balance for the mechanism that moves the set pieces, rolled off a catwalk and fell fifty-two feet skimming my forehead and giving me a linear skull fracture, a ¼ of an inch in one direction would have clipped my brain and killed me. I still participated in the show, but no longer in my original part. Even with all that, this is still one of my favorite shows and years later, I was offered the part of Banquo in a very stylized 1940s themed production which was a lot of fun and as far as I know, no one was cursed in that production.
There have been numerous movie productions of this play dating all the way back to a silent film in 1908. Orson Wells directed and starred in a version in 1948 and Roman Polanski directed one in 1971. Jason Connery and Sean Pertwee (sons of famous fathers) have both played the part over the years. Fan favorites, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench played Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a 1979 filming of the stage production directed by Trevor Nunn. And not to be out done by his good friend, Patrick Stewart played the part in a 2010 television adaptation. Most recently, 2021 saw Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the fated couple.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595) – In Athens, Duke Theseus is marrying Hippolyta and as they prepare for their nuptials, the Duke is confronted by Egeus whose daughter Hermia, is in love with Lysander, but her father has arranged her marriage with Demetrius who is in love with Hermia. The law states that Hermia must marry whom her father chooses. So, she and Lysander decide to flee Athens for his aunt’s house in the forest. Hermia tells her best friend, Helena, this, but Helena is in love with Demetrius and in trying to win his love back tells Demetrius of their secret plan so all four lovers flee into the forest. Also preparing for the nuptials are a group of rough mechanicals that are putting together a play as entertainment for the Duke and his new bride on their wedding night. They have ventured into the forest to rehearse. Also in this enchanted forest, are Oberon, the king of the fairies, whose been fighting with the Titania, his queen. To try to shame her, Oberon wants to use the liquid from a flower that causes a sleeping person to fall in love with the first thing that they see. His plan is to cause Titania to fall in love with some rough beast. All of these plots collide when Oberon’s henchmen Puck, in trying to help the four lovers, accidentally puts the juice in the wrong persons eyes, causing chaos. In addition, he turns Bottom, one of the mechanicals into an Ass (Donkey) and causes Titania to fall in lover with him resulting in hilarity as she fauns over the beastly abomination. But King Oberon sets all to rights and Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius all fall in love with the correct people, Titania is reunited with Oberon, Bottom is made human again and the rough mechanicals perform their play for the Duke and his queen. And although not all goes as planned, all are satisfied with a job well done!
I have had the privilege of playing Bottom the Weaver twice and both times it was glorious! The first time was in college and, although I feel I did it justice, I had really didn’t understand a lot of what I was saying. Years later I was cast by two close friends who were directing the piece. By this time I had matured and I was able to bring a lot more to the part. I will always be grateful to them for the opportunity to bring to life one of the funniest characters I have ever had the joy of portraying.
Although a popular play and a hell of a lot of fun to perform, there aren’t quite as many famous film versions or adaptations, but it has been done over the years. There is a 1909 silent film and a 1935 film staring Mickey Rooney as Puck and Olivia De Havilland as Hermia. There is a 1968 film that has Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg and David Warner all starring. Although not the most recent version, a 1999 production is the one that modern audiences will remember, with Kevin Kline playing Bottom, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anna Friel, Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale and David Strathairn all staring.
The Tempest (1610) – Usually when we think of Shakespeare’s shows we categorize them in one of three categories. Tragedies, like the aforementioned Macbeth, Comedies, Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And histories, like the King Henrys and Richard the III. But The Tempest doesn’t really fall into any of those and has elements of both tragedy and comedy, so modern thespians created a fourth category calling it a Romance. The overthrown duke of Milan, Prospero, escapes with his infant child Miranda and his books on magic to a secluded island where he has captured the spirit Ariel as a servant and enslaves the evil beast like creature Caliban. Years later when a boat carrying, Antonio, the brother who usurped his dukedom, Alonso, the King of Naples, Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, and other Nobles comes close to the island, Prospero uses his learned magic to create a storm to bring these characters to the island unharmed. He then sets forth a plot to get his title reinstated and guide Ferdinand and Miranda into a relationship while foiling his brothers plans on killing Alonso propelling Sebastian onto the throne and squashing the comical rebellion of Caliban, Trunculo and Stephano (servants of the kings). In the end, all is forgiven, and the world is set to right, with Ariel being set free and Caliban vowing to behave. Prospero eventually gives up magic and becomes the rightful Duke of Milan.
Thought to be one of Shakespeare’s last plays putting its authoring around 1610-1611, many believe that it is a fable of art and creation. Prospero renunciates magic is seen as Shakespeare saying goodbye to the theatre. It is also thought to be an allegory on the European colonization for foreign lands which was actively happening at the time. It is often thought that Caliban, which is almost an anagram for Cannibal and very similar to Cariban, could possibly referring the indigenous inhabitants of the West Indies. Both Caliban and Ariel, who would also have been a native, are dissatisfied with being “enslaved” by Prospero and want their freedom. Ariel uses partnership and cooperation to obtain it where Caliban is more rebellious fighting against forced captivity. Many have criticized the play for its anti-feminist views. Showing the only female character, Miranda, as being subservient to the other males within the cast. The time the play was written was definitely a patriarchal society and so this would not be out of place for the era. But I have always seen Miranda in a different light. She is smart and strong and willful and the equal to Ferdinand. This is probably just wishful thinking on my part, though. For modern audiences and to balance the gender roles of the play, Ariel and some of the other characters are often cast as a female but are male in the original text. Even Prospero is sometimes cast as a woman which does alter the dynamic of the show quite a bit, but also has some very positive attributes as well. I was cast as Antonio, the evil brother who plots to over through the King of Naples for his how selfish gains. As much as I like being the hero, playing the villain is so much fun and the cast I was with was superb and some of my dearest friends. Our Prospero, who was also female, can be done as indicated above. I have the fondest of memories of this show and would love to do it again.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, there are several movie adaptations, but for the Tempest, there is one very famous one. The 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet parallels the story completely. The most recent movie was a 2010 production that saw Helen Mirren play the part of Prospero.
There is something magical about Shakespeare’s plays in general. If you can get past the language barrier that most people have, the themes and plot lines are all timeless and still resonate with audiences to this day. The supernatural and the wonders of the universe are all presented. Ghosts and gods, witches and magic, fairies and romance, murder and mayhem can all be found.
My Time on the Classical Stage
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