November 23, 2003

The Eternal Now of a Shakespeare Play


RIPPED from the headlines" is not the tag line you would attach to Shakespeare, but the other way around works pretty often; headlines do seem to be ripped from Shakespeare. The latest reminder of this came last week at Lincoln Center Theater, where a glossy cast (Kevin Kline, Michael Hayden, Ethan Hawke, Audra McDonald, Richard Easton) opened in a production of "Henry IV," which conflates Parts 1 and 2 of Shakespeare's history-inspired account of the jockeying for the English throne in the early 15th century.

The key figure in the play, you will recall, is not the title character but his son, Prince Hal (later to be known as Henry V, who led the English to a military victory over France, but that's another play). Hal begins as an irresponsible miscreant, hanging around with pleasure-loving frat brothers like Falstaff, but in a pivot toward maturation, renounces his profligacy and finally gains the crown.

Remind you of anyone?

This parallelism is responsible for all manner of directorial interpretations of all manner of Shakespeare's plays by artists who try to update or contemporize the action. Myriad versions of "Midsummer Night's Dream" from the 1960's found the culture of psychedelics and free love celebrated in Shakespeare.

The clichéd "Hamlet" of the Watergate era suggested that Shakespeare anticipated the plot-and-cover-up corruption of the Nixon White House. And during the 20th century, the ruthlessness of fascism and totalitarianism found a home in the kingdoms of a variety of Shakespearean monarchs, emperors, despots and generals: "Julius Caesar," "Richard III," "Coriolanus," "King Lear."

Such adaptations are not always accomplished to salutary effect. (The current "Henry IV," as the New York Times review by Ben Brantley approvingly noted, "never stoops to grasp for a contemporary audience.") But that doesn't diminish the perpetual relevance of Shakespeare, the uncanny regularity with which he homed in on the timeless and the universal.

Who's to say that when the grown-up Prince Hal, a k a Henry V, delivers the famous "band of brothers" speech to rally his troops for the Battle of Agincourt, he's being sincerely patriotic or cynical?

The popular inclination was to view the St. Crispin's Day speech one way during the Reagan 80's as the United States triumphed in the cold war, quite another during the Vietnam War.

"Romeo and Juliet" spawned "West Side Story" in the 1950's, and just recently a West Coast story, the quickly canceled "Skin," a television titillater.

For that matter, "The Taming of the Shrew" can be seen as sexist or feminist, and Shylock has become a litmus test — for performers and audiences alike — on the issue of political correctness. "Othello" resonates with the state of race relations, just as it did in 1930, when the American tour of a production starring the black actor Paul Robeson that had been successfully presented in London, was canceled, because the producers feared the reaction of antimiscegenationists. It took 12 more years before Robeson performed the role in the United States.

The plays are an invitation to us to use our own times, our own experiences, to understand them. And as every high school English teacher knows, our world isn't helpful only in understanding Shakespeare's big ideas; even from moment to moment, the plays yield revelations through anachronistic comparison.

In his famous lectures on Shakespeare at the New School in 1946, for example, W. H. Auden began an explication of the villainy of Richard III by comparing Richard's opening monologue to a speech by Hitler.

A more extemporaneous example is cited by Norrie Epstein in her compendium, "The Friendly Shakespeare." Interviewing the actor Charles S. Dutton in 1992, she elicited his assessment of the motivations of Iago's anger.

"Iago was wronged," Mr. Dutton said. "Othello should have given him the lieutenancy. Not that what Iago did was justified, but remember, that promotion was given to Cassio, a guy who never fought in a war, never knew the anguish of battle, and who was wealthy and sheltered — basically a Dan Quayle."

Somehow it seems natural to seek entry to the playwright's Elizabethan sensibility through a contemporary portal. And because Shakespeare wrote so often about power, this is especially true when it comes to politics. The plays are full of those who have power or are involved with it.

He did so, evidently, without playing politics himself. Both Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton, after all, have been called Lady Macbeth. And who is Brutus if not a leader caught between moral uprightness and bad judgment? Jimmy Carter, perhaps? Or maybe you see him as a man who was out-orated, done in by a blunt speech about Caesar's ambition, sort of the way it happened to the first President George Bush after his famous decree: "Read my lips: No new taxes."

Yes, it is tempting to view the current president as Prince Hal, a man who comes into his own, who becomes a true leader when crisis forces him to, who is able to balance the wisdom of his rollicking, life-loving pal Falstaff and his relentlessly upright and uptight nemesis Hotspur, who earns the powerful seat that devolves to him. (Which one is Karl Rove and which is Dick Cheney?)

Yet, for the president's critics, it's equally tempting to view President Bush as Henry IV, a man who assumed the throne under dubious circumstances and whose first priority as a ruler is to make a crusade to the Holy Land and who, on his deathbed, gives his son this famous advice:

"Be it thy course to busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels."

Of course Henry IV is also the one who says, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." But that's the thing with Shakespeare: He's open to interpretation from every camp.

Somewhere in underground Iraq, a Baathist production of "The Tempest" might be in rehearsals, depicting the godlike Prospero, a ruler unfairly deposed but undiminished and lording over his kingdom of exile until he can return home.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company