«I hated Shakespeare!»

Shakespeare-Forscher James Shapiro im exklusiven englischen Interview.

Phoebe Pryce as Jessica, Jonathan Pryce as her father Shylock in Shakespeare's «The Merchant of Venice». Photo: Manual Harlan (AP, Keystone)

Phoebe Pryce as Jessica, Jonathan Pryce as her father Shylock in Shakespeare's «The Merchant of Venice». Photo: Manual Harlan (AP, Keystone)


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Reading your books one comes to the conclusion that one of the attractions about Shakespeare is you have to become a sleuth.
All literary scholarship is, in a way, detective work. And that makes literary scholars detectives, although they might not think of themselves in that way. Anyone working on the late 16 century, whether you would be working in England, Germany, in Iceland or in Africa, has to deal with the fact that the traces of life and of cities are almost gone. And you have to work hard finding the scattered clues to the lives, to the work, to the theatres, to culture in order to recreate not a crime scene, but a literary scene. A cultural scene that might explain that culture a little better. That might in turn explain how we are who we are as a culture today. So I'm very conscious that I am constantly picking up clues. Unlike most scholars the clues that I attend to are not only books, they are physical clues to the extent that those clues survive. Whether it is an archaeological dig or coins from the period, something that puts me physically in touch with that age. I'm about to give a talk at the British Museum Library. And I'm going to share with the people in the front row this (he hands over a coin) which is a hammered sixpence from 1606. It has King James's partly obliterated face is on one side.

Extraordinarily precise and detailed.
It is. And it's a connection to that world. It was hammered out by some workmen, and in that year Shakespeare may have held this, he might have paid for a drink, not a latte, but an alcoholic drink, they didn't have coffee in England in Shakespeare's times. But this is the way that I do my detective work. And I think that's an astute observation.

James Shapiro redet über seine Liebe zu Shakespeare und sein neues Buch. Quelle: Youtube

Since you're talking about it: Do you see magic in some places? I'm asking this because I went to Stratford-upon-Avon yesterday and was deeply disappointed. Two days before I went to the Globe to see «The Taming of the Shrew» and was enthralled.
I love that «Taming of the Shrew», I love going to the Globe. My only complaint about it is that its dimensions are slightly larger than they should have been. It's a hundred feet across, and it should be 75 feet across. They didn't know that when they built it, they knew it later. It means that more people get to see the plays; it's slightly more difficult for the actors. But I share the same sense, Stratford is a tourist destination. Even the house after repeated viewing loses its charm. People have been disappointed by this house for Hundreds of years. Henry James wrote a brilliant story called «The Birthplace» about the people who keep the house and tell tourists about Shakespeare's life. Essentially they are fiction writers, and they're creating stories. If they only told the truth, because so little is known about Shakespeare's life in that house survives, there would be nothing to say. So I find Stratford-upon-Avon a charmless town. I love the theatre there, I was there yesterday myself. There's a wonderful «Hamlet», there's an extraordinary «Alchemist», there are rehearsals right now for what be a brilliant «King Lear». It's just the stuff that survives, I mean Shakespeare's words. But the physical remains of Shakespeare's life, the traces of it, are not enough to excite me much.

Let me come back to the production of «The Shrew» we saw at the Globe. Kate's famous speech at the end when she completely surrenders to her husband was given in a deeply sarcastic manner thereby turning what she was saying into the opposite of what it meant. Do you think Shakespeare had this reading in mind when he wrote what was to be his second play?
That's a great, great question. And the answer to that is: We don't know. All we have are the words on the page. And of course the speech would have been delivered by a young teenage boy speaking and being dressed as a woman. But that having been said, it's a very hard play to figure out. The ending would either be sarcastic and ironic, or it will be dutiful and obedient. And it's a very difficult play to get right. I was involved in a small way in a production of New York in which it was performed by women only. So that was another way of undermining the premise. Of the fact that this woman is called a shrew - she's not. She's just a lively young, particularly headstrong individual, and she is somehow tamed by this man. But there are so many ways to attack this play. Is it that they discover something in each other that we don't see that throws them together? Is she playing a game at the end to entertain the others? We don't know! What I liked about this particular production at the Globe is that it was set a hundred years ago in Ireland where Irish men could beat their wives and it wasn't even exceptional. So by putting the play at that time and place the director was trying to say something about how much has changed in a hundred years. I'm not quite sure that much has changed.

Also the production of the play is very violent. He's basically a rapist, and the bed she's laying on looks like a rack. There is an implication of rape.
Absolutely. Domestic violence I would say.

«The Merchant of Venice» im Globe, Szene mit Jonathan Pryce. Quelle: Youtube

It also occurred to me how physical the Globe production looked, the energy that interprets the play.
Last Summer I saw a production of «The Merchant of Venice» starring Jonathan Pryce at the Globe. It was extraordinary. I've spoken with the very talented director before, Jonathan Mundy. I had written a book called «Shakespeare and the Jews». And I saw the same play two weeks ago in New York City, the same production. And it was a completely different theatrical experience. At the Globe the audience, as in Shakespeare's day, didn't know how the play was going to end. There was suspense; they were jeering Shylock in the beginning, but feeling remorse for that by the end. In New York City, everybody knows the story, half the audience was mouthing the words along as the actors were reciting them. So much of the excitement of the performance was lost. At the Globe the clown pulled people onstage from the audience and made them part of the play. They tried it again in New York, but the audience was so resistant, they wanted that fourth wall. So I love the Globe, I love the exuberance of the crowd, and I even like the naiveté of the crowd as well. I'm struck always knowing how they are going to do the last speech. But they don't know the last speech is coming. So it's very different.

It was a real 3-D experience. There was this moment when the main character was saying «kiss me Kate» and added «kiss, kiss, kiss», indicating to the crowd to say it with him, and the people did it.
Oh, this is great.

And it sounded like a mob.
Yes it did.

And it suddenly turned into something sinister.
It did, and I think a lot of Shakespeare is sinister in that way. And depends upon whipping a crowd up - either to be for or against somebody. And he writes about it. There is a wonderful passage in «Richard II» where he talks about a crowd who turns against an actor who follows a better actor on stage. He's assuming his audience is fully engaged and excited. And the Globe does that exceedingly well.

«Coriolanus», ein Film von Ralph Fiennes, Trailer. Quelle: Youtube

Reading your books, I am struck how intensely Shakespeare takes in the things happening around him. He is a man for all ages, as Ben Johnson famously wrote, but he also was a man of his time. He writes in codes and allusions, dates back persons from his time, but the present is densely interwoven with his plays. Can you expand on that?
Sure. There was no newspaper in Shakespeare's day. There's no radio, there's no mass media. The only way that ideas circulate is through gossip or through sermons that people attend or through plays. So the theatre became a place where a culture turned to understand itself. To understand for example in the first half of Shakespeare's career how to wrestle with their anxiety about political succession. Queen Elizabeth had no children; she had not designated who would succeed her. So in play after play after play Shakespeare writes about political succession. When King James comes to the throne it's a different story, succession is no longer the issue, because James has a wife and children. What does become an issue is the Union of Scotland and England, because King James is both King of Scotland and England. And that in plays like «Macbeth» and «King Lear» is becoming increasingly significant. I do believe the plays are for all time, but they are only for all time because we are heirs to the problems of immigration, race, globalism, family that are created or recreated in Shakespeare's day. Right now, as we speak in a post-Brexit moment when Britain is separating itself from Europe. And soon, I suspect, Scotland will separate itself from England. The issues that are woven into plays like «Macbeth» and «King Lear» will remain as present as urgent as they were 400 years ago.

You had an interesting approach to Shakespeare yourself because first he was alien to you.
I hated him!

Then you became enthralled. Can you remember the process? I am asking because a colleague of yours is wondering how we can explain to kids today why Shakespeare is important and wonderful.
People often say, Shakespeare should be mandatory in classrooms, and I just say that is a really bad idea. In my case, I had to study Shakespeare in school, I did not have a good teacher, it was not done in a theatrical way, I hated it and I didn't understand it, was alienated from it and never took a university course for Shakespeare. So my Shakespeare education took place in this city. Which was in the 1970ies a place where you could see for less than a Euro a play with your student card? And you could fly here through discount airlines for the first time inexpensively. I would fly over and see 20 plays in 20 days, quitting whatever summer job I held down, come over and sleep in church basements and youth hostels. And I did it every year when I was 17 till 22. After so many years I had seen hundreds of brilliant productions of Shakespeare. And it turned out that I had understood them fairly well. So it became something that I pursued and continue to pursue decades later. It was thrilling. And the Shakespeare you are exposed to when you are young and open to the world and experience is often the most powerful you will ever see. I saw Jonathan Pryce in 1981 ...

... as Hamlet. It was my first play.
It was the first great play I had ever seen.

He looked like a punk.
He did. And when he had the ghost of his father come out of him the audience levitated, they all lifted out of their seat. So you know what I'm saying then. And it was like a very powerful drug with different side-effects that are as long-lasting.

At the same time the language remains extraordinarily complex. I'm sure even people at that time didn't understand everything.
Shakespeare was constantly inventing and altering words or compounds so even his earliest audiences could not have known them. In "Macbeth" Macbeth speaks of assassination, nobody knew the word so I imagine the playgoers were turning towards each other and ask themselves: "What did Macbeth say What is that word?" And no-one then or now gets every word or all the nuances. All we can do is try to absorb as much as we can. You could probably say the same thing about a Rembrandt painting or a Beethoven symphony. No-one is going to get all that was intended in the act of creation. Most of us are fortunate enough to get enough to find it a transformative experience.

I'd like to talk about equivocation, a term which played an important role in some of Shakespeare's later plays - and plays an important role in "1606", your latest book. Was the use of equivocation a way for Shakespeare to create heroes that were ambiguous? Having sort of a pretext to do so?
I thought about that word in a concept a lot. You know, what it means to think one thing or say something else or, in a most unambiguous way, to speak in a double fashion. And I think that Shakespeare, when he was in his early 20ies, had come up to London and was acting, had to recognise that he was always thinking one thing as an actor and saying something else's words. And that the very act of being a professional actor is to equivocate. Once equivocation became in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, when 20 or so catholic gentry tried to blow up parliament, kill the royal family, and they were discovered in time by one in their lodgings a treatise of equivocation was found, the nation became transfixed by what they were experiencing in the theatre all the time. Which is to say the doubleness of language, of performance here was transformed from the world of imagination, make-believe to the political world. And if you could take an oath in court but withhold your true intention you could not have, they felt, no genuine civil discourse. You could not have a society. So this is something that is both necessary to create a world and dangerous in the political and social world. So that word equivocation became a very significant one in this year.

As you write in your book, one of the reasons that plays like «Lear» or «Macbeth» became so dark is that a whole society had realised what could have been ten times 9/11.
Yes. And we are in a kind of slow-moving version of that now every week for the last month in Munich, in Nice, everywhere there are terrifying terrorist attacks. The Gunpowder Plot was the first failed terrorist attack. But nobody thought: How do you respond to terrorism. Do you expel all the Catholics in England? Do you, as some in Parliament suggested, that none can live within ten miles of the city? Do you take away their children and raise them under different rules? Do you take in Syrian refugees? Do you inforce rules against wearing the Hijab in France? We are still wrestling with so many of the same questions, and it's viable for me to see how four centuries ago, when these issues were emerging for one of the first times, how Shakespeare and his world made sense of that. I don't study Shakespeare because I want to live in the past, I study him because I want to understand those things in my culture that television, journalism, papers, even the best ones, cannot reach down in explaining well enough.

So Shakespeare's language is a way of dealing with violence?
I think the plays are filled with violence. Even the lightest plays are violent plays like «Taming of the Shrew» or «As You Like It». It begins with a wrestling match in which people are badly injured. Shakespeare lived in a violent culture, and I think he understood that culture pretty well. Very often when we do Shakespeare poorly we try to suppress that element, and that is a mistake.

I agree. What I meant before is that the expression of violent, of fearful acts through language in a theatre are some kind of sublimation - even though that is a dangerous word. The language itself is dealing with these acts, it can also be cathartic.
It does, but it also can unnerve. Shakespeare understood the raw power of language extremely well. He understood that words could destroy or heal. And his plays, early and late, are filled with both.

I was touched by «Looking for Richard», Al Pacino’s documentary about staging Richard III. Because Pacino talked about his inferiority complex as an American playing Shakespeare. I was surprised by that.
A brilliant film. American Shakespeare is very different than English Shakespeare is very different than German Shakespeare. The portrait that we have of Shakespeare is not an English portrait, it is not even Anglo-American. It is a German portrait of who he was, how he overcame various struggles, religious and sexual. His formative years were so critical as how he became Shakespeare. That we owe to «William Meister», Goethe’s great, coming of age Bildungsroman. Which is about Shakespeare. And that got imported and rewritten by biographers as Shakespeare's life. So that is the German contribution to Shakespeare. America's interest in Shakespeare has been much more political than any other country. When Abraham Lincoln was in the White House during the Civil War, he read Shakespeare every day and committed the guilty speeches of Julius Caesar and Hamlet to memory. Because he was torn by leading a nation driven by civil war. The man who assassinated him, John Wilkes Booth, quoted from «Julius Caesar» in justifying killing Abraham Lincoln. So our relationship has always been a politicised one. In terms of speaking the language and staging Shakespeare there are things that American do well and the British cannot. I have been working for the last couple of months with the Royal Shakespeare Company on their production of «King Lear» starring Anthony Sher as one of the greatest actors in the history of Shakespeare. It's going to be brilliant. And the knowledge in that room and the strength of the acting and directing is unrivalled. But I am also working on a production of «Troilus and Cressida» in Central Park in New York City for a public viewing. And it’s a production that is deliberately set in modern times. It’s set in the Middle East today: Afghanistan and Syria. The Greeks are dressed like American soldiers in Afghanistan, and the Trojans are dressed like Afghans, carrying AK-47s, the Americans carry M4s, and it gets to a kind of truce about the ugliness of war. I don’t think any English or European production could do this because their nation is not on a permanent war on terror. So when I get to watch audiences respond to this they recognize the bitter humour of this play in ways that other nations may not. And the acting really gels.

Ralph Fiennes putting his film of «Coriolanus» in the Balkan war makes the same point, though. And he’s English.
He’s great. But, and I love that film, it’s an American story right now, more than a Bosnian or Serbian story. Although it was back then. And I think it is a brilliant production. It took that play and made it feel contemporary.

All of Shakespeare’s war tragedies are about civil wars. But the language he uses makes us understand these wars.
But we are not as good as he was at telling that story. And with a work like «Troilus and Cressida» the effect on a war-torn society on love, how corrosive it is, how love is just destroyed by what war does to peoples’ personalities and sensibilities … I’m very lucky that I not only get to work on these productions but get to see them made. I probably understand better than ten years ago when I was not doing this how difficult it is to do Shakespeare well in a theatre. I will never review something critically again because I have seen how much blood and sweat and intelligence goes into even unsuccessful productions. The magic that goes into great ones is extraordinary and couldn’t be explained.

Reading your books I realize time and time again in what unsafe times Shakespeare lived. He rarely mentions the plague, though. Why do you think that is?
The plague was the great terror of the age. When Shakespeare first came to London in the early 1590ies the plague struck and took away one out of seven people. And when it struck again in 1603 it took about the same percentage and it would have destroyed Shakespeare’s livelihood because the theatres were closed every time there were 30 or 40 deaths registered from plague in the town. It’s like yelling “fire!” in a theatre today. It’s not ok. You don’t want to remind people congregating in a densely filled place that it could cost them their lives. I think it was so scary that it couldn’t be spoken of – except indirectly. And when he does speak of it indirectly it carries a special horror.

Erstellt: 01.09.2016, 13:50 Uhr

James Shapiro

Shakespeare expert

James Shapiro, 60, is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University who specialises in Shakespeare and the Early Modern period. He is the author of many books on William Shakespeare, notably: «Shakespeare and the Jews» (1996), «1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare» (2005) and «The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606» (2015). He is married, has a son and lives in New York City.

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