William Shakespeare is rightly regarded as the greatest playwright of the English language. And King Lear, his searing meditation on family, political life, and sanity, is perhaps his crowning work. Renowned Shakespeare expert James Shapiro here explains its power and reveals that the Bard was also a brilliant businessman and a commercial creator with his finger on the pulse of his age. His work demands to be seen, not read, says Shapiro. The 400th anniversary of his death this year offers tremendous opportunities to do just that.
Octavian Report: What sparked your interest in Shakespeare?
James Shapiro: It’s probably easier to say what first turned me off of Shakespeare. I went to high school in Brooklyn in the early 1970s and, like many others, was force-fed Shakespeare in a deadening way. I didn’t get it, didn’t get what the big deal about Shakespeare was, didn’t even get the dirty bits that some of my classmates picked up in Romeo and Juliet. I never really got interested in Shakespeare, never took a Shakespeare course when I went to college. My interest only developed later in the 1970s when Freddie Laker was flying people back and forth across the Atlantic for $199 round-trip.
My brother and I went backpacking around Europe, found ourselves in London, and I found myself at the theater, seeing Shakespeare. It must have cost 50 pence to see a really great production and maybe another 50 pence to sleep in a youth hostel or church basement, and I was hooked. It was like a drug. I would hold down some job as a medical secretary or selling Guatemalan handicrafts for the first part of the summer, and then head over there every summer of my late teens and early 20’s for 20 or 30 days and see 20 or 30 plays. I kept doing that, and I probably saw, at that really formative time of my life, 200 productions, most of which were spectacular, and all of which were Shakespeare. That really has determined in a way probably different from most academics how I think about and respond to the plays.
OR: Is it more important to see the plays staged or to read them?
Shapiro: It is a choice, and there are really brilliant critics, like Harold Bloom, who brag about not having seen a play in a half-century. These were written to be staged, and the more I study and teach them — and I have been doing that at Columbia for 30 years — the more crucial it seems to me to see them realized on stage or at least to encourage readers, whether they are fourth-graders or college students or inmates at Rikers Island, to see them staged.
OR: What’s the best production you have seen?
Shapiro: Richard Eyre’s production of Hamlet, starring Jonathan Pryce, in the early 1980s. Pryce played both Hamlet and his father’s ghost as a dybbuk or force within him: he was possessed by his father’s ghost. I remember the entire audience levitating when Pryce first spoke the ghost’s lines. It has stuck with me. I remember every line of that production. Almost everyone I know, when asked that question, will describe something that they saw in their late teens or early 20s, and it is really important to see a memorable Shakespeare, early on. That was it for me.
OR: Whom do you think is the greatest Shakespearean actor?
Shapiro: There are a couple that rank at the very top of the game. One is Ian McKellen, who has been extraordinary. I saw him in Coriolanus in the 1980s, and really never need to see Coriolanus again. My favorite, although my preference is shaped in part by my knowing him pretty well and getting to talk with him every once in a while, is Simon Russell Beale. His Richard III was as brilliant as any. His Thersites was probably the greatest since Shakespeare’s day. He has gone on to play Lear brilliantly.
Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale are the finest in the U.K. There is an also an American style of Shakespeare, and that is a little different. For my money, F. Murray Abraham was the greatest Shylock, and I have seen many Shylocks. John Lithgow played a brilliant, brilliant Lear at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. But there is a lot of talent out there, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.
OR: Are you a purist when it comes to questions of textual fidelity and production design?
Shapiro: One of my responsibilities at the Public Theater is helping directors cut the text. When we take productions to prisons like Rikers or to federal penitentiaries in and around the city, we have to bring a 90-minute version, so I have to help trim a text to 90 minutes. I am very conscious of what it means to cut a text, and at the Delacorte, because of security and park closure, you have to end at 11:00 p.m. Some Shakespeare plays are only 2,100 lines, and others are 3,700 lines. They all have to be cut to a very particular length to be shown in very particular venues.
There are Shakespeare purists out there, academics are devoted to not changing a single word. The people who think that don’t realize that even in Shakespeare’s day, these plays were cut in performance. We have maximal or near-maximal texts, texts that are too long to be staged, that were submitted to the Master of the Revels for approval. All the plays have a 400-year tradition of being trimmed.
As for different settings, be they futuristic or Neanderthal, I have seen them all. The problem is not the choice of modernizing or not. A lot of people want to see doublet and hose when Shakespeare is staged. Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged in doublet and hose, for the most part, with whatever was available in the prop room — which means, of course, that they were staged in modern dress in their own day. Somehow there is a fantasy that we can’t stage them in modern dress today and be true to Shakespeare. But the problem is not when a director chooses some wild place or costuming or set design. The problem is when it doesn’t work, when it is not appropriate, when it drives a production, or when it doesn’t capture what’s urgent about that play.
OR: How close are the actual texts that modern actors and directors rely on to what Shakespeare actually wrote?
James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. His books include Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will (2010), the anthology Shakespeare in America (2014), and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015).