Making Shakespeare great again

A controversial production of Julius Caesar opened in New York on May 23 2017. Directed by Oskar Eustis, and forming part of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park festival, this was one of several Shakespeare productions staged in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater during the summer.

Eustis’ Julius Caesar soon began to make headlines. Protestors interrupted performances of the production, and two of the company’s major sponsors (Delta Air Lines and Bank of America) announced the withdrawal of their financial support. Why? Because the play’s Ancient Roman setting was set aside for something altogether more current: Caesar was refashioned as Donald Trump, and the action unfolded in the recognisable world of contemporary American politics.

Despite being more than 400 years old, Shakespeare’s plays are still used to comment on the events of the present. The playwright’s words remain relatively unchanged; stage and costume design are instead the primary means by which directors and designers layer the texts with new meaning and promote their contemporary relevance in performance.

Current research at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute considers how Elizabethan and Jacobean (or ‘Jacobethan’) aesthetics have similarly been used to give Shakespeare’s plays particular significance in a 21st-century context. While Eustis’ recent Julius Caesar used modern dress to draw direct parallels between the fragile state of democracy in 44BC and the current political climate in the USA, historical styles have also proven an effective means of exploring contemporary issues in Shakespearean performance.

Jacobethan aesthetics have been mobilised as a tool for political and social commentary since the turn of the 19th century. Between 1790 and 1801, a production of Hamlet regularly staged by actor-manager John Philip Kemble began to make clear reference to the period of Shakespeare’s lifetime. Rather than clothing the characters in ‘modern dress’, as had been standard practice for the previous two centuries, Kemble constructed a nostalgic image of Elizabethan England through the production’s costume design. Historicising Shakespeare in this manner was part of a calculated conservative movement to combat the threat of subversion in the wake of the French Revolution. Hamlet’s undertones of socio-political instability could be dangerous in such a volatile climate. Paired with the actor-manager’s idealised interpretation of England’s ‘golden age’, the play could instead be used to promote the British monarchy and to imbue the audience with a sense of nationalistic pride.

Jacobethan-inspired productions now form a major strand of Shakespearean performance, and engage with current affairs to the same extent as Oskar Eustis’ 2017 Julius Caesar. In the weeks before a Trump-like Caesar was stabbed to death by suited politicians on the stage of the Delacorte Theater, London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse saw a production of Othello that repurposed ruffs, codpieces, and Jacobethan undergarments to explore critical gender and equality issues through Shakespeare’s 17th-century tragedy. The nostalgic representation of the Elizabethan period introduced during the 18th century also returns regularly to the stage at times of political turmoil in the UK. The mid-noughties saw a major trend in idealistic Jacobethanism following the Iraq War, Tony Blair’s resignation as Prime Minister, and the Labour Party’s fall from popularity and power. Since the 2016 EU Referendum, fantastical adaptations of Jacobethan dress have once again begun to feature heavily in Shakespeare productions across the country.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare is constantly changing, and so are the ways in which design is used to re-imagine the playwright’s works. Our research interprets visual elements of performance to give unique insight into how theatre functions as a form of social commentary: what else might Jacobethanism be made to mean in 21st-century Shakespearean performance, and what can this tell us about our own turbulent world?

Ella Hawkins

Doctoral Researcher, The Shakespeare Institute, School of English, Drama and American & Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham