“The Merry Wives of Windsor” in Central Park is a “Critic’s Pick” by the Times theater reviewer Jesse Green. We learn that William Shakespeare’s “comedy of clever women, frail men and harsh revenge” has been “shaped” into one of “love and forgiveness.” We are informed that a drummer from Zimbabwe leads the audience in a call and response chorus of vernacular African salutations: “Asé” (Nigeria), “Yebo” (South Africa) and “Wau-Wau” (Senegal) among them. We are informed that the adapter has cut the number of characters in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” nearly in half, and that the running time is more than a third shorter than the Bard’s 1597 comedy.
Yes, and the “adaptation” apparently eliminates much of Shakespeare’s wordplay, including politically incorrect words like “master” and “mistress,” which Green says have “buzzkill implications.” Gone too are “misogynist references.” Predictably the setting is no longer England, or Windsor, but Harlem: it is difficult to find a a production of any Shakespeare play today that has any connection to the original in time or space.
The director and adapter have also “made several adjustments to embrace queerness where the original used it merely for humor.” Of course.
Falstaff, the most famous character in the original play, wears shin-length shorts and V-R goggles as the “knight” chats with the audience about spending the pandemic watching Netflix. It all sounds like a gas, but can whateverthisis be fairly, honestly and accurately called a Shakespeare production, never mind “The Merry Wives of Windsor”?
It just isn’t. The production may be wonderful: I haven’t seen it, nor would I voluntarily pay to see anything resembling the original “Merry Wives,” which I regard as one of more than 20 plays we would never have heard of if the same author hadn’t written “King Lear,” “Hamlet,” “MacBeth,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ among others. But to call a play this thoroughly rewritten, re-conceived and turned inside-out “Shakespeare” is no more nor less than false advertising to give weight, significance and box office appeal to a new work that hasn’t earned it.
Oh, it’s legal to do this. Shakespeare is in the public domain; nobody has to respect his work, be fair to it, or exercise any ethical restraints at all. But just as “The Magnificent Seven” (not to mention “A Bug’s Life”) was inspired by “The Seven Samurai,” it isn’t “The Seven Samurai,” and just as “Disturbia” rips off Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” it still isn’t “Rear Window,” so-called adaptations of Shakespeare plays that the author himself either wouldn’t recognize or would run out of the theater screaming if he had to watch them cannot ethically use those mutated works’ original titles and libel the author by claiming that he’s responsible for what the audience is seeing and hearing.
Where is the line crossed when that is the case? That’s an excellent question, but we don’t have to consider it to know that the current “Shakespeare in the Park” crossed it by miles.