Sounds Fun, But Is It Shakespeare?

“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.

10 thoughts on “Sounds Fun, But Is It Shakespeare?

  1. In Newark they’re now doing a brand new play called “12 Mo’ Angry Men,” which obviously rips off Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men.” A white police officer kills a black teen, and 12 black jurors now must decide his fate. Anyone care to guess which way it goes? It’s basically just another excuse to recite the BLM party line.

    • Yeah, but that’s OK. The title signals it’s a different play, and presumably Rose isn’t blamed for it. Actually, that sounds like a good idea for a play. Best of all, it can be used by me when people argue that the cast of the original should be “diverse,” when I answer, “No, you idiot, the whole point of Rise’s drama is that 12 WHITE guys have to deal with their biases to assess the guilt of a minority defendant.” Would you want to have a white juror in “12 Mo’ Angry Men”?

  2. “one of more than 20 plays we would never have heard of if the same author hadn’t written”

    It did spawn Verdi’s Falstaff.

    I think that both titling and crediting are important. If you look at the original leaflets advertising Verdi’s “Otello,” Verdi is mentioned very prominently, librettist Boito is right near the top, and Shakespeare’s name is…nowhere. Immodest, yes, but they weren’t piggybacking off the Bard’s reputation.

  3. Perhaps relevant here is how much Shakespeare himself ripped things off.

    Coriolanus (Plutarch)
    Richard III (Thomas More)
    Troilus and Cressida (Chaucer)

    And, the list could go on. The difference is that Shakespeare used the materials and made something that could stand on its own. It was not Shakespeare’s adaptation of Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus. Shakespeare used the source to create HIS story..

    Kind of like, say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. An original work, based upon Shakespeare, but making no claim to being a Shakespearean production.

    I take it this Merry Wives of Windsor is no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.


  4. I actually hate it when things like this are done, or in the movies when they have a remake with the genders switched and a new plot line. Just call it a new name “inspired” by the old show. It’s like all the “milk” out there, using the good vibes off the old normal dairy milk product and yet also slamming them for being inadequate today. Just call it what it is. A product inspired by the other. Don’t water down the original to suit you because you find the content unsatisfactory. Be an adult and use your own title for your product that really is very little like the original and probably couldn’t stand on its own or you wouldn’t be trying to use its recognition in the first place.

    • With a movie at least, there is a fixed form for the original that the reimagined remake doesn’t directly harm. The remakes can however distract from the originals. Kids today (yeah, I’m old!) may not see the animated Jungle Book or Lion King because they grew up with the “live” versions. They are missing out on late 20th Century Disney classics because of an early new century cash grab. Sometimes a flashy remake can draw attention to an undersung original. The 2000s version of the Taking if Pelham 123 is made out into a tedious highstrakes drama. The original, however, is a delightful little movie about a subway heist of all things.

      However, when the remake is a bust, the original is still there to see. Everyone will calmly ignore Johnny Depp, and continue to enjoy Gene Wilder’s OSHA non-compliant chocolate factory. A select few films will even cast a rainbow somewhere over any remake attempt.

      Unlike theater, a flop in film doesn’t prevent the original from being available. A flop in an adapted play, however, risks poisoning the well against future casts attempting the original.

  5. There is a professional theatrical troupe right here in southern Wisconsin that does a really good job keeping to the original Shakespeare scripts, costumes, and sets, it’s called American Players Theater (APT). I’ve seen many well done Shakespeare shows done in their unique outdoor theater including “The Merry Wives of Windsor” which is actually quite funny if done well. The artistic director at APT when I was a regular some years ago was excellent at bringing out some of the more subtle humor in the shows and sometimes it’s just a simple look, like the main character Katherine in “Kiss Me Kate” threw at the audience at the end of the show in the Broadway revival some years ago that got wide-spread gut laughs all over the theater.

    I’m a purest when it comes to scripts and I’m not interested in going to any show where they’ve bastardized it the way that Shakespeare in the Park troupe did, as far as I’m concerned them using the name “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was an unethical and a lie, they should have bastardized the name too so it was real clear to the public that the show was no longer the Shakespeare show.

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