Bad Shakespeare Ethics

Off-off Broadway, in Brooklyn, a small professional theater company in Brooklyn called Target Margin Theater is presenting, it claims, “Pericles,” one of William Shakespeare’s less-celebrated dramas, and I’m being kind. The play is a mess, and one might wonder why a 1608 play that only survives because Shakespeare’s name is on it keeps getting productions at all.

Well, to ask the question is to answer it: “Pericles” gets produced now and then because Shakespeare’s name is on it. It’s the cognitive dissonance scale at work: the Bard is so high on the scale that he even elevates the worthless junk he wrote, kind-of wrote or badly wrote like “Timon of Athens” and “Titus Andronicus” out of deep, deep negative territory on the scale because he is held in such high regard. Surely something produced by a genius must have redeeming qualities, directors and producers reason, and maybe we can be the ones to find them after all these centuries!

It is a bit like recording a cover of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” because it’s a Beatles song.”

But the Target Margin Theater production of the Bard’s Bomb tries some things. For example, the convoluted plot of “Pericles” gets started with the revelation that a nasty king, having lost his wife, has turned to his beautiful daughter “with whom the father liking took and her to incest did provoke.” However in this production, that line is rendered as, “The dude sleeps with his daughter.”

So it’s not Shakespeare after all, is it? (Actually, the play itself may not be all Shakespeare, as many believe the first two acts were written by the immortal George Wilkins.) The director has added many flamboyant touches, such as casting an Asian woman as the Greek male hero. That’s just trendy pandering in my book, but so much junk has been thrown into the mix that it may not matter. This “Pericles” included, for example, an announcement to silence cell phones as part of the script.

No, it isn’t Shakespeare’s “Pericles.” A bunch of people decided to use Shakespeare’s name to draw an audience to whatever the hell it was that they decided they want to say, but, as the New York Times review put it, ran the script through a blender.

The rule in theater is simple utilitarianism: the ends justify the means completely, and if the show “works,” almost anything goes. That principle applies to having a gender-fluid Pericles, but not to presenting something as Shakespeare (or Shakespeare and Wilkens )that isn’t. That’s a lie; that’s a cheat. There are theater-lovers who will go to see any Shakespeare play; there are Shakespeare aficionados who will go to see the rarely-performed works because they are performed so rarely. Target Margin sucked both of these audience groups into buying tickets with a deliberate misrepresentation…and, if the Times review is to be believed, didn’t even provide a great evening of theater, which wouldn’t make up for the lie but would certainly make it more forgivable.

I have the greatest respect for small, daring professional theater companies; after all, I was the artistic director of one for 20 years. I admire risk-taking; I applaud new approaches to old works, and having done so myself on more than one occasion, I especially admire anyone who can re-envision a show that hasn’t worked before, and make it exciting and memorable. But is has to be the same show. Shakespeare is all about the language, though it doesn’t have to be kept in the original period or culture. When Will’s poetry is excised to say “The dude sleeps with his daughter,” then he’s been betrayed.

The company used Shakespeare’s name to sell tickets, and showed him no respect at all while conning its audience. It is legal to use works in the public domain this way, but it isn’t right. It’s unethical.


Pointer and Source: New York Times

8 thoughts on “Bad Shakespeare Ethics

  1. I haven’t thought about that play in years, but I did use it in a “proof” that the complete works of Shakespeare were actually written by Baldrick, the dogsbody of the Blackadder series. It was my response to the allegedly great revelation that the King James Bible was written by Shakespeare because the 46th word from the beginning of Psalm 46 is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.”
    I’ll pass on my brilliant analysis if anyone cares, but most will regard it two minutes of their lives they’ll never get back.

      • OK. So…
        Until very recently, the play was almost always referred to with its full title, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. And it is indeed a wretched play. Therefore, obviously, it exists primarily for its title, including what follows the comma.
        We start with the recognition that the Greek upsilon, often transliterated as a y, is actually a u. Therefore the title is really Pericles, Prince of Ture.
        Now, eliminate all repeated letters: PERICLSNOFTU.
        Rearrange them: CLEFTURNIPSO.
        Break it into words and add some punctuation: Clef: turnip. So?
        French is the universal language the time, so the first word is in that language. “Clef” is French for “key.” Thus, the key to understanding who actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare is “turnip,” followed by a direct challenge to the reader to interpret this clue correctly.
        And what Renaissance Englishman is most associated with turnips?

  2. “Surely something produced by a genius must have redeeming qualities, directors and producers reason, and maybe we can be the ones to find them after all these centuries!”

    This is a great topic to explore.

    Anytime a genius comes up with something awful, there is an inclination among cultural gate keepers to tell the rubes they look down on to ignore their own senses – that if the genius produced it and you don’t see the beauty, then there’s something wrong with your own abilities.

    Except, even geniuses are human and even geniuses hit dry spells but still have to pay the bills.

    What if, however, in modern culture, where the cultural gatekeepers increasingly promote artists and craftsmen who focus not on the good, the true, and the beautiful, but on the bad, the false, the ugly? What if they promote these culture destroyers and continue to tell the rubes they are the dummies for “not getting it”?

  3. So why didn’t they just avoid all of the drama by including the caveat: “Based on a play by Shakespeare”?
    That seems to be sufficient for Hollywood.

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