July 2005

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

On Saturday 12 March 2005, the Flemish TV-station Canvas broadcast an inter­view with Filip de Winter, the leader of the Flemish-nationalist party – Vlaams Be­lang – about theatre politics. De Winter argued that city theatres, once instituted to serve a broad range of tastes, were far too elitist. As an ex­ample, he mentioned a Flemish production of Shakespeare’s Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream some years ago, in which the Fairies had been repre­sented as sado-masochists dressed in black leather. This interpretation, ac­cording to De Winter, had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s original play. Should Vlaams Belang come to power, such productions would no longer be sub­sidised. Asked whether he wanted to return to producing the classics as museum pieces, De Winter allowed for every gene­ration to reinterpret plays in a new light, as long as this did not result in ex­cessive productions with just shock value.

In recent years, the gallery of possible Shakespeare portraits has been con­siderably expanded with new candidates for the genuine likeness of the poet; on 22 April 2005, however, NRC/Handelsblad reported that one old familiar face has now been lost. Research at the National Portrait Gallery has shown that the so-called Flower-portrait dates from the early nineteenth century, prob­ably between 1817 and 1840. The forger had used a sixteenth-century painting of the Madonna with child and St. John, and painted his own imita­tion of the Droeshout portrait over it; what has now given him away is that some of the paint he used was of a type not invented until 1817. This finding casts a new light on investigations by Hildegard Hammer­schmidt-Hummel, who had earlier claimed that the Flower portrait was the original, the Droes­hout engraving the copy. Moreover, in a recent book she had suggested that Shake­speare’s possessing such a Roman Catholic portrait of the Madonna, hidden beneath his own portrait, was evidence for his own covert popish sympathies. See Folio 7.1 (2000) and 11.2 (2004) respectively for reviews of Hammer­schmidt-­Hummel’s arguments.

Traditional thinking has it that Shakespeare’s original audience was a rather rough and undisciplined lot, at least by the modern standards of beha­viour expected of playgoers. Recent archaeological research seems to rein­force the stereotype. The Rose theatre, which was first dug up in 1989, has yielded a treasure of information about the audience’s eating habits. According to press reports in late April, archaeologist Julian Bowsher had sifted through the debris of the site and found the remains of shellfish, fruit stones and nuts in it; a brief article in NRC/Handelsblad of 25 April even pictured the spectators as spitting out chewing tobacco (which had only recently been imported from the New World) and drinking beer and wine. But then again, even in our own more enlightened age exposure to Shakespeare in itself does not guarantee good behaviour. In late February, various Dutch news media reported an in­cident in the town of Harderwijk. Pupils engaged in shooting a film version of Romeo and Juliet for school had aimed a toy gun at a passing cyclist, who subsequently warned the police as she believed the prop to be genuine. The culprits were promptly arrested, the toy gun destroyed. Perhaps Bonny and Clyde would have been a more appropriate love tragedy for the young actors to star in.

Earlier this year, the German publisher Walter de Gruyter published a col­lection of essays on Renaissance literature that deserves attention. It con­cerns Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe, edited by Andreas Höfele and Werner von Koppenfels (ISBN 3-11-018215-7). This volume – based on a highly successful conference held in Munich several years ago – analyses some of the travelling and bridge-build­ing activities that went on in Renaissance Europe, mainly but not exclusively across the Chan­nel, true to Michel de Montaigne’s epoch-making program of describing “the passage.” As the editors argue, “Its emphasis on Anglo-Continental relations ensures a firm basis in English literature, but its particular appeal lies in its European point of view, and in the perspectives that it opens up into other areas of early modern culture, such as pictorial art, philosophy, and econom­ics.” This impressive book is divided into three parts: the first part (“Media­tors”) devotes attention to the actual agents, in­fluential go-betweens, like trans­lators or travellers. Part two (entitled “Medi­ations”) concen­trates on the individual acts of mediation, and the “mental topographies” they presuppose, reflect and redraw in their turn. Part three (“Representations”) looks at the role of exemplary intermediaries and the workings of mediation represented on the early modern English stage. Contributors include: Peter Burke, Man­fred Pfister, Werner von Koppenfels, Paul Franssen, György E. Szönyi, Sonia Massai, Carlo Ginzberg, Herbert Grabes, John Roe, Aleida Ass­mann, Jan Ass­mann, Richard Wilson, Alex­ander Leg­gatt, François Laroque, Philippa Berry, and Catherine Belsey.

Earlier this year, Jan Jonk (who is about to finish his translation of the compete works of Shakespeare) published his Fragmenten uit de volledige werken van William Shakespeare (Uitgeverij Papieren Tijger, Breda, 2005), ISBN 90-6728-182-4 ( This anthology (which basically intro­duces the com­plete works that will appear next year) comes at €20, and is attractive in­deed, if only because of the CD that is part of the package, on which Jan Jonk himself reads part of the Shakespearean material in Early Modern English, Modern English, and in Dutch. “Trying to under­stand what it means,” says Jonk about his magnum opus, “in any case means a lifelong fas­ci­na­tion with words and their histories. Trying to understand means dis­covering slowly that every word in early modern, sixteenth-century English either meant something different from what it does now, or called up differ­ent associ­ations, or appealed to different emotions – though in most cases it means discovering all three of these at once. One seriously tries to become familiar with sixteenth-century English. One does so in an objective and academic manner that hardly leaves any room for personal interpretation or prefer­ence.”

Also in the field of translation, there was the publication of La Vie de Timon d’Athènes, a new French verse translation of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens by André Markowicz, in collaboration with George Hugo Tucker (Besançon: Éditions Les Solitaires Intempestifs, 2005), ISBN 2-84681-122-9. This fine translator of Russo-French origin – who has already produced a complete translation of Dostoevski (in 40 volumes), and has rendered into French the complete plays of Gogol, Lermontov, Checkov and Pushkin – started on Shake­speare quite recently. To date, André Marko­wicz has made French trans­lations of Richard II, Titus Andronicus, and The Tempest (all in col­laboration with George Hugo Tucker, 2003-2004), and of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Françoise Morvan, 2004). Particularly attractive about the trans­lation of Timon (which has meanwhile been staged) is the introduction by Margaret Jones-Davies. It is learned and philosophical in nature. Striking are the ease and the clarity of style with which the author manages to range from Plutarch, via Montaigne and Machiavelli, to Marx, Lacan, and Zizek, and back to Erasmus. In under 16 pages, Jones-Davies establishes this pro­blem­atic play as a text firmly rooted in Renaissance traditions that are no longer fami­liar to the mod­ern reader (views of language, experience of religion, ideas of alchemy, the city, friend­ship, and banqueting), but a text still rele­vant to our thinking about urban ex­istence and the plight of the individual. Jones-Davies brings to the play views that are as original as they are re­vealing a­bout Shakespeare, as when she compares Shake­speare’s Timon (1607) and his Coriolanus (1607), and deftly suggests that whereas Timon seeks to be loved by everyone, Corio­lanus tries to be hated by all.

Finally, we were happy to receive Saskia Kossak’s new book entitled Frame My Face to All Occasions: Shakespeare’s Richard III on Screen, which appeared with Wilhelm Braumüller in Vienna this year (ISBN 3-7003-1492-2), € 28.90. Kossak’s study of Shakespeare’s great manipulator in the parti­cularly mani­pulative media of film and television covers the entire field from silent one-reel films to twenty-first-century spin-offs on the screen. Of all the Shake­speare histories, Richard III is easily the most popular beyond England or Britain, but Kossak’s book makes it very clear that one should never under­estimate the true range of its popularity. The book will be reviewed in the next issue of Folio. Kossak’s article in the current issue of Folio may whet your appetite.