Over the last four centuries, we’ve reinvented Shakespeare to suit our purposes, much as Shakespeare borrowed from his past to do the same.1 2016 commemorates the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s also a year forged in the aftermath of ISIS attacks in Brussels and Paris, Richard Dear’s attack on a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado, the Bundy brothers’ occupation of federal land in Oregon, and Donald Trump’s brazen demonization of immigrants and refugees.
With this in mind, I turned to three recent, and very different, meditations on Shakespeare’s drama—James Shapiro’s history The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, Justin Kurzel’s film adaptation of Macbeth, and Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a novelization of The Winter’s Tale—to search for ways each engages the plays to address contemporary anxieties.
Today’s Global War on Terror looks different after reading Shapiro’s study, which unearths a relevant yet often ignored history of white Christian terrorism. Kurzel’s Macbeth, though set in the 11th century, presents us with a strikingly contemporary image of violent masculine insecurity. His Macbeth, traumatized by the destructive powers of war, is equally anxious about the generative powers of female bodies. Winterson’s novel, the most explicit examination of what the author calls the “power-plays of maleness,” also links the patriarchal violence of Shakespeare’s world to the financial violence today’s predatory banking class continues to inflict upon the young and vulnerable. Each of these works succeeds in highlighting what, four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s plays can teach us about the violence still terrorizing us today.
Shapiro offers much to readers looking to historicize the present, despite making few explicit references to it. The book examines three plays Shakespeare wrote in 1606: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. In 2005 Shapiro published A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, and The Year of Lear feels like that book’s tragic sequel. Shapiro depicts 1606 as a particularly “fraught” year for Shakespeare and King James’s “anxious nation,” a year shaped in advance the previous November, when the Catholic gentlemen later known as the Gunpowder Plotters attempted to blow up Parliament and wipe out England’s Protestant ruling class. This sectarian violence stoked fears of insidious plots by Catholic terrorists. Every chapter in Shapiro’s book illustrates England’s fever pitch of anxiety, suspicion, and “xenophobic fervor.” It’s a history at once familiar and strange. In January, Parliament debated legislation proposing that Catholic recusants be separated from their children, while moderates argued that “there were essentially two sorts of Catholics: a loyal majority … and a potentially treasonous minority.”
Today, as we remember last year’s Scottish Referendum and await the Brexit Referendum this June, European unions may seem shakier than ever. Shapiro’s book informs current debates when he narrates how King James spent 1606 similarly frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to unite the kingdoms of Scotland and England as “Great Britain.” This was the year Shakespeare’s plays became distinctly “British,” rather than “English,” as he and his fellow players joined James’s political architects in rewriting, performing, and plotting a distinctly British history. Shapiro narrates how James literally re-plotted history by digging up and reburying both Queen Elizabeth and his mother Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth, along with her childless sister (“Bloody”) Mary, was moved to Westminster Abbey’s margins, while James’s mother was given pride of place along with other, fertile, monarchs. By appropriating the bodies of the powerful women who came before him, James revised “English” history and secured his place in what would eventually be called “British” history.
Shapiro’s wide-reaching erudition draws upon a wealth of information—scholarship, source material, sermons, illustrations, correspondences—and he shows himself to be a great synthesizer of generations of scholars. Shapiro carefully reads maps, city architecture, and almanacs to imaginatively place the reader alongside paths Shakespeare “perhaps” traveled.2, p. xviii). ] He doesn’t, however, provide access to Shakespeare’s mind. Instead, he keeps readers at a proper distance by acknowledging and then checking such desires. Shapiro tells his reader that he’s “painfully aware” of what “cannot be recovered.” His text hovers around things about which “one can only wonder,” things that “mystery will always surround,” reminding us that “it’s a challenge, four centuries later, to imagine” how Shakespeare felt about his world. Scholarly qualification and dissensus are relegated to a “bibliographic essay,” providing Shapiro an unobstructed stage upon which to perform a truly captivating tale.
A note in the bibliographic essay reveals that much of his research was gathered in the service of a 2012 BBC4 miniseries. The book feels like the series from which it’s derived, but, unlike the book, the series explicitly foregrounds the present. Shapiro, a Reithian host, walks the streets of contemporary London, discussing King James’s debt, royal monopolies, the Gunpowder Plot, and the enclosure laws that privatized communal land. Each of these issues is connected, respectively, to today’s debt crises, Occupy Wall Street, terrorism, and privatization—connections that remain implicit yet unexplored in the book. But even as the series foregrounded the present, it also fetishized the pastness of its historical objects. Shapiro is breathless with excitement when in the presence of rare artifacts or manuscripts. Such extremes are softened in his book.
Shapiro describes Shakespeare’s treatment of his sources, illustrating how such material “allows us a glimpse of Shakespeare as literary architect—performing a gut renovation of the old original, preserving the frame, salvaging bits and pieces, transposing outmoded features in innovative ways.” We discover a politic Shakespeare whose innovations allude to yet carefully sidestep the explicitly seditious. Fellow playwrights faced serious consequences for engaging the contemporary. After serving months in prison for his hand in the Isle of Dogs scandal of 1597, Ben Jonson was again imprisoned—and nearly had his nose and ears slit—when his Eastward Ho (1605) mocked King James’s practice of rewarding Scots with English titles.
Shapiro’s reasons for disavowing the present are less clear. In his books on 1599 and 1606, he illustrates how studying Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order highlights the concerns of each play’s specific moment. This chronological understanding, Shapiro claims, has been obscured by a longstanding collective desire to see the plays as “not of an age but for all time.” But perhaps pitting responsible micro-histories against naive appeals to Shakespeare’s universalism presents a false choice. In his study of 1599, Shapiro acknowledged how focusing on a single year may not adequately address “more gradual and less perceptible historical shifts.”3 His BBC series, which covers King James’s entire reign, explores just such gradual shifts. I share Shapiro’s New Historicist commitment to avoiding anachronism and respecting what makes the past different from the present. But I’m also enough of a presentist
to believe that discussions of early modern political violence are enriched and given force when we acknowledge how this history produced the terrorists (Christian and Islamic) and forces of neoliberal privatization (militial and corporate) that today threaten unions (Anglo-European and American) as precarious as James’s emergent Britain.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth strikes an interesting balance between presentism and historicism by drawing subtle connections to the present, despite its medieval setting. The film opens on a shot of the Macbeths’s dead child. The grieving Macbeths, played by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, place stones on their child’s eyes and light the pyre. Subsequent funeral pyres punctuate the film and saturate it with an earthy, blood-orange palate. The dead child, whom Kurzel adds to Shakespeare’s playtext, reframes the familiar tale as a domestic tragedy. These Macbeths mourn yesterday’s personal loss as much as they fret about the politics of “to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.” The opening sequence showcases the film’s scope, establishing the drama though wide shots of the Scottish Highlands. This width and height give the film a gravitas and production value missing from most Shakespeare films of the last 15 years.4 It is not a Macbeth to be watched on your phone or laptop.
Despite its visual scope, the film is very quiet. Like Macbeth’s life, the film carries “curses, not loud but deep.” Go to the cinema to watch the film, but listen to the soundtrack in private with headphones. Kurzel’s brother, Jed Kurzel, provides a discordant and persistent dirge composed of droning cellos, punctuated by a relentless tambourine and creaking violins. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography mirrors the crawling pace of this dirge. Battle scenes suddenly fall into extreme slow motion and then freeze, offering the viewer a series of tableaux morts depicting teenage soldiers at the verge of death. Then, just as quickly, life rushes back to full speed. Such scenes dramatize the temporality of PTSD. One gets stuck in the trauma of a moment, unable to recalibrate or keep pace with a persistent and elusive present. We see Macbeth in such a state, frozen on the battlefield. A sleepless Macbeth is haunted throughout the film by flashbacks depicting the traumatic deaths of young soldiers. This PTSD conceit drives the film, illustrating the nature of a markedly secular form of haunting.5
Despite its breadth, the cinematography is also intimate, especially when tracking its leads, who whisper in claustrophobic close ups. Characters whisper lines we’re used to hearing shouted, and they shout lines we’re used to hearing in more ruminative soliloquys and asides. Macbeth’s typically anguished “Prithee, peace! I dare do all that may become a man,” isn’t shouted defensively; it’s whispered threateningly, his hands hovering over Lady Macbeth’s neck. When her emasculating asides are spoken directly to Macbeth’s face, her insults become a kind of sadomasochistic play. When she commands him to “screw” his courage to “the sticking place,” Cotillard transforms admonishment into sexual innuendo and invitation—one he accepts. His orgasm brings on his resolve. Kurzel and Cotillard transform Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth into a woman who collaborates with her husband, rather than seeming to “nag” or “castrate” him. No doctor attends her hand-wringing, and the play’s “hysteria” is reframed as a rational response to maternal loss. Her loyalty to Macbeth shifts only after she witnesses Macbeth publicly burning Lady MacDuff and her children at the stake. Unlike her husband, Lady Macbeth is always on the side of the children.
Nearly every director cuts Shakespeare’s playtexts, operating through omission. Kurzel and his co-screenwriters omit too, but they also do something much less common: they edit the script like one edits film, experimenting with rearrangements that intricately weave lines from one act into scenes in entirely different acts. These cuts present a laconic and frighteningly decisive Macbeth, one lacking any ambivalence.
Shapiro and other scholars have argued that Macbeth reflects Jacobean debates around “equivocation,” the deceptive use of language to signal a public meaning at odds with the speaker’s private intentions. Equivocation became a buzzword in 1606 when, during the trial of the gunpowder plotters, authorities discovered a “Treatise on Equivocation.” The document instructed Jesuit spies on how to mislead authorities without outright lying. Jacobeans suddenly found that priests, once figures of authority, had seemingly plunged the world into a post-truth era.
Kurzel’s Macbeth is noticeably devoid of equivocation. Macbeth never struggles to present a “false face.” Kurzel eschews the privacy provided by most of the play’s soliloquies, transforming them into monologues delivered boldly and publicly. The Macbeths rarely panic or wring their hands. Fassbender’s Macbeth, it seems, would redden the sea with blood before he’d let the sea cleanse his. His Macbeth dwells in a world like ours, a mansplaining world where volume and bravado signal truth, and equivocation is useless—a world in which Trump can claim, unequivocally, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first installment of Random House’s Hogarth Shakespeare project, launched to coincide with the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The series recruits novelists, acclaimed (Ann Tyler, Margaret Atwood) and best-selling (Gillian Flynn), to reimagine Shakespeare’s plays in novel form. Winterson’s “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale initially seems more optimistic than Kurzel’s or Shapiro’s projects, likely because she chooses to work with one of Shakespeare’s romances, a genre invented in the 18th century to categorize plays written late in Shakespeare’s career when, after the big tragedies, he began crafting comedies infused with tragic pathos. Like the Gunpowder conspiracy, which ended with trials and executions that only partially satisfied audiences, the late romances summon danger and potential tragedy but end—often awkwardly or unconvincingly—with miraculous redemption and reunion.
The Winter’s Tale’s first half reads like an abridged revision of Othello’s tragedy. In a jealous tirade, King Leontes accuses his pregnant Queen, Hermione, of sleeping with his lifelong friend Polixenes. Leontes imprisons her, and in his rage plots the destruction of his family, which seems accomplished when his wife and son die of grief, and his newborn daughter, Perdita, is left for dead in Bohemia’s pastoral wilderness.
Winterson relocates the drama to post-recession London. Leontes becomes Leo, who forms a hedge fund called “Sicilia, Ltd.” after he’s fired from Barclays Wealth Management for incurring “reckless losses” leading up to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. A foul mix of Steve Jobs and Donald Trump, Leo wears a t-shirt that reads, “I AM THE ONE PERCENT.” His misogyny and misanthropy—unexplained in the play—are now motivated by specific traumas. After his mother abandoned him and his father for another woman, Leo began a homosexual relationship with Xeno Polixenes, his childhood friend. Unable to embrace his sexuality, Leo violently disavowed his desire for Xeno, pushing him off a cliff and leaving him for dead. Leo’s paranoid policing of MiMi’s body—and his desire to imagine it penetrated by Xeno—reveals itself as a fantasy born of his disavowed homosexual desire: “Leo needed to webcam the whole house. He needed to webcam her cunt … Leo in her cervix, waiting with his mouth open for Xeno to worm his way in.”
When a pregnancy test proves Leo the father of MiMi’s unborn child, we learn that “DNA tests are 99 percent accurate, but Leo liked to call himself the one percent.” When Leo accuses the pregnant MiMi of infidelity, he rapes and batters her. Minutes later, her water breaks and Leo refuses to call an ambulance, effectively blocking her access to healthcare. This scene was particularly difficult to read, as Winterson does not mute Leo’s violence, misogyny, or insecurity. An equally troubling scene occurs when Macbeth meditates on his “fruitless crown” and “barren sceptre.” A soliloquy in the playtext, Kurzel’s Macbeth delivers these lines directly to Lady Macbeth while he points a dagger at her uterus. He advances on her, the dagger now under her dress as he menacingly speaks of night’s “bloody and invisible hand” which might “cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps [him] pale!” She pushes him away as a single tear falls down his face.
After a “gap of time,” the novel’s second half follows Perdita, now 16, who returns to London to reunite with a contrite Leo. The novel seems to ask how such predatory masculinity can be redeemed. Leo’s penance feels unconvincing. He reluctantly engages in a cheap philanthropy he describes as “responsible capitalism.” The novel ends at a concert Leo organizes to raise money for Save the Children. Like Kurzel’s Macbeth, or King James’s hereditary monarchy, Leo’s redemption depends upon his mastery of women’s bodies and their links to future generations.
Characters in The Gap of Time regularly offer cheap and tautological truths that simply invert and repeat the problems with which they begin: “We can’t because we don’t and we don’t because we can’t.” The narrative is filled with gaps, ellipses, breaks, and holes. Characters figure and refigure time throughout, as though looking for a way to overcome the “reckless losses” of the past. Leo repeatedly fantasizes that, like Superman, he might circle the earth to turn back time and save Lois Lane. But Leo’s hypermasculinity, his supermanhood, only offers the uncoordinated violence of a selfish child, a “boy eternal.” One character comments, “He’s a typical Alpha Male. They don’t grow up, they just get meaner.”
Winterson appears at the end of her novel like an actor delivering an epilogue after a stage play. In this epilogue, she describes how Shakespeare’s romances end by “leaving it to the kids to get it right next time.” Kids like Perdita must engage in their generation’s battle against the “necrotic suicidal longings of their forbearers, usually the males,” but the novel doesn’t seem convinced of its own claim that children can redeem the future. When Xeno optimistically tells Leo, “Every generation gets the chance to do it better,” Leo tells him “You sound like a mindfulness DVD.” Novel and play close on the happy marriage between Perdita and Zel (Florizel), but in the novel’s final pages Perdita repeatedly notices that Zel holds her wrists “too tight.”
Winterson’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, seem to fail when they pin their hopes on an increasingly suspect belief that children will redeem, rather than repeat, the past. However, even when their characters fail, these works succeed when they connect reproductive failure to larger political dramas or histories, and when they suggest that the focus on literal babies might only mystify our anxieties about reproduction. Perhaps our failure to reproduce—our barrenness—originates in Christian patriarchy, neoliberal austerity, and privatized accumulation, forces which today starve a public body no longer able to produce, invest, maintain, or support its people—young and old. In this sense, we are all cast in the role of the orphan Perdita, the disinherited Cordelia, and the sterile Macbeths. Like the Macbeths, we all have PTSD. And just like King James, we are all terrorized and as vulnerable as babes.
- Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 1989) impressively recounts how audiences, over four centuries, reinvented Shakespeare to satisfy their historically specific desires. ↩
- The Year of Lear doesn’t foreground its methods, as Shapiro did in A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, by telling readers, in the latter’s opening pages, that much of what he will claim is “speculative” and by offering a “global qualification” so as to not litter his narrative with an abundance of perhapses, maybes, and probablys (A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 [Harper Perennial, 2005 ↩
- Shapiro, A Year in the Life, p. xvi. ↩
- The 1990s and early 2000s marked an unusually productive and financially successful period for Shakespeare on the big screen. One notable exception to the above claim is Vishal Bardwaj’s Haider (2014), a Hindi adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir, where the Himalayas give the film a similarly impressive scope and production value. ↩
- Fassbender and Kurzel were explicit—and confident—about Macbeth’s diagnosis at the film’s premiere at Cannes. ↩