I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare and kings and queens. If you have ever set about to write a contemporary American adaptation of Shakespeare, or directed one of the plays in a modern setting, you will quickly come upon the problem of figuring out who the kings and queens and other fancy powerful royalty are. It’s easy to come up with contemporary versions of lovers, or Roman senators, or mothers and fathers, or even servants and nurses. Rich people and middle class and lower class we have. But the kings and queens are tricky. If you are really are setting Winter’s Tale in 2001 in Portland, who in that world has the legal power of life and death over an infant?
There are a couple of ways you can go with this. One way is to make your fancy people fabulously wealthy businesspeople or trust fund babies. This might work great for all those Dukes and minor royals. Orsino and Olivia seem to work really well as grown up rich kids with attendant entourages. The Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well fits our archetype of rich mother all up in her children’s business. Duke Frederick in As You Like It could be a tech baron or a real estate developer except, whoops, there’s that legal power of life and death over his niece that is going to seem really weird.
But what about those tragic kings and queens? You can make them straight up criminal or a psychopath. This often works really well. Think of Leontes, Macbeth, Claudius, Richard III. Considering this lays bare one of Shakespeare’s main themes: there’s nothing quite as bad as a Bad King. What Shakespeare considers moral failures born some mysterious combination of a corruption of power and the machinations of malevolent spirits, we modern people think perhaps less deeply about. We set them down as criminally insane and that’s that.
I have always been attracted to Arthur Miller’s idea of the common man as king. With his middle-aged, middle class, mid-century fathers, Miller managed to give us tragic heroes that evince true pity and fear. I performed in All My Sons once, and I marveled at the sound of audible male sobbing that filled the house every single night. I thought: this play is a power. That is what tragedy needs to be. It should scare you and make you really, really sad. That’s the gig with tragedy and when it works, it’s glorious.
So if you make your modern king a sociopath or a common murderer or a rich guy, you lose something. You turn your play into a mere portrait of pathology or privilege instead of an examination of the universal human condition. All this leads me to the opposite conclusion I usually reach. I am always thinking that if we don’t make Shakespeare truly accessible to modern American audiences, then we should spend our precious production dollars on something else. But sometimes what we need to do is just present the play as it is, and do it as well as we can. Sometimes a king is just a king.