The Bard Goes Trendy

by E. Nina Rothe

In the past year I've been privy to not one but two -- count 'em two! -- great new
reinterpretations of Shakespeare's tragedies. First it was 'Richard III' done in Arabic and renamed 'Richard III: An Arab Tragedy' -- ah the genius of simplicity in a title -- and then that most tragic of tragedies, dealing with love lost, incest of intentions, depths of despair and filial devotion 'Hamlet'. This latter one was titled 'Hamlet - The Clown Prince' and was interpreted by -- you guessed it! -- a troupe of actors acting as clowns. Both productions genial, both of them taking the Bard to a whole new level of understanding.

To me, the genius of reinterpreting a classic Shakespeare play lies in its simplification of the text, without straying from the poetry and meaning, and rendering it more accessible, to a wider audience. With 'Richard III: An Arab Tragedy' Sulayman Al-Bassam -- a Kuwaiti director and actor of mixed English and Arab background -- translated the text into simply street Arabic which was then supertitled (I saw it at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in NYC) in modern day English. This way, both the Arabic and English speakers in the audience could relate in a simple way to the story, which now took place in a fictional Gulf country run by a despot dictator a-la Saddam Hussein. Of course, being that Al-Bassam is Kuwaiti, I could see how this would have been the perfect choice for him... 

'Hamlet - The Clown Prince' instead did it differently. It magically shortened what is the longest of Shakespeare's plays and the most time consuming to watch and read. Never a favorite of mine, 'Hamlet' always appeared too wordy and lengthy and -- to quote one of the clowns "In Hamlet ladies and gentlemen EVERYBODY dies!" I hadn't always caught on to the misogynistic nuances of Hamlet -- I know, I know, hit me over the head with them, they now scream at me from the text! -- and I could not understand deep in my heart the pain of Ophelia. Also, Gertrude, Hamlet's mom, never really struck me as the full-bodied character pivotal to the plot that she actually is. After an evening with the clowns, I was made a convert. 'Hamlet' is now my favorite play and I have it on my Itouch -- yes, if you love Shakespeare, there's an APP for that?! -- so whenever I need a quick pick-me-up, up comes the Itouch and there I go, with my dear Hammy and Fifi and all of them... 

My own connection with Shakespeare is multi-layered. My Grandfather Hans was the most widely utilized translator of the Bard from English into German. Until very, very recently, my father received some hefty royalties off the performances of his translations! I grew up with a true reverence for his work and that only doubled when my father surreptitiously scattered Grandpa Hans' ashes at Stratford-upon-Avon after his death, so he could forever be by his revered master. So, if I ever want to go and speak to my beloved Grandfather, feel his wonderful aura, I have to do so by walking around the grounds and talking to myself, since he's obviously in an unmarked grave! But it's worth it for a man who inspired everything I am today, more than any other person in my life. In turn, Shakespeare is also very dear to my heart. It represents what Hans loved... I connect with it on an almost spiritual level...

Anyway, I wanted to share my newfound rediscovery of Shakespeare and wonder what was the last play of his that you watched and whether it managed to inspire you by its novelty interpretation... Please do share! Consider it a bit of market research, Elizabethan style. 

Top image courtesy of the Washington Post, middle image courtesy of Habitat Center



  1. What a wonderful story about your grandfather. I will be certain to say hello to him next time I am in Stratford. It's a delight to hear you reconnected with the play, too. I am always trying to win over my students to all manner of drama and remind them it is not meant to be read, but to be performed. Like a beautiful dress hanging on the rack, we can't imagine what it really is until it is put on and put in motion.

  2. Dear Nina! I absolutely adore this post! And to find out about your dear Grandfather - how amazing! I once saw an outdoor performance of Twelth Night while visiting a friend in Vancouver- it was actually on the beach - so that was pretty cool. But that's what I love about the Bard - that he continues to inspire - re-interpretations esp. from certain areas in the world - wonderful! ;) Thanks for this!

  3. Loved this post, Nina! What a wonderful tribute to your grandfather to scatter his ashes at Stratford-upon-Avon. How lovely that his life's work had such a resounding impact.
    Love the idea of adapting Shakespeare for modern times. Exposing his genius to new generations will surely inspire them.
    I recently bought the DVD of Twelfth Night - what a blast!

  4. Really a lovely tribute to your amazing grandfather!

    Well, since I live near and worked at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I did see a few interpretations. Some were quite inventive too.

    The one that most struck me though was more due to the particular actor than the interpretation. Richard Howard played Hamlet with such vulnerablity and a sense of questioning that I actually was drawn in.

    An intriguing version of Merchant of Venice was placed in modern times with mobsters in key roles. Fascinating!

    Great article!!


  5. Dear K.A.

    Thank you for your comment. I so agree with the dress comparison. And you have hit the nail on the head when you write that Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read. Only after witnessing a great performance can we actually enjoy re reading the passages. Best to you and what lucky students you have!

  6. Dearest JoJo!

    Thanks for your enthusiastic comment. As always, you make me smile with your words. Your experience with Twelfth Night sounds divine. Exactly my point in this piece, that Shakespeare has a way of turning constantly more contemporary, as much as we want his work to be!! And he's at home everywhere, the chap!!

  7. Cate Darling!

    Twelfth Night is actually a play I have tried to catch live several times but never managed. It was recently at the Shakespeare in Central Park here in NYC, but I missed out on getting tickets... So I'll definitely get the DVD and watch it that way, though it might not be as magical as the production JoJo caught in Vancouver. Thanks a million for your kind comments!!

  8. Dear Chiron!

    Thanks for understanding what it means to me to mention my Grandfather Hans. He has been such an inspiration to me. I feel him right at my shoulder at times, pushing me to continue with my writing and not give up...

    I do completely agree with you that a Shakespeare play takes on a whole new dimension when a great actor is involved. In fact, the Hamlet I saw had a great 'Hammy' in it, the clown who played him, Atul Kumar, is absolutely divine. His nuances came through from behind the grotesque make-up and funny looking clothing. I was mesmerized and absolutely fascinated by him. So yes, it's what an actor brings to the role that makes the play for me...

  9. p.s. Sorry everyone for answering to your lovely comments sooo late. Was away from my computer for the weekend. Love to all who stopped by! NINA

  10. Hi, Nina - I'm late, too, but very glad to find your post. Very, very cool about your grandfather. I like knowing he's now settled near the Bard.

    I've always liked Hamlet a lot, because I'm all about tragedy! In fact, I just watched the Laurence Olivier version a few weeks ago. I can listen to that man's voice for days.

    I'm currently putting one of my fictional main characters through a Hamlet-doesn't-belong-in-this-story revision. I guess my mind tends to go all to-be-or-not-to-be.

  11. Thank you Julia for your thoughtful comment! You know what they say, better late than never, though it's hardly a Shakespearean quote!

    I have a whole new respect and understanding of Hamlet these days. The whole play is so multilayered and I unfortunately know soooo many men who only talk about doing something but never actually have the courage, so his character touched very close to home. I'll watch the Olivier version, I too love his voice. What is it with men with British accents?!?! Anyway, thanks so much for dropping by!!


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