Before venturing into the world of Bad Shakespeare, perhaps it might be valuable to offer up some words of explanation. Since my background is as an actor and not as an academician, I can only speak to the issue from that point of view. I leave it to others far more versed in the literary ins and outs, and will focus only on what, in my terms, is Bad Shakespeare.
In staging Shakespeare’s plays, it is important to make the decision -- before one word is spoken in a rehearsal -- just what precisely is the intention of the production. If the plays are approached as literature, they are doomed. One would be better off sitting in a classroom of budding scholars and take turns reading, stopping to examine each line or concept in the text for its literary merits. But to present a reading to a paying audience would be in most cases, a recipe for disaster, and would certainly qualify as Bad Shakespeare. And yet, so often such an excessive amount of reverence is given to the Bard that the most salient objective is overlooked, and that is to simply tell the story.
Now it would seem so ridiculously obvious, but sadly, many productions overlook this simple task in favor of heaping such bizarre and eccentric interpretations upon the stories that they almost become lost in a melee of overproduced, technically obfuscating nonsense. That does not mean that the stories cannot be modernized or presented in a contemporary fashion. However, the story as written must still be served. There is the author’s intent to consider, and while it is certainly possible to see more than one interpretation of the story, it must still fall within a frame of what the intention of that story is.
I find such things as setting Romeo and Juliet as two warring Mafia families, as has been done, absurd. Read the story. That is not the relationship between the Capulets and Montagues. Of course it is always possible (and often done) that any spin can be put on any story, but this is merely a trick to try and find something “new” to present to an audience. The fatal mistake here is that of not trusting the audience. They do not need to be spoon fed or bombarded with such stretching of the tale that the simplicity is lost. At all turns, the story must be preserved. What separates good Shakespeare from bad Shakespeare is all too often a desire to reinvent the plays for fear that an audience will be bored or unable to cope with the language. Indeed, it is precisely that, the ability to make the language come alive, that will then give the story its power and impact with foisting all manner of frills and geegaws on it.
The stories, for the most part, are extremely intimate. Bad Shakespeare is often guilty of losing the intimacy in favor of bombast. It is not always a case of sawing the air too much, but favoring externals rather than the internal intimacies of the characters. Internal intimacies create the conflicts, which in turn create the building blocks of the stories. If indeed these plays are timeless, it is because the human condition has not changed over these hundreds of years, and the human condition is an intensely intimate one, and deserves careful examination rather than over abundant production values.
It is also important to remember that for the duration of the production, it is not literature. It is a play, possibly a great play, but a play nonetheless, and no different than a play by Neil Simon, John Guare, Marsha Norman, Sam Shepard, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Pinter, or anyone else you can think of. The commonality here is they all have written stories that deserve to be told, and told well. And before a cry goes up of how can one compare these writers to Shakespeare, let me just say that, from an actor’s point of view, storytelling is an equal opportunity proposition, and as such, it doesn’t matter who wrote it. What matters is what we do with it.
Perhaps one of the greatest contributions to the idea of Bad Shakespeare is the notion that there is a way to “act” Shakespeare. I am sure many would argue this point with me, but from my perspective you can either act, or you can’t. Of course, the language is a huge factor, and very often is never given the attention that it is due. One simply cannot heap an English accent onto a production and voilà, instant Shakespeare. In fact, the use of accents, usually in frightening and varying degrees, makes even the most well-intentioned production an almost instant failure, for the cacophony that the audience is exposed to will certainly detract from the noblest attempts at storytelling. So one element that should be avoided at all costs is accents. Either everyone does them brilliantly, or not at all. So acting Shakespeare is really all about understanding some rather arcane language and making it accessible to the audience. At least then you have given them a fighting chance, and actors have given themselves some freedom from creating this image that the British accent is the panacea and will vault any production into the world of good Shakespeare. Am I being somewhat facetious? Of course, but the point is now and always to serve the play and tell the story with as few external frills as is possible.
So my focus in future pieces will always be from the actor’s point of view. Since that is my profession and my experience, it seems only natural that that is the perspective to write from. Of course, 100 different actors will give you 100 different opinions. All opinions are welcome for discussion. The beauty of it is that what makes for bad Shakespeare cannot be encapsulated into only a very few things, and with the wealth of information at our disposal, we can only hope to try and shed a little light on the subject in an amusing, entertaining, and perhaps even a thought provoking manner. And now, have at it.