Though William Shakespeare’s works were written centuries ago, their messages remain topical, and their malleability allows directors, actors, and production teams to push those messages further or even in alternate directions. Shakespeare’s works are timely, controversial, and radical — artists can and should approach them as a vehicle for activism.
The common modern-day sentiment around Shakespeare mischaracterizes his plays as outdated and boring. The misconception is understandable — due to the unexciting way they are presented in many middle and high schools and the barrier of the old, heightened language — but inaccurate. Shakespeare’s plays can make for thrilling performances, with their timeless and labyrinthine plots, fierce and assertive female characters, bone-chilling and coldhearted villains, and carefully crafted verse and prose. With just a couple of choices by the production team to make the stories more accessible, the audiences, too, can find the plays thrilling.
Not only are Shakespeare’s plays entertaining, but they also offer unparalleled potential to address contemporary issues. In fact, the content suggests that Shakespeare wanted his plays to be used in this way. He packs many of them with sociopolitical commentary: “The Tempest” urges audiences to question colonialism and slavery, “Othello” prompts reflection on racism and misogyny, and “Twelfth Night” begs for consideration of gender and sexuality. It would be remiss to ignore these opportunities, and even his seemingly non-activist plays can be performed through an activist lens.
Shakespeare’s plays hold a huge potential for activism, and they also serve as a blank slate because so much about them is unclear and unknown, rendering it appropriate and even necessary for theatermakers to contemporize them. Half of Shakespeare’s plays were never performed in his lifetime, the earliest known publication of his complete works was not arranged until after his death, and the various early editions of his texts have significant variations, which means it is impossible to know his original intentions. With Shakespeare, the pursuit of authenticity is futile, which gives artists greater flexibility and creativity with the source material. Artists should take advantage of this interpretive potential, because as recent stagings show, by doing so, the plays become the perfect platform for activism.
In 2021, Shakespeare’s Globe in London presented an edgy, fast-paced, contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Ola Ince. The play commented on adolescent mental health. Statements such as “about 20% of teenagers experience depression before they reach adulthood” and “75% of children with mental health issues are not receiving treatment” hung above the stage during the play; one deliberately chosen statement at a time framed the audience’s comprehension of each scene. The choice was slightly heavy-handed but powerful and effective, particularly in conjunction with red heart Converse high-tops, a Squishmallow plush, and Mercutio’s e-cigarette vaping habit, which ensured the audience never forgot the characters were representing present-day teenagers.
“Romeo and Juliet” is usually an exhausted play, but Ince re-energized it and reworked it to make audiences reflect on modern-day societal issues she finds important. She examined Shakespeare’s text and highlighted moments and concepts that resonated with her. When Juliet killed herself — in this adaptation, shooting herself in the mouth with a handgun — it was devastating and painful to watch, but it did not feel silly and meaningless, as it does in many productions. It felt like she and the other teenage characters were vulnerable to mental health struggles and not provided with sufficient support from adults, a message that rang relevant to 2021 theatergoers.
In 2019, The Public Theater brought Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” to New York City with an all-Black cast, directed by Kenny Leon. The play was jubilant, it was full of both laughable and soft, heartfelt moments, and crucially, it was unapologetically Black. It embraced Black culture through music, hair, costumes, and other key choices, like a distinct “okurrr” uttered by Brooks. Aside from the “Stacey Abrams 2020” banner positioned onstage, this production of “Much Ado About Nothing” was not overwhelmingly political — but it was a celebration of Black joy and Black excellence, which is in many ways a radical act.
Casting only Black actors in a play featuring happy, affluent, confident characters allowed Leon to uplift and center Blackness — a powerful and much-needed endeavor in today’s America — through a play written in 1599. Shakespeare probably did not have this goal while creating “Much Ado About Nothing,” which contributes to the brilliance of Leon’s work. Leon reclaimed the play, and another director may reclaim the same play in a different way. Not only did Leon add the unexpected racial dimension, but he also identified ideas that already existed within the text (the value of protest, appreciation of nonconformity, and challenging the patriarchy) and emphasized them in harmony with the racial messaging. “Much Ado About Nothing” is not inherently an activist play, but Leon realized it as such.
Some Shakespeare plays are socially problematic, but they can still be shaped into activist theater. For example, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2020 London production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” directed by Justin Audibert, reimagined the misogynistic play by gender-swapping the roles and setting it in a matriarchal society. Perhaps there is space to develop a progressive production of Shakespeare’s misogynistic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or his antisemitic “The Merchant of Venice.” It would require intense creative reworking, but it may be possible.
Activist productions such as Ince’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Leon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” and Audibert’s “The Taming of the Shrew” are the most successful approaches to Shakespeare performances. They resonate with modern-day audiences and fully exploit the opportunities extended by the text. Art is political; artists should claim this fact and use it to their and others’ benefit. Shakespeare’s works are too valuable for theatermakers and theatergoers to allow them to fall out of relevance. There is no need to paraphrase the language; Shakespeare’s 16th-century words can and should be used to speak to 21st-century issues.