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Shakespeare at 400: Why Is This Dead White Man Still Relevant

Chicago Shakespeare Company’s yearlong festival shows how the playwright’s themes can be adapted to all times and all places.

Alexander Matrosov, Peter Rykov, and Alexander Arsentyev in the Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre, Moscow’s production of Measure for Measure   Photo: Johan Persson

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the work of Charles Darwin and the style choices of Madonna, it’s this: adapt or perish. That law of nature also surely accounts for the longevity of William Shakespeare’s plays, which are alive and well even though their author has, as of 2016, been dead for exactly four centuries. In that time, his 38 works for the stage have proven adaptable to pretty much any language, culture, time, setting, and medium you can name.

For proof, take a look at the 68-page catalog for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Shakespeare 400 Chicago, a yearlong, multidisciplinary festival marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death with a smorgasbord of programming, including an actual smorgasbord called the Culinary Complete Works (38 local chefs will create dishes inspired by each of the plays). Among the 850 events scheduled between now and the end of the year, there are dance pieces, concerts, lectures, operas, and plays from troupes across Chicago and the globe.

It’s a more-is-more approach to commemoration, and even festival producer Doreen Sayegh isn’t sure where you should start. “There is easily something for everybody that aligns with their interests,” she says. “If you have the slightest, tiniest interest in Shakespeare, I would hope you’d flip through the catalog and just pick something. Even at random.”

If you follow her advice, it’s as likely as not that your finger will land on something that originated in another country, and not necessarily an English-speaking one (though Great Britain and Australia are both represented). In fact, the whole shebang kicks off this week with a Russian-language production (with a projected English translation) of Measure for Measure from Cheek by Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre. Later on, you’ll have chances to see Polish and Belorussian takes on King Lear, a Mexican adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet translated into Chinese opera, and Twelfth Night performed in Hindi.

And these aren’t just gimmicks. In many cases, the show’s creators are using Shakespeare’s characters and themes to comment on contemporary issues of vital importance—corrupt governments, xenophobia, and gender expression among them. We regard Shakespeare as the preeminent English poet, but he clearly resonates with artists and audiences from Mumbai to Minsk. The question is: how come?

In his new book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, Columbia University professor James Shapiro (who’s scheduled to give a Shakespeare 400 lecture at the Newberry Library in September) shows how the plays that Shakespeare completed in 1606—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra (yep, all in one year)—were influenced by considerable political and religious uncertainty in England. According to Shapiro, Shakespeare transmuted the “fears and aspirations of his times” into art in such a way that left them rich in multifaceted and enduring interpretive possibilities.

“From the moment of its creation until the present day the meaning of King Lear continues to be subject to the form and pressure of the time,” he writes. “Whether we look at the history of the play in the late twentieth century (when in a nuclear and post-Holocaust world its exploration of the apocalyptic seemed so central) or in the early twenty-first century (when productions have focused more on Lear as father, a choice that reflects the growing specter of dementia), King Lear has managed to find fresh ways to speak to the moment.”

This ability of Shakespeare’s plays to transcend the particulars of their creation applies not just to time but to place as well. It’s an almost slippery quality that can result in equally valid interpretations of a play like The Tempest as a display or subversion of patriarchy, a renunciation or celebration of art, a defense of, or argument against, empire-building, or some combination of any of the above. It all depends on the context of the production.

For Sayegh, the key is that “the stories are so truly human. We keep turning back to them because we understand ourselves inside them. How people work with each other, how power dynamics are at play, how people fall in love and fall out of it and fight around it—all of that is the core of his plays, and what’s really true.”

She believes that taking a look through Shakespeare’s work at what makes us human is as important now as it ever was. “Part of having all these companies from around the world come in,” she says, “and share their experiences through a story—a language we all understand—is how powerful it can be to bring people together in a time when we have a lot of questions about being together.”

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