We gave it a C-
Granted, big Bill Shakespeare is hot enough right now to have his own table at Spago if he bothered to show up. But does the flurry of films based on his life and works represent a Bardic dumbing down — Shakespeare Lite for Gap-aholics — or the return of weightier meaning in a culture frazzled by constant channel- and Web-surfing?
Actually, I’d argue that movies like Shakespeare in Love and the Leo DiCaprio-Claire Danes William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet have simply figured out how to translate Shakespeare’s populism into late-20th-century terms; they’re big, fat, honest hits of the sort that (lasting artistic impact aside) the playwright himself would have been quite happy to have. But anyone seeking ammo for the we’re-too-stupid-for-real-Shakespeare debate need only latch on to a copy of Be Thou Now Persuaded: Living in a Shakespearean World, a deluxe six-CD boxed set that exudes ersatz-hip desperation from its title on down.
The idea behind this doorstop isn’t half bad. Living collects audio recordings of Shakespearean performances that range over decades of film, radio, and LPs. Heard all the stories about John Barrymore’s role-defining Hamlet? It’s here — at least, snippets of it are. Wonder if Paul Robeson was the greatest of modern Othellos? Listen and decide for yourself. Want to relive Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor scratching each other’s eyes out in The Taming of the Shrew but can’t find the video? Audio’s the next best thing.
Except it’s not, really, because Living in a Shakespearean World goes out of its way to deprive these and scores of other remarkable moments of any context. Instead of organizing the speeches by play or performance or era or even genre, producers Elizabeth Pavone, Brenda Johnson-Grau, and Michael W. Johnson lump their goods into vague thematic bins: ”Love’s Labors,” ”Hot Blood,” ”Our Human Actions,” and so forth. The performances are generally wonderful — I’ve still got the creeps from hearing Judith Anderson do Lady Macbeth’s ”Out, damned spot” speech — but midway through the first CD (”To Be … ”) your mind will probably have already short-circuited from the onrush of one undifferentiated, absurdly brief ”greatest hit” after another.
The accompanying booklet offers little help, since there are no production dates or any other information about the selections. The last two CDs contain a fine, full performance of Romeo and Juliet with Claire Bloom and Albert Finney as the lovers — but from when? Staged where? The DiCaprio-Danes Romeo & Juliet reminds us that each pop-culture generation reinvents Shakespeare to suit its time, so it might have been nice to include an essay on how performances have varied over the years — on why Barrymore’s Hamlet, for instance, now sounds absurdly melodramatic while Robeson’s ahead-of-its-time Othello is a revelation of banked power.
Instead, we get strained attempts to make the canon seem cool — ”Romeo and Juliet would be excellent guests on any daytime talk show”; Titus Andronicus is ”the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of its day” — and a smugly shallow précis of each play by noted scholar Michael Macrone (Naughty Shakespeare, Cader Books, 1997).
Well, sure, Shakespeare can be made relevant to this age of Irony Overload — but not by apologizing for the fact that he wrote, like, gazillions of years ago, or by turning his work into Cliffs Notes for CD players. Living offers lots of sound and fury; unfortunately, it ends up signifying a C-.