Yes, We Need Critics (A Predictable Reply)

The city of Chicago now only has one full-time theatre critic. In the wake of this news, the Chicago Reader published a piece with the (presumably) intentionally click-baity title “Do we really need theater critics?” (yes, I am taking the bait). Though the column ends on a tentative yes, it spends a lot more time in the middle arguing for no. For one thing, artists don’t care: “From their perspective, critics are unreliable, arts reporters are unreliable, and they’ve found that they can drive ticket sales on social media.”

Even the concluding rallying cry in favor of critics is depressingly pragmatic: “They’re an historical record; they have value for advancing the careers of playwrights, directors, and actors, and for theater companies applying for grants.”

If all people think theatre reviews are for is generating ad copy and pull quotes for grants, no wonder they don’t mind if critics disappear. Social media’s better at both of those things, anyway. But that’s also not actually why theatre criticism matters.

If theatre artists aren’t scared of losing critics, they are scared of losing relevance. Does theatre matter anymore? Why are audience numbers falling? Is there anything live performance can do in the face of endless entertainment options you can access from the comfort of your own home? If theatre wants to reclaim a place in the mainstream of American culture, critics are how that will happen. They are the people who articulate the relevance of the work the theatre does to what is going on in the world, who explain why these local, unscaleable pieces of art are part of a bigger, broader conversation.

In 2016, after the Chicago Reader revealed years of systematic abuse of young actresses by the leadership of the local Profiles Theatre, Christopher Piatt, one of the co-authors of the exposé, wrote a mea culpa. An actress he contact for the story said she assumed the press must have known what was going on, given the subject matter the company continually presented. Yes, Piatt agrees in the column, they should have. He writes, “The city’s theater press corps salivated for a nonstop cavalcade of brooding antiheroes, vacant serial killers, misogynist dickheads, Lolita-chasing lotharios, and literally somehow almost the entire canon of Neil LaBute protagonists—often opposite a scantily clad, nubile female acting pupil—while never directly or strongly questioning what [predatory artistic director] Cox might be telegraphing about his worldview in a completely nonsubliminal way.” This is another potential power of the full-time critic, though one that was not used in this instance. And it is a power that depends on full-time, or close to full-time work: the ability to see a company or an artist’s shows consistently enough over a long enough period of time to notice patterns– and, of course, to have a recognition from their editors that their job is not just consumer reviews, but to report, in a sense, on the state of the local industry.

This sense of continuity is what smaller markets in particular need, and what they are least likely to have. There’s plenty of coverage of Broadway and London. Critics will swoop into the regions if there’s a show that seems destined for the commercial pipeline. But smaller cities are having their own conversations. Artists in smaller markets know this already, obviously. But a strong local critical corps is how that conversation gets lifted beyond individual shows or groups of friends talking amongst each other.

So let the bloggers do it, you may say. I love bloggers– I am a blogger and have been a blogger, after all. And I’ve been a freelance critic. And so I know that it’s very difficult to do this kind of broad-scope work without the time and resources to see a whole lot of shows. Like all the time. Like as if it’s your job, say. And it is a job, one that’s fundamentally based in the belief that theatre is good and wonderful and important, and thus worth thinking deeply about.

If you want theatre to matter, critics have to matter, too.


Julius Caesar, A Ghost Story

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

It was a dark and stormy night. Two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They had a prophecy to fulfill. But once that was done, they didn’t know what would happen next.

Given the glut of productions of Julius Caesar with political undertones, performed in sharp suits and dress uniforms, it’s obviously a play that speaks to a contemporary political sensibility. Well, of course it does: it’s about a pack of schemers, filled with characters who are admirable in one scene and despicable in the next, one that refuses to declare its moral or political loyalties. Except Brutus, of course. That’s clear, at least: whether what he does is right or wrong, Brutus is a good guy at heart.

The lack of ambiguity surrounding Brutus’s role in the drama–  anguished moral center– makes it easiest to shape a production around him, to use him as the fulcrum for answering what has become the play’s central production question: why is Julius Caesar named after a character who dies in act three? And why does the play keep going after he dies?

Back to the dark and stormy night. Comets streak the sky, and wild animals roam the streets. The women, especially, are troubled with bad dreams. It’s a scene that can seem deeply strange. There’s a lion wandering the streets of the city? Isn’t Casca kind of a doofus? Are we meant to take him at his word?

But go back one scene, to the light and sunny festival day that begins Julius Caesar. In Shana Cooper’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we begin with a reminder that the first scene is not about an aimless mob, but a religious festival. The revelers are masked and clad in white (a stark constrast to the other characters’ contemporary dress) and they chant and dance. In the next scene, no one thinks it strange that a Soothsayer– or someone claiming to be one– should appear. They only take issue with what she has to say.

Superstition and ritual course through the play, and Cooper and choreographer Erica Chong Shuch highlight them with gestures, with prayers, with sequences of stylized movement between scenes, all of which combine to create a world where the descriptions of lions whelping in the streets of Rome, of slaves with hands consumed in magical flames, do not seem out of place. And where the appearance of a ghost seems almost inevitable.

Maybe Julius Caesar is a ghost story. The best ghost stories, after all, have two parts: how the ghost died, and what it did after. On a dark and stormy night, two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They gathered together their friends and made a plot: to kill the man they feared would make himself a king. All the signs seemed to point in their favor– the flaming heavens, the words of soothsayers, the dreams of women. So they did it, and thought they had done right.

But then they trust the wrong man, and he raises a mob that drives them from the city. They raise their armies, prepare to fight. But it’s all going wrong: their messages are misdelivered, their words are misconstrued. Their wives die. Their enemies grow strong. And floating above it all, the promise of a ghost: I’ll see you again.

Cooper’s soldiers paint their faces with clay, with careful, ritual movements. In the production’s language of rhythmic, repetitive movement, battle looks like prayer looks like prophecy. They are all one physical language– pieces of the same puzzle, stations on the same journey. The story’s momentum is not (just) towards assassination, but to the final battlefield at Philippi, to see what the ghost they have made will do.


Critics: What Are They Good For?

As I’ve been writing about theatre more and making theatre less, I’ve naturally been thinking about what the relationship between writer/critic and practitioner is and could be. Though I’m now on the record with my disappointment about Jesse Green’s hiring at the New York Times, I think he’s a really interesting, talented writer, and one of the things that jumped out at me in his interview with American Theatre was when he insisted that his background in theatre practice was an essential part of his critical practice. Of course, as someone who comes from a similar background, I think that’s true.

I also think that critics are an essential part of the artistic world. But two pieces that came out recently were a very explicit reminder that many artists don’t think so.

The first, in the New York Times, is actress Amanda Peet’s light-hearted tale of refusing to read a scathing review of her performance in a Broadway play. The other, rather less high-profile and significantly less good-natured, is this poem, which (like Peet) calls out the writers of the bad reviews by name, but unlike Peet, does so before heaping on several stanzas of insults.

What I found striking about both pieces is the complete unwillingness to assume any good will on the part of the critics– or indeed, to acknowledge that a critic’s work serves any purpose at all. They are an annoyance made to be ignored, jumped-up nobodies who are just trying to get your attention. I can’t help but feel it’s notable that the poem is called “did you get a bad review?” What if you get a good review? One assumes that in that case, they would have happily quoted the critics in the marketing materials for their shows.

There are obviously plenty of reasons for artists to approach a review skeptically. There’s no such thing as an objective review, and a critic’s dislike doesn’t mean that a show is bad. But how can we create an artistic world in which critics and artists are two strands of the same conversation?

When I was in grad school, it became clear to me that the directors, actors, and writers saw us dramaturgs as safe. While they had to get up onstage and bare their souls, make themselves utterly vulnerable through their art, we just got to sit back and make comments when they were done. I could never find a way to express to them how vulnerable it can feel to express an opinion– how much craft it takes to put together a thoughtful, careful response. As I said above, there’s no such thing as an objective review. A critic is always revealing something about herself through her opinions.

How can practitioners learn to embrace critics as fellow artists, people who are engaged in a creative process of their own– one that at times seems at odds with theatre practice, but is ultimately complementary? And how can writers approach their work in a way that will allow theatre practitioners to trust that their work has been approached in a spirit of generosity and good faith; that they won’t be attacked for the sake of a funny article; that we, too, have made an effort to read what they have written and hear what they have to say?

The Collaboration Question

Over the holiday season, like many people, I made a lot of small talk with family and friends of the family, and a lot of them asked me about Shakespeare. Specifically, a lot of them asked about the headlines they’d seen claiming that Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare collaborated. When I was in London, I was lucky enough to attend a launch event for the New Oxford Shakespeare, the edition that sparked all those Marlowe articles by officially attributing him as a co-author, and that decision was likewise all anyone wanted to talk to the editors about.

In a recent article in Shakespeare Quarterly, a group of four scholars lay out their methods for determining authorship based on ‘word adjacency networks,’ or the likelihood that a certain word will appear within x number of words in a given writer’s work. Not being remotely mathematically minded, I can’t pretend I understood it perfectly clearly, and I think there’s a lot of interesting debate about the utility of these methods.

But when one of those family friends asked how I felt about these studies– whether I felt like it was some kind of desecration to apply math to art– I told him that I found these discoveries quite exciting. I can’t quite say that I think we should accept these findings as 100% accurate and without flaw, or that they firmly close the book on questions about who collaborated with whom, but I am interested them in as a starting-place for a new line of inquiry.

I wrote my MA thesis, for example, about female characters in Shakespeare’s history plays. The problem that scholars seem to consistently be trying to tackle with that topic is why on earth the female characters of Shakespeare’s early history plays are so different from those of the later plays. In the eyes of a contemporary feminist reader, he seems to distinctly regress in terms of his representation of women– but even taking away that ahistorical lens, something dramatic does shift in how he incorporates female characters into his historical plots between the first plays and the last.

So I’m intrigued by these findings. What if part of the answer is to read characters like Joan of Arc, the Countess of Auvergne, and the Duchess of Gloucester not entirely as Shakespeare characters, but as Marlowe characters– or perhaps most plausibly, some hybrid of the two, borne of their collaboration and efforts to blend their styles? Maybe nothing will come of it, but as someone who can’t help but approach textual questions from a dramaturgical perspective, I would be excited to explore and see if Marlowe’s hand provides a potential answer for some of the questions surrounding these plays.

Fandom from Afar

I saw my first Broadway musical when I was seven. It was Annie Get Your Gun with Bernadette Peters. In preparation for this event, my parents bought the cast album, and my sister and I listened to it constantly. We acted it out. We forced our friends to listen to it and act it out. By the time we actually saw the show, we had every number memorized. For the next ten years, that set the model for my engagement with Broadway musicals. I would discover and devour cast albums, and then hope that whatever show I loved most would still be playing during my family’s annual trip to New York City. In high school, we started getting season tickets to our local Broadway Across America series, which absolutely exploded my horizons: now I could see five or six musicals a year, many of them at least relatively fresh from Broadway.

I discovered new musicals through several sources: tracking down the songs I liked best off of a couple Broadway compilation CDs my mom had in her car; through the songs from my voice teachers or choir teachers would choose for us to sing; whatever show we were doing at drama camp that summer; and finally, in the waning days of my youthful fandom, on the internet. This led to a somewhat eclectic musical education. I could sing you all of Wildhorn’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, but had never heard South Pacific; I knew of Judy Kuhn, but not Patti LuPone.

Once I started spending time in musical theater-related corners of the internet, I realized that experiencing musicals in this way wasn’t unique— and that in fact, I was among the lucky few, because even though I lived all the way in Oregon, I was in a city big enough to get Broadway tours, and I had been to New York and had gotten to see shows there. The people I met who actually lived there were like another species, a blessed class I could only dream of belonging to. They could go see any show they wanted. They had seen shows that had come and gone before I even knew they existed! They were clearly the real chosen people.

But the extent of the difference between New Yorkers’ engagement with musicals and my own growing up was not something I really thought about until very recently, when I finally got around to reading Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical. At one point, Viertel speculates about the enduring success of two musicals he believes to be potentially fatally flawed, structurally: Wicked and RENT. He is particularly intrigued by the fact that the former was not only a hit in spite of critical disdain, but that the collective esteem for it seems only to have risen since its debut. And I’ve speculated with many friends and classmates about why we loved RENT so much when we were thirteen and feel so ambivalent about it now.

Considering this question has led me to two conclusions: first, about how long-distance audience engagement is essentially different from in-person engagement; and second, what producers ought to realize about that.


1: In Your Own Little Corner

When trying to work out out the appeal of Wicked, Viertel writes: “It’s easy to see why critical opinion was so cranky. […] The show isn’t ten minutes old yet, and we’ve already been in three decades and three different locations; we hardly have any idea why. Or where. Or when. The design is abstract enough to keep us guessing, and not necessarily in a good way. […] And yet, despite all this plot material (endemic to big-novel adaptations) and Wicked’s occasional foray into explaining the sources of The Wizard of Oz (it is, after all, a prequel), audiences remain enchanted much of the time, and happy to be tolerant of the rest. Part of the reason, I believe, is that it has an I Want moment so big and powerful, and a want that is so universal and recognizable, that are audiences are willing, even eager, to struggle with a lot” (70).

There are many shows whose fans have buoyed them in spite of tepid or negative critical responses, and many others whose Broadway lives were short, but who somehow live on in the canon with a persistence out of proportion with their critical or commercial success. It’s probably pointless to try and generalize about why this might be— every such show probably has its own specific reasons. But there is one possibility I suspect many of them share, and it’s related to Viertel’s theory about a hook that keeps audiences willing to struggle through a show’s difficult patches.

When listening to a cast recording, many of the pitfalls that Viertel hints at in Wicked are avoided. The book, often the weakest part of a musical, is more or less gone. Only the basic outlines of the show’s structure are apparent: if act two drags on, or act one rushes by too quickly, a listener can’t really tell. And the listener has the leisure to encounter a show at their own pace. If something is confusing, they can stop and think about it— or even better, look up an answer. After all, if you’re just listening to a recording, some degree of confusion is an expectation, not an unpleasant surprise. If things are moving too slowly, they can pause and come back later, refreshed. And the hook to induce them to do so doesn’t even have to be quite as strong or as powerful as Wicked’s, because they are encountering the show in a format that allows for some patience.

This can work in both directions, of course. I think of my own experience listening to Parade for the first time, where I became so overwhelmingly emotional at one of the early numbers, I had to stop and step away. Live, I think I would have spent the rest of the act distracted and trying to recover; listening to it, I was able to take a break, and then return in a frame of mind to give the rest of the songs their due. On the other hand, I was bored by The Light in the Piazza on my first couple of listens, unable to engage with it with the focus and intimacy that show demands until I saw it performed.

But on the whole, long distance fans experience their favorite musicals in a way that many writers probably fantasize about: slowly, carefully, and often intensively. While many theatergoers play a recording over and over again after the fact, for fans across the country, this is their primary or only form of engagement with musicals that they love. And it is a careful, close process that may work to the particular benefit of shows that have strong— or at least appealing— scores and shaky structures.

Plus, listeners who have little to no expectation of ever actually seeing the musical will likely use their imagination to fill in the gaps between album and completed story— and in the process, may well happily fill in gaps in the story itself that live viewers find too boring or distracting in the moment. And a long distance fan is, for good or ill, unencumbered by staging. They are free to imagine the best possible version that they can.

It also poises a listener to experience the live show differently. This certainly is not limited to long distance fans: plenty of New Yorkers, or frequent theatergoers, like to listen to a score before they see the show. But I suspect the sense of anticipation is rarely the same, the months or years that can pass before a fan has the chance to travel to New York, or a touring company comes through. (Then again, these days, maybe Hamilton is helping New Yorkers understand the feeling.) By the time they’re seeing the show, they already love it. Of course a shockingly weak book or a bad performance can leave a fan coming away disappointed, but the advantage going in is on the side of coming away happy and impressed.


2: The World Is Wide Enough

I was never much of a bootleg watcher when I was a teenage musical fan, but I remember a handful of them: a recording of the San Francisco premier of Wicked, and another of Norbert Leo Butz and Sheri Rene Scott in The Last Five Years. Both of these shows were long closed (or in the case of the former, long altered) by the time I watched these recordings, but of course there were plenty of bootlegs of currently running Broadway shows.

Theatre professions tend to be horrified by the idea of bootlegs, with good reason: it seems like a recipe for having their direction and choreography and designs stolen by other productions, and of course, it feels like a certain recipe for lost ticket sales. The former is a legitimate fear, and one that could be ameliorated if production streams and recordings were offered legally; but this doesn’t tend to happen because, I suspect, of fears of the latter.

Opera and classical theatre are way ahead of Broadway in this respect: The Met Opera has been telecasting productions for years, and American theatre fans tend to have to look abroad for their recorded theatre fix, as National Theatre Live of England dominates that sphere, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre more recently creating offerings of their own. Just a few weeks ago, Shakespeare’s Globe broadcast their first livestream, the closing night of their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

Daddy Long-Legs became the first Off-Broadway musical to offer a livestream. Producer Ken Davenport blogged about the success of the experiment, including its positive impact on ticket sales for a small show without much name recognition. She Loves Me then followed suit, though, like the Globe, it was broadcast shortly before it closed. Allegiance, which ended after a relatively brief run last year, will be screening in movie theaters. Such recordings could become a financial lifeline for apparently unsuccessful shows, who would be able to tap into fans who lacked the means to travel to New York to see them, but who, for the reasons discussed above, may very well love them anyway.

One could argue that, in contrast to these examples, there is no logic in telecasting or recording long-running shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon, or Hamilton. As long as houses are being filled, why should producers risk undercutting their own sales? But in making this assumption, producers are ignoring huge swathes of their potential market. There is a world elsewhere, and in that world are fans— especially young fans, but also foreign fans, disabled fans, and poor (heck, given the price of tickets plus travel, middle class) fans— who will likely never see a Broadway show. They will never travel to New York City, or even to a local city large enough to be visited by a Broadway tour. Their bootleg of Wicked isn’t the reason they didn’t buy tickets— in fact, if they could buy tickets, they almost certainly would, in spite of the fact that they’ve already seen a recording. Daddy Long Legs saw in increase in ticket sales, and a massive increase in cast recording sales. Perhaps Broadway shows would find a similar pattern— but even if they didn’t, I feel almost certain they would be reaching untapped but extremely enthusiastic audiences.


On the second or third day of college orientation, a classmate persuaded me to take the twentyish-minute train ride into New York City to see [title of show] with her (it didn’t take much convincing). I remember vividly how giddy I felt. It was partly the freedom of being in college— I was taking a train into New York City at night and no one, not even my RA, had to give me permission to do it— but it was also a glimpse at the dream life I’d spent years longing for. A cool new musical was playing, was closing soon, and on a whim, I was going to go see it. It was exactly as exciting as I hoped it would be. And I knew how lucky I was.


[I’m considering trying to see if I can conduct a survey to support some of the assumptions I make about what non-New York fans would be interested. I have anecdotal support from people I know, but something more systematic might be interesting! The Ken Davenport link above includes some data from surveys his people took about Daddy Long Legs specifically, but I think there are more general questions to be asked, too. If it happens, I’ll update this!]


Giving Them What They Want: The Dramaturgy of Satisfaction

Two relatively recent events have gotten me thinking about what makes a good ending– and what ‘good’ even means.

First, I finally and much belatedly got around to watching all of Parks and Recreation for the first time. It’s obviously fantastic, but critical consensus seems to be that the final episode isn’t, by any artistic measure, particularly good. But it’s immensely satisfying, with all the beloved characters getting exactly the kind of endings one would dream of for them.

Second, I saw The James Plays at the Luminato Festival in Toronto (and wrote about them here). A three-part, nine-hour theatrical marathon about the first three King Jameses of Scotland, it’s an epic theatrical event that culminates with the young King James IV preparing to be crowned. His great-aunt helps to dress him, bedecking him with objects that belonged to his ancestors– the same kings and queens we’ve seen in the previous parts. As she did so, these kings and queens entered on a platform above, a sort of ghostly tableau. Too easy? Maybe– at least one person I described this to groaned. But after investing so much time in these plays and these characters, it was exactly what I wanted, and in the moment, it was very impactful and emotional.

So call it the dramaturgy of satisfaction: deciding when an ending should strive for utmost originality and artistic merit, and when it should satisfy some simpler, more emotional, probably less intellectually profound desire in the viewer. The former is its own kind of satisfaction, of course, but perhaps a less visceral one.

A common denominator in both shows I mention above is, of course, length. A TV show goes on for multiple seasons; the three James Play clock in at just under nine hours. Viewers so often seem to be let down by the endings of TV shows, which makes sense. You’ve put in a significant investment– the conclusion, whatever it is, has been a long time coming. And though pure duration may seem like a superficial concern, far removed from the intricacies of storytelling, it’s something to consider, I think. I think the time investment of both these examples allowed the endings, though not in themselves challenging, to feel earned and hard-won.

The question taps into the problem I struggled with most when first starting out as a dramaturg in rehearsal rooms: I felt like a dramaturg could only earn her position if she always had the right answer. The general assumption that a dramaturg is little more than advanced-level Googler didn’t help me shake the idea that I always had to be correct if I wanted to be seen as good at my job. But this question of endings perfectly demonstrates that it’s usually more helpful to ask a question than offer an answer… in this case, what do you want your ending to do? 

Don’t Blame Romeo and Juliet

In honor of Shakespeare’s 400th death-day, the New York Times celebrated by commissioning four writers to create “lost” scenes from Shakespeare plays. The entry for Romeo and Juliet, called ‘How Fast Love Curdles,’ had a premise that probably sounds familiar: the teenage lovers are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, their star-crossed love just adolescent lust. The piece is meant to be comedy, but it offers nothing more than the class smart-aleck in tenth grade English probably already pointed out. And it is in keeping with a frustratingly common dismissal of the play, rooted in disdain for its young central lovers.

Though it’s one of the most popular and most produced Shakespeare plays, scorn for Romeo and Juliet abounds. I wrote a blog post for Shakespeare’s Globe last summer, and for some reason, half the people who reblogged it on Tumblr felt the need to mention in the tags how much they hated the play. Professed Shakespeare fans on my Facebook page will periodically circulate this post:

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Setting aside the fact that ‘everyone who actually read it’ would notice that Romeo’s age is not specified, the smug tone that suggests those who really understand the play gets my hackles up for a whole host of reasons– not least of which being, this cynical reading is emphatically wrong. No, not an alternate take, not a deconstruction: wrong. Antony and Cleopatra is, arguably, a story about a probably misguided relationship that directly leads to a lot of deaths. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is almost definitely that. But to cast Romeo and Juliet as anything other than the victims of their own play- a status that the text of the play works very hard to make explicitly clear- is to completely miss the point of the tragedy and to strip it of its most radical commentary.

Start from the beginning. The prologue (always a useful means of signaling a play’s intentions) doesn’t even mention the leading lovers’ names. It is focused on the city of Verona itself. The first four lines are solely dedicated to the Montague-Capulet feud. After that, every mention of the lovers is contextualized by their relationship to both the feud and the city at large:


From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventure’d piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

You could easily come away from this prologue expecting an equal split in the play to follow between lovers and politicians. Something is rotten in the state of Verona, and Shakespeare sets up the promise of an almost Christ-like redemption of the families through the love and deaths of their children.

While it’s easy to gloss over Romeo and Juliet’s extreme decisions in the latter half of the play as nothing more than the overreactions of teenagers, they’re pushed into all of them by outside forces: by the banishment of Romeo, who the Prince himself admits is just a scapegoat upon whom he can avenge his kinsman Mercutio’s murder; by Lord Capulet’s violent threats in the face of Juliet’s refusal to marry; and of course, by the feud, which binds the lovers to secrecy in the first place. Though youthful passion (of course not a force to be completely dismissed) drives Romeo and Juliet to one another, and to make some of the mistakes that hasten their downfall, Shakespeare provides continual reminders that their choices are also guided by unrelenting pressure from those in power to just give in to unthinking obedience and meaningless traditions of violence and revenge.

But are they even in love? the cynics will ask. Yes, they are. To argue otherwise is to completely ignore Shakespeare’s stylistic hints, or to suggest that Shakespeare’s use of verse is entirely meaningless. When Romeo and Juliet meet and talk, creating a sonnet with their dialogue that culminates in a kiss, the change that they undergo can hardly be understated. Romeo has punned with Mercutio and Benvolio and pined for the disinterested Rosaline, but Juliet is the first character who understands the language he is trying to speak. Throughout his early scenes, Romeo presents his friends with rhyming couplets which they use only to make witty quips. Juliet hears, understands, and builds a poem with him. Likewise, in contrast to an introductory scene in which Juliet can barely get a word in, Romeo listens to and welcomes her wit.

To imagine that their relationship is nothing more than emotionless lust, that Romeo and Juliet are to be blamed for everything that follows, is to entirely flip the redemptive promise of the play: that violence, hate, and fear can be undone by a radical act of love. The Prince’s final lines don’t place the blame on thoughtless youth, or an unruly young woman or an intemperate young man (as plenty of early modern tragedies do). Rather, he chastises the city leaders, including himself:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I, for winking at your discords, too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.

Those who would blame Romeo and Juliet for their actions sound suspiciously like Friar Lawrence at his most cowardly, or Lord Capulet at his most tyrannous: insisting that the children under their care cannot possibly know themselves, cannot possibly understand what they have done or what the need to do next, must surely mind their elders’ advice- or else. But it’s this very advice, this very world created by cowardly, tyrannous guardians that drives them to secrecy, violence, and death. Left to their own devices- at the party, on the balcony, in Juliet’s bedroom- their world is one of peace and poetry. The very last endearment that Juliet calls Romeo the morning after their wedding is friend.

From the prologue’s focus on the warring families, to the ending lines centered around Lord Montague, Lord Capulet, and the Prince, Shakespeare frames the play as a civic tragedy, rooted in the failures of those in power on scales both large (the city of Verona) and small (the Capulet and Montague households) to put aside their personal hatred and prejudice and properly rule. But within this frame— quite literally nestled in the middle of the lines from the prologue quoted above— Shakespeare places love. The two are essential to one another: the power structures which doom the young couple, and the love which will blow those structures apart.

The Glass of History

In the New York Times a few weeks ago, there was an article about historical accuracy in Oscar-nominated films. The Academy loves accuracy, according to the article, which goes so far as to suggest that having the accuracy of the events it depicts questioned can even lose films Oscars they seemed poised to win.

Unsurprisingly, this made me think about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s histories are… not known for their complete accuracy, to say the least. The compression of time, conflation of events, and addition and subtraction of characters can make trying to pick the ‘truth’ out of most of the plays, frankly, pointless. Not that this stops people from trying, and you can easily find books and articles enumerating all the things Shakespeare got wrong.

Sometimes, knowing that Shakespeare changed a detail can illuminate something very interesting about his apparent intentions in structuring the drama. Knowing, for example, that the historical Queen Margaret was dead in France well before the events of Richard III, and the famous confrontation scenes between Richard and the female characters have almost no precedent in contemporary sources suggests that Shakespeare was much more interested in the female characters than many contemporary productions seem to be.

But very often, as with the linked article’s suggestion that inaccuracy loses Oscars, the claim of historical inaccuracy seems intended to double as a value judgment. Or, on the opposite scale, “revealing” that many of his details really are accurate after all seems meant to serve as a vindication.

It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t care. None of the Elizabethan or Jacobean history plays have the kind of scrupulous accuracy that today’s audiences seem to demand.

In 1765, Samuel Johnson published his Preface to Shakespeare, which included an entire section enumerating Shakespeare’s faults and flaws. He alludes to inaccuracy, sort of, but specifically refers only to Shakespeare’s tendency towards anachronism, which I would argue is not quite the same as nitpicking all the ways in which he changed around timelines or conflated characters. If there’s anyone you’d expect to be a stickler for facts, it’s a neoclassicist like Johnson– but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.

Writing in 1817, Romantic critic William Hazlitt does briefly note the relative historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s plays, but proclaims them uniformly correct: ‘his plays are in this respect the glass of history’. And, he notes, the places where Shakespeare has had to fictionalize are as good as, if not better than, real history.

In 1837, a printer named Charles Knight embarked on a project to produce an illustrated edition of Shakespeare. He was far from the first to do this, but he intended to distinguish his version in one important way: rather than stage-inspired illustrations, he wanted engravings of the actual settings, the real historical personages, and historically accurate clothing and architecture. In this aim, his Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespere was, intentionally or otherwise, keeping step with emerging theatrical trends.

Around the 1830s, British actors began returning to what they saw as Shakespeare’s roots. Restoration adaptations which had superseded Shakespeare’s texts in some cases began to be restored (others would last even into the 20th century), and there was a new interest in creating productions with historically accurate, highly detailed sets and costumes. It seems only logical that, with a surging interest in representing the historical periods of Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare’s own inconsistent depiction of that history would become newly noticeable– and perhaps newly irritating.

These days, of course, directors are much more likely to say to hell with history and set the plays in any time or place they wish. Our obsession with historical accuracy has drifted away from Shakespeare to more naturalistic forms of media, where we seem to expect that, because the action looks realistic, it ought to fact-check against reality, too.