You know why scholars are still arguing about the identity of William Shakespeare? Because they are trying to cover up the fact first revealed in the title above.
Misogyny, racism and transphobia had to come together to create a fake Bard, a white male. And his marriage to the Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway is pure fabrication: same-sex interracial marriage wasn’t yet allowed in those backward times.
You may think I’m rewriting history to kowtow to woke fads. Perhaps I am. So what? Why should Shakespeare’s biography be off limits if people take liberties with his plays?
One case in point is Ian McKellen’s production of Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor, which has gone sour because Polonius fell out with Laertes. As a result of that generational conflict, both quit the show with much rancour.
As stand-ins are being rehearsed (with a woman playing Polonius this time), one has to marvel at the play’s imaginative original casting. It starts with Sir Ian himself in the eponymous role.
Sir Ian is a great actor, and the Hamlet he played 50 years ago was by all accounts a tour de force. But, at the risk of sounding ageist, he is now eighty-two – a vigorous eighty-two, but, well, eighty-two. And numerous references to Hamlet’s life strewn throughout the play pinpoint his age at about thirty.
I’m sure Sir Ian can still do seventy, sixty or, with award-winning makeup, perhaps even fifty, although that would be a stretch. However, his time of playing young men is long since gone. Yet, comparatively speaking, this bit of casting is as traditional as they come.
This gets us back to the tiff between Polonius and Laertes, or rather the actors playing those roles. Actually, calling them both actors is a concession in itself.
Steven Berkoff, playing Polonius, is indeed an actor. But the thespian playing his son would be miscast even as his daughter. For, as the photo above shows, Emmanuella Cole’s profession must be properly described as an actress, and she is black.
Miscegenation could theoretically have happened in the sixteenth century. Though it’s highly unlikely for Polonius to have produced a half-caste son, it’s not beyond the realm of the possible. But I still can’t for the life of me imagine Laertes identifying as a woman, getting the requisite hormone treatments and then competing in the Tokyo Olympics.
The reports I’ve read fail to mention who plays Ophelia but, if Sir Ian failed to cast Sidney Poitier in that role, he missed a trick. Mr Poitier, a sprightly 94, could upstage everybody as Hamlet’s love interest with suicidal tendencies. Moreover, such casting would cater to Sir Ian’s natural proclivities, if not Mr Poitier’s.
What’s the artistic intent behind casting an octogenarian as Hamlet, and a black actress as his textually white male nemesis? Is it to communicate that art transcends such incidentals as sex and age? That Shakespeare’s line “And I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine” would lose none of its poignancy if delivered by, say, Sidney Poitier?
An intent does exist, but it’s not artistic. It’s political. Artistically, there’s only so much suspension of disbelief that an audience can take. We are already asked to accept that a room has one wall removed for us to follow the action on stage. Or to forget that just the other day we saw a Lady Macbeth as a TV policewoman pointing her gun and screaming “Freeze!”
Now we aren’t supposed to notice that Hamlet is well past the pensionable age, Laertes is a black woman, or, hypothetically, Ophelia is a nonagenarian black man. Or rather first we must notice all that for the sake of multi-culti diversity – only then to stop noticing it for the sake of artistic integrity.
As a result, what starts as a Shakespeare tragedy ends up as a farce, and a schizophrenic one at that. His head spinning like a top, the spectator leaves the theatre yearning for the good old days, when the immortality of Shakespeare’s lines was conveyed by properly cast actors delivering them with good diction and sound understanding.
Perhaps it was that insanity that caused the clash between Miss Cole and her superannuated co-stars, or else it was mainly their superciliousness and her irascibility. One way or the other, she accused them, especially Mr Berkoff, of “belittling and disrespecting” her.
Apparently, the old actor continued to ignore Miss Coles’s deep insights into Shakespeare, leaving her feeling rejected, dejected and, presumably, ejected. Dissed, in other words.
Consequently, she stormed out of the production and lodged an official complaint. Reports omit to mention whether she also contacted the police, but such an action would seem natural. Jumping off the stage before he was pushed, Mr Berkoff quit too.
This unfortunate incident denied lovers of freak shows the perverse pleasure of watching Sir Ian cross swords with Mis Cole. In that scuffle, my money would be on Miss Cole – in the interest of racial and gender equality, she’d skewer Hamlet and walk away unscathed.
Yes, that would be playing fast and loose with Shakespeare, but what else is new?
P.S. Staying topical, do you think, if Oscar Wilde lived today, he’d describe Covid as “a triumph of whoop over expectoration”?