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Shakespeare's plays are not sacred texts

In his recent guest opinion, Professor Herbert Rothschild takes the directors of two recent Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions of Shakespeare to task for their choices in casting and staging.

In the first case, he contends that Bill Rauch’s and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s casting of a woman actor as Hotspur in "Henry IV, Part I" is an "outlandish decision," and implies that it has no artistic payoff while complaining that it "distracts from the ... genuine affection between Hotspur and his wife," as well as "vexing the use of the pronouns by which others refer to Hotspur."

While Professor Rothschild is of course entitled to his opinion, his point of view is subject to greater scrutiny, if not consideration, than he appears willing to give these productions. In the first place, it is a fairly easy case to make that it is obviously more credible, when casting a woman in the role, to treat the character being portrayed as female. Fortunately, we live in a time, unlike Shakespeare’s, when there is sufficient artistic freedom to make such choices without being forced by the state to suspend disbelief to the extent that we must accept men or boys as women.

To call this "outlandish" betrays a distinct lack of open-mindedness in response to art and an overbearing rigidity in evaluating creative choices. And quibbling about pronouns is a petty and inconsequential argument when theaters routinely prune entire scenes from many of their productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

As for the lesbian marriage of Hotspur and her wife, to say that this is a distraction from the affection between the two inherent in the text is both prejudiced and insulting. Same-sex couples are fully capable of matching and exceeding the emotional commitment and depth of feeling that are represented in the text, and to even imply otherwise is nothing less than homophobic bias, and unworthy of a professor of English literature. Moreover, the sarcastic attitude toward diversity embodied in the phrase "Score one for OSF" serves no purpose other than to support the prejudicial backlash toward minorities that is currently prevalent in the nation’s politics and policies, the professor’s earlier allowance that it is an "admirable agenda" notwithstanding.

Professor Rothschild makes the entirely specious analogy that directors should adhere to the text as symphony conductors do to the score. To begin with, music is not a narrative art form; it tells no story and in fact cannot, by definition, possess intellectual content. Whereas a drama is virtually nothing other than intellectual content. That is the purpose of narrative: to tell us stories through which we can learn about our nature and understand our experience. To suggest that the symphony conductor shoulders the same creative responsibilities as a theater director is the same as suggesting that an actor is responsible for the words he is reciting. The symphony conductor, like the actor, is a performer. The theater director is an artist, and must be judged in the context of artistic quality and creative achievement.

In his evaluating the choices made by Amanda Dehnert in her production of "Timon of Athens," Professor Rothschild betrays what I must assume is a rather willful ignorance of modern theater by not mentioning Dehnert’s decision to present a production predicated on the Epic theater sensibilities of Brechtian tradition. While he may have felt that this decision undercut the audience’s ability to understand or empathize with the characters and their emotions, I would submit that, to the contrary, it palpably succeeded in deepening and enhancing their experience in that regard. As intended, by both Brecht and Dehnert.

In short, the professor presents a hidebound, conservative and unimaginative attitude toward Shakespeare, one which has no place in modern theater or criticism. We are long past the point where it is appropriate, or helpful, to treat Shakespeare’s plays as sacred texts. The only viable future for classical theater must contain a commitment to, and an embrasure of, not merely diversity, but genuine variety, authentic originality, and inspired, creative experimentation. Without that, we might as well stay home and watch the Kenneth Branagh version on Netflix. Again.

— John Rose of Ashland is a longtime theatergoer, a subscriber to OSF since 2002 and is a board member of the Ashland New Plays Festival.