“Who 'twas that cut thy tongue”: Postmodern and Hollywood Shakespeares and the betrayal of the adolescent audience
Hollywood productions of Shakespeare often strive for accessibility by extensively reducing the complexities of the plays. The characters are turned into familiar types and ambiguities are erased. Postmodern productions attempt to problematise the supposed ideological assumptions behind the plays as well as Shakespeare's iconic status in our culture. The result is often irreverent, shocking, “subversive.” Characters and situations lose their original complexity and irony by being subjected to a metatheatrical irony imposed by the production. Both the Hollywood and the postmodern performances are attractive to adolescents, who are typically reassured by the familiar types and revel in rebellion against perceived “authority.” While many are tempted to praise this attractiveness as a service in rendering Shakespeare “accessible” to adolescents, what is rendered accessible is not Shakespeare. This is deeply unfortunate, as a rich understanding of Shakespeare—one which allows for his multifaceted vision of the human condition, his endless perspectivising on problems of morality and character, his skepticism of values and ideologies—is of great value precisely at this stage of life, when the jumbled world invites simple solutions. Evidence of the ability of adolescents with a wide range of backgrounds and intelligences (as conventionally measured) is provided by firsthand accounts of student productions of Love's Labour's Lost, The Winter's Tale, and Romeo and Juliet. The reactions of a group of adolescents to Baz Luhrmann's film William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996) before and after they themselves had worked on a production of the play demonstrate a sea change in attitude toward the film. Luhrmann's movie, which has elements both of Hollywood reduction and postmodern irony, is subjected to a thoroughgoing critique in an attempt to explain this shift in attitude. Ultimately it is the demoting of the language of the play which condemns the audience of such “accessible” productions to a superficial and misleading encounter with Shakespeare.