The Heckler

The Heckler: Shakespeare's duds should be struck from the canon

Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, even Midsummer Night’s Dream, all deserve to sink

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

I love Shakespeare. But when he pulls on his wellies and hikes into the forest I yearn for the exit. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a moonlit, sylvan location populated by a syrupy crew of hectic fairies, humourless bumpkins, panting maidens and swooning aristocrats in disguise. Shakespeare wrote it during his apprenticeship and he had yet to learn that several romances are far less interesting than just one. The result is a cloying, over-busy fantasy whose highlight is a love potion that makes a sprite called Titania fall in love with a donkey called Bottom. If you find the passion that flowers between a Sloane-y dryad and a pack animal hilarious then poor you. Actors like performing ‘the Dream’ because of the ‘rude mechanicals’ (amateurs trying to act), who offer them a chance to forsake discipline and ham it up like crazy. Panto has similar attractions. And I’m always puzzled to know how much of the Dream is make-believe? Most of it? Or more likely all of it? Even a six-year-old is solemnly warned against ending a story with ‘and then I woke up’. This dud puts Shakespeare at the back of the class.

As You Like It, set in the Forest of Arden, repeats the fault of over-complexity and introduces us to a national park full of panting maidens and lovelorn swains. Jacques’ ‘All the world’s a stage’ soliloquy is of course timeless. But is it worth enduring three hours of ferny frolics just to hear a speech that familiarity has already staled?

And there’s Illyria. In Twelfth Night the comedy comes from romantic characters choosing to go out in the wrong clothes. Few plays can make cross-dressing work properly because the characters never seem to be responding authentically to what is in front of their eyes. Falling in love implies a level of emotional intensity, and a degree of physical scrutiny, that doesn’t fit with flimsy disguises nabbed from a dressing-up box. It’s true that the scenes with Malvolio can be pretty funny. They can also be staggeringly unfunny. I wouldn’t weep if I never saw this play again. I’d cheer.

And there’s The Winter’s Tale. This play haunts me. I once acted in it (badly). I studied it for A-level (Grade D). I’ve suffered and wept and prayed in the stalls as its cheerless scenes of cruel melodrama and contrived hilarity crawled towards the curtain-fall. The first half feebly retraces the plot of Othello without any psychological development. It just happens. Bang! Leontes goes nuts with jealousy. His wife Hermione is imprisoned, their daughter is exiled, their son dies. Then bang! Leontes made a mistake. Whoops. Then the interval. Sixteen years pass (although it usually feels like longer). The second half takes us to a Bohemian timber-grove that teems with garrulous thieves, fat shepherdesses and metaphysical peasants. After much pointless capering, we return to Sicilia for Shakespeare’s greatest theatrical fiasco. Leontes is shown a statue of Hermione which magically springs to life. The poor mug playing Leontes has to produce two falsehoods in quick succession, first that he believes a human is a lump of marble, second that he believes the lump of marble has become a human. And look at the moral of this ending. Mad tyrants who destroy women’s happiness get the chance to do it all over again. If all these plays sank, theatre would rise.

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  • blandings

    But I like Midsummer Night’s Dream.
    It’s fun been unsophisticated

    • Violin Sonata.

      Love Labour’s Lost, now how did Shakespeare see into the future.
      Being unsophisticated is indeed fun, but Shakespeare wouldn’t be amused 😉

  • sir_graphus

    I saw As You Like It, unsure of whether it was a comedy or a tragedy, and the only way I could tell was when Shakespeare pulled the old chestnut of a woman (who would have been played by a man) pretending to be a man.

    • Andrew Webb

      It’s a good joke and adds a great deal to the various sexual attractions in Twelfth Night…

    • Hackney Hal

      Except Midsummer Nights Dream. And Comedy of Errors. And Taming of the Shrew. And Much Ado About Nothing. And Love’s Labours Lost. And Merry Wives of Windsor. Apart from that good point.

  • paulinekiernan

    This is so funny. This reviewer is always so bad he’s always good for a giggle.

  • bobleblah

    “The Winter’s Tale” in French is “Le Conte d’Hiver”, which is an auditory pun whose double meaning is “The Count Vere” or more properly “The Earl Vere”. It is a weak play, but far more “relate-able” as an allegory for the Tudor Royal Family – Leontes is Henry VIII, who executes Hermione (Anne Boleyn) on trumped charges. The bizarre “statue coming to life” scene is Queen Elizabeth’s (Perdita) wish that her mother was still alive and her father had not murdered her.

    Shakespeare’s plays are far more accessible when we “pretend” that they were written by the Earl of Oxford, and then try to figure out what they mean.

  • Teacher

    You might as well write, ‘Excise several of Shakespeare’s greatest plays because I am too stupid to appreciate them.’ What next? Get rid of ‘Mozart’s ‘Cosi’ because it’s implausible? ‘War and Peace because it’s too long?’ Sheesh! You sound like one of my ex year nine students having a sulk.

  • Partner

    Of all the productions I’ve seen in my life, Brook’s Dream has imprinted itself most firmly on my subconscious.

    • Sam Martini

      It was one of the greatest evenings I have ever spent in the theatre.

  • Partner

    “The most consummate and convincing of Shakespeare’s achievements”

    FR Leavis on Measure for Measure


  • Ian Walker

    The Spectator in 2015 summed up in an article: a self-confessed bad actor and D-grade English student lecturing us on which Shakespeare we should like.

    • Fraser Bailey

      Yes, I was somewhat alarmed by the grade D. I was awarded a B, having screwed up my essay on Hamlet. Perhaps I could stand in from time to time, although it’s a long time since I’ve wasted money on the theatre.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Surely we should keep alive those reminders that Shakespeare had to start somewhere and make mistakes, just like anyone else?

    • Sam Martini

      The Winter’s Tale isn’t a starting point, but nearing the end of his career, and it is a sublime work of theatre that never fails to engage the heart and brain, especially in the final scene.

      • Ivan Ewan

        I made no reference to a specific play.

  • David Gibson

    Henry IV? Especially Part Two. Falstaff.. just horrible and fat and unfunny. Mainly unfunny.

  • Tachybaptus

    Would anyone like to point out any Shakespeare comedies, or comic scenes in his serious plays, that are actually amusing? I haven’t come across any myself.

  • justejudexultionis

    I have never heard of William Shakespeare, the Beatles or Napoleon.

  • Des Demona

    Bit like Spielberg, he wasn’t that good at comedy.

  • Dogsnob

    Thanks for the bracketed explanation of the rude mechanicals. I’d be lost without such idiot guides.

  • Ron Roffel

    So what, pray tell, gives this writer the audacity to suggest removing plays from the “canon”? An embittered opinion? Jealousy that some people may like plays which have been around far longer than this author’s most erudite columns will ever last?

    No, it is pure spite that some understand what he does not.

    It would be far better to leave well enough alone and write about that which he understands. Which would make a document consisting of one small, blank page.