Michael Ryan Skolnik’s workblog
Studies in Games and Performance

Shakespeare’s Ghost and the Supposed Universality of Theatre

Only a few years ago, in what felt like another life, I studied theatre. Being mostly interested in storytelling and its operation, I mostly studied dramatic literature. In the course of my bachelor’s degree, I took something on the order of seven courses on Shakespeare, and read one Molière play. Sure, there was more than just that, though like most traditional universities, the curriculum suffered from white-male canon syndrome, that being a tragedy of politics and theatre history rather than just the wistful way things were. Later theatre studies elsewhere redressed this fact somewhat with deeper looks at contemporary sub-altern theatre, for lack of a better phrase at the moment.

The whole theatre studies enterprise was haunted by Shakespeare’s ghost. In darker moments I wondered at what fetter tied the spectre of the Bard to this earth – what task he had left undone, or what vengeance he had yet to wreak on us aspiring playwrights, actors, artists, critics, and theatre fanatics before he could finally find his last, peaceful rest. In brighter moments, when his verse was easier to parse and essays were no longer coming due, I saw the haunting differently. I saw it the way my professors did and tended to urge us to. Shakespeare’s ghost walks the Earth because his plays are universal and timeless. They deal in universal themes, with a universal standard of quality. This was the theatre studies enterprise’s fundamental axiom, it’s sine qua non. Without Shakespeare’s ghost, we were adrift in a past of ever-dated plays, with a future of an unpredictable torrent of vastly more subjective creative output ahead of us. There was more stuff that was, and more in the pipeline, than anyone could preserve, catalogue, sort, respond to. Shakespeare gave us that one fixed point we needed. We may not have been especially interested in Shakespeare, my cohort and I. Well, I was, as were some of them, but surely not all, and not all of us to the level of commitment to take 7 classes – more than a minor – on just the one man and his works, and adaptations thereof. Regardless, we had some seemingly steady ground to stand on thanks to Shakespeare.


Richard III: What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. (Image and caption from Caitlin Griffin’s “Ghostly Shakespeare” 2010)

More than just being universal and universally good (ignore either Titus Andronicus or critical opinions of Titus Andronicus, widely regarded as a pulpy, trash play, on this one,) Shakespeare was timeless and ahistorical (but for his histories).  His objective value was to be seen in how it dealt with the fundamentals of the human condition. Macbeth and Hamlet, ambition and revenge, what widespread and common things these are! Shakespeare was cross-cultural. Every society has this stuff! Shakespeare offered the hope of a universal theatre to appeal to a universal audience with the possibility of a universal ethics.


The Bard is hip with the times, maaaan. All of the times, and all of the places.


One story from a later stage in my studies, at a different university:

A famous director, I think it was Peter Brook, took his Shakespeare company on tour in rural Africa to put on minimalistic, lo-fi productions of Hamlet. For some reason, I think the audience were Masai in either Kenya or Tanzania. Maybe the play itself is translated, maybe pantomimed. Maybe they watch Claudius fill Hamlet Sr.’s ear with poison, maybe they watch him sleep with Gertrude, maybe these events are implied, maybe it’s experienced through dialogue. They definitely watch Hamlet Jr.’s angst-filled deliberations about how and when and whether to kill his murderous, usurping uncle. They crack up laughing. The actors are put off but the show must go on, and it does. The play finishes with (SPOILER ALERT) the Act V bloodbath and Fortinbras arriving to take over Denmark and tie up the play’s action.

Peter Brook, the great director, is surprised at the disjuncture between the performance’s tone and the audience’s perspective of what the performance’s tone is. Through an interpreter, he asks what the audience found so funny. The answer: all of Hamlet’s (in)action. Hamlet’s deliberations are so cowardly, so alien, and so buffoonish that the play is akin to slapstick.

I love this anecdote for many reasons; perhaps most of all that it speaks to the wonderfully generative space of potential surprises that live theatre performance creates. Live theatre can obliterate even its own primary assumptions.  This play is a tragedy. It is universal. It is those things until it suddenly is not before the final curtain call.

Tonight I went to see a production of Molière’s The School for Wives (L’école des femmes) by a primarily Shakespearian company. Oddly, this makes the last two live plays I’ve seen Molière pieces, having caught an off-off-Broadway performance of Tartuffe on a recent, but not recent enough for my theatre-going tastes, trip to New York. In each of these plays, it was actually really easy to see the ways in which they hadn’t aged nearly so much as their 350 or so years. (Tartuffe is 350 years old on May 12th, 2014!) Consequently, I wondered, in spite of what a staggeringly bullshit question in view of the above this is, who the more universal playwright is, Shakespeare, or Molière.

Tartuffe is a play in which the title character plays a con-man posing as an itinerant monk who takes in the head of a wealthy household with his sham piety in order to swindle him. It was a play that skewered religious hypocrisy and praised the (relatively) secular State to the point that the Roman Catholic Church condemned and tried to ban it. Molière, however, had the backing of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had a tight grip on power and was looking to curb Church influence at the time anyway. Especially when politically convenient, the show must go on.

In an election year, it’s pretty hard not to see this taken to a broader political level.

The School for Wives is a bit different. Arnold wants to get married but is paranoid about his reputation being wrecked by his wife cheating on him, something he disdains the husbands of Paris for being too acquiescent to. So, he makes an arrangement with a convent to have the nuns raise an orphan girl free of outside cultural influence, Reason, and worldliness for him to marry. He believes that without any knowledge of how women act, she will never act like them and cheat on him. A series of spectacular backfires ensues.

Then, as now, the perceived threat of rising female power gave rise to common enough views and characters to skewer. With modern feminism and the Internet as a handy repository, we can see similar paranoia about women and sexual relations as the paranoia of cuckoldry in Molière’s age. A quick glance at Reddit might reveal undercurrents of male paranoia: The fear of being cheated on persists when trust is a scarce commodity, sure. Add to that the terror of being falsely accused of rape, or of having one’s sperm swiped from a used condom surreptitiously in order for a woman to ensnare oneself into marriage via pregnancy. Molière’s Arnold character type still exists and is more histrionic than ever as a result of changes in the world around him. Skewering these kinds of men who still deserve it centuries after the fact, Molière takes on a visionary character in a way that I’m not sure Shakespeare does.

So I further wondered, even if there is no truly universal theatre, perhaps Comedy better approaches that (still dubious) ideal than Tragedy does. Rather than Aristotelian hamartia, the lofty tragic errors (or flaws of character in which one erroneously and stubbornly persists), Macbeth’s ambition, Hamlet’s paralysing deliberation, Oedipus’ stubborn belief in his own superior intellect, perhaps our mundane everyday follies are more culturally common theatre material. Then again, perhaps the Masai, or some other culture, would burst into bitter tears at Arnold’s predicament and we’re back at square one. Some gender role apologists also might, but that’s incidental.

These are half-formed meditations, so perhaps there isn’t really a conclusion as such. As with Peter Brook, perhaps we can say that rather than claims to universality and transcending the boundaries of time, or, even paradoxically alongside them, some major aspect of theatre’s beauty and aesthetic pleasures resides in its cultural and historical contingence: for the theatre is the script, is the performance, is the reception, is the reflection after the fact. Theatre’s sine qua non is not just Shakespeare’s ghost whispering to our subconscious mind in iambic pentameter. It is our conscious conversations with playwrights live and dead; actors, artists, critics, and theatre fanatics; family, friends, and strangers bound to us by the shared community of being a part of a performance.

One Response to “Shakespeare’s Ghost and the Supposed Universality of Theatre”

  1. I had no idea you studied theatre and literature. Post more of your writing- I need the education and will be reading it all.

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