Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Making of the Shakespeare Evolution Series

As we embark on the Tragedies segment of our Shakespeare Evolution Series with Titus , people have been asking how we settled on the chronological order for all of Shakespeare's plays...not to mention how we decided what counts as a ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy’ or ‘romance.’ Well, here’s the truth: since Shakespeare never left a personal record of exactly when he wrote each play, that lack has left everyone guessing about the order for the last four hundred years. Probably dozens of proposed composition orders exist in the Shakespeare scholarship universe, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Part of the fun involves arguing over which play goes where.

But a producing theatrical company eventually has to settle on an order, and we knew that we needed to just pick one list and stick with it ‘till the end. Ultimately I suggested that we rely on the composition order presented in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (2nd Edition), because I studied under one of that book’s editors in grad school and could email him personally to make sure that the order still makes scholarly sense. When I received the go-ahead back from him, we had our list. Not everyone in the world agrees with this chronological order--in fact, not even all of our company members agree with it. I’ve overheard some great debates. Again, every chronology is debatable, and debates are part of the fun.

But that’s not all we had to choose: we aren't just performing Shakespeare’s plays in the order he composed them, but rather performing his Comedies in order of composition, followed by the Tragedies, followed by the late Tragicomic Romances (and at some time in the future, we would love to round things out with the Histories!) This plan demands that we assign genres to each play, and that’s where things get even fuzzier. Part of Shakespeare’s brilliance as a writer lay in his ability to mix comedy and tragedy almost effortlessly. His comedies all contain elements of tragedy, his tragedies all have funny moments, and the history plays have lots of both. As with order of composition, when it came to genres we just had to make a decision and stick to it.

Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have held much personal interest in publishing his plays during his lifetime. Luckily, his friends and fellow company members collected many of his plays after his death and published them together in a book. Scholars refer to that book, first published in 1623, as the First Folio. And while the First Folio as a document is far from error-free, we think it still can tell us a great deal about the way that Shakespeare’s contemporaries viewed his plays, and our company accordingly treats the First Folio with a great deal of respect when we approach his work. In keeping with that respect, for the Comedies and Tragedies portions of our series we’ve relied mostly on the way that the First Folio classifies each play. For instance, modern scholars have trouble agreeing on a genre for Troilus and Cressida, but the First Folio titles it a ‘Tragedie,’ so we’re going to honor that classification (although interestingly enough, Troilus and Cressida was completely left out of the Folio’s table of contents--I told you the Folio wasn’t error-free!) And while Richard III seems much like a tragedy, the Folio lists it as a history play, so we haven’t included it in our Tragedies portion of the series.

But you’ll notice I said we were almost relying on the Folio’s classifications. If we relied totally on the Folio, there would be no Romances portion of the Evolution Series, because the Folio only divides Shakespeare’s plays into Comedies, Tragedies and Histories. Thus, the Folio lists The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale as a comedies and Cymbeline as a tragedy. But we feel that a series always works better as a trilogy (just ask Peter Jackson.) And since the point of the Evolution Series is to show Shakespeare’s evolution as a writer, we thought it’d be neat to show how he perfected the comedic genre, and also perfected the tragic genre, and in his later plays perfected mixing the two genres into Tragicomic Romances. The term ‘Romance’ has been applied in more recent years by scholars--though the genre ‘tragicomical’ must also have existed in Shakepseare’s time, since Polonius mentions it in Hamlet--to describe Shakespeare’s later work, which often mixes the death of major characters with themes of resurrection and reconciliation and, of course, clowns. So we’re straying a bit when it comes to honoring the First Folio, mixing that publication’s genre classifications with a little modern scholarship. Instead of counting The Tempest as part of our Comedies portion, we’ll be performing it again in the final Tragicomic Romances leg along with The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. And that list highlights another important reason to mix in modern scholarship: the First Folio doesn’t even include all 39 plays currently attributed to Shakespeare (including two of the plays I just mentioned,) and we want to do them all!

So the Evolution Series turns out to be a bit like Shakespeare’s work itself: plenty of different influences thrown together in order to, we hope, create some great entertainment. Catch Romeo and Juliet in February for our next Tragedies installment, and in the meantime...we welcome your questions and comments.

~Kristin H.