Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English
Thursday, November 8, 2012

I’m surprised at how many students still seem surprised at adaptations of Shakespeare. “You mean that all the parts are played by women?” “You mean that Hamlet has a dog, and kills his mother?” “You mean it’s set after World War II?” “You mean it’s been shortened?”

In fact humans have practiced so much complicated artistic metamorphosis that there’s a category of literary criticism called “Adaptation Studies.”

Shakespeare himself was a great adapter. Of his thirty-eight plays, only three or four do not have a prominent literary/historical source, and even those have some identifiable debts. It is possible that some collaborators began to revise some of Shakespeare’s plays even before he died, and when his plays were revived fifty years later, after the re-opening following the Puritan theater closing in 1642, most were radically reshaped – tragedies were given comic endings, two plays were sometimes created out of one, and new plays with new titles incorporated large chunks of Shakespeare’s original plays.

This is not to say that all adaptations are equal: Shakespeare’s plays are greater than most of the sources he drew from, and many adaptations of Shakespeare are less comprehensive and compelling than their originals. My main point is that, historically, what we’ve been doing in the dance program this fall isn’t terribly shocking. But it has nevertheless been an exciting exploratory process that has been for all of us a rich (liberal arts) educational experience and that has resulted in an excellent piece of dance. Book your tickets now!


“Macbeth” is a play that many of you know in some way. Some of your high school English courses or your AP lit classes included it as a reading. Some of you have seen films, or film adaptations; the most popular recent adaptation is “Scotland, PA.” And many of the rest of you have bumped into some cultural references to Macbeth the king-murderer, Lady Macbeth the “unsex me here” harpy/witch, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, “Out damned spot!” stain remover ads and blood (not that all blood refers to “Macbeth,” but there are few references to Macbeth that don’t include some mention of blood. In the early stages, someone suggested the title “Blood Ballet” for this fall’s “Macbeth” dance).
To some of you, “Macbeth” is known as “The Scottish Play” because you’ve heard of the superstition that in order to prevent disaster, the play’s actual title should never be repeated inside a theater. Others know the phrase “the be-all and the end-all” (from 1.7.4) or “one fell swoop” (4.3.219) or just about any phrase from Macbeth’s last soliloquy “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.... Life’s but a walking shadow...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” “Macbeth” is second only to “Hamlet” in the number of “important quotes” included on Shakespeare eNotes.

A Tragedy Like Macbeth

As a student in the dance program for the last six years, I was interested in working on a production. As the Jones Professor responsible for the “Our Shakespeare” project, I was – quoting my overall goal – eager to “nurture our community’s rediscovery of the range, power and wisdom of Shakespeare’s art.” And my friend and colleague [Associate Professor of Dance] Jane Hawley is always on the lookout for dance ideas.

For both of us, then, “Macbeth’s” primary interest was as a source for a cohesive plot with which audiences might be familiar.

And what did we end up with? The project involves eighteen dancers, in addition to a large supporting cast of stage managers, production assistants and costumers. [Associate Professor of Theatre] Lisa Lantz has designed some stunning, medieval-inspired costumes, Professor Jeff Dintaman has created a dramatic lighting plan, and Technical Director Tom Berger has outdone himself in designing an elaborate and evocative set.

If you didn’t like “Much Ado About Nothing” because of its text tampering, you probably won’t like “A Tragedy Like Macbeth.” But the rest of you will get a vivid picture of how different two “Shakespeare” productions from the same program can be. And make sure you arrive early enough to take in the thirty-minute pre-show experience in the lobby – that alone will be more than worth the price of admission.