Even in Shakespeare’s own time, people idolized him. Otherwise his colleague Ben Jonson would never have bothered to say, after Shakespeare’s death, that he loved the man as well as anybody, “this side idolatry.” Obviously, Jonson, who himself called Shakespeare the “soul of the age,” knew people whose adoration was even more extreme. The idolatry has never wholly stopped. Its incense burners were snuffed, for several decades, after the Puritans shut down England’s theaters, but David Garrick relit them at full strength, and they’ve sent smoke up steadily ever since. Even the constant, idiotic attempts to prove that somebody other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays count as so many misshapen votive candles placed at his altar.
The incessant worship annoys Shakespeareans because it tends to block people’s understanding of what Shakespeare actually accomplished. Bernard Shaw grasped the problem, a century ago, when he complained about directors who believed that Shakespeare, “being a genius, ought not to be bound by the rules of common sense.” In truth, virtually everything Shakespeare wrote makes sense—or, at worst, makes nonsense intentionally, to amuse. He wrote plays because, once he had demonstrated his ability, that became his designated function in the theater company of which he was a part owner. He wrote them to appeal, with maximum effectiveness, to the widest possible audience; that we now perform them more widely and frequently than ever proves his success.
Living in a time of great turmoil seems to have caused neither Shakespeare nor his fellow shareholders in the company much concern: Politically, they were for sale to the highest bidder. Suborned by conspirators to play an anti-Elizabeth work as propaganda during the Earl of Essex’s coup attempt, they were forgiven quickly enough to perform at Windsor Castle the night the conspirators were hanged. Nobody even blinked when Shakespeare used the incident in Hamlet, and made the guy who suborns the theater company the hero.
Bill Cain’s Equivocation (Manhattan Theatre Club) tells a different story of Shakespearean subornation, jumping on the recent scholarly bandwagon that links the writing of Macbeth to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The link may be real: Though apolitical, Shakespeare’s company wasn’t oblivious to politics. Regrettably, Cain stretches the notion much further than it will go. He hypothesizes Robert Cecil (David Pittu), James I’s cunning secretary of state, commissioning a propaganda play from “Shag” (John Pankow) that will depict Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters as villainous scum. Shag, being Shakespeare, declines to pump out mere propaganda: Trying to give both sides their due, he turns out a play that both his government and his acting company loathe. Desperate to get something on that will please King James while placating everyone else, he carpenters up Macbeth from the salvageable scraps of his disastrous rough draft.
Eschewing archaisms, Cain writes briskly and colloquially, sometimes achieving passages of strong, sharp-edged dialogue, like Cecil’s cool dissection of the assets that will keep Shakespeare’s plays eternally popular. What wrecks Equivocation is its lack of plausibility. Equally remote from Shakespeare’s stage practice and our own, it shows an almost fatuous disinterest in the ways by which plays actually get created and produced. Garnet (Michael Countryman), the eminent Jesuit who may or may not have conspired in the Gunpowder Plot, had written a pamphlet on equivocation: Catholics, liable to prosecution in England as recusants, found double-meaninged phrases useful. Macbeth is full of equivocal talk (“So fair and foul a day”), and its low-comedy character makes a topical joke about an equivocator. But those facts no more make Macbeth a commentary on Jacobean politics than my inserting a joke here about Governor Paterson’s World Series tickets would turn this review into an editorial. King James claimed descent from Banquo’s line, and was fascinated by witches, so Shakespeare wrote a Scottish tragedy depicting Banquo as a good guy, and stuck in witch scenes, some of them pulled from earlier company productions not written by him.
The notion that earth-shaking political forces motivated Shakespeare to write is just another instance of the misguided veneration that overlooks his genuine artistic value while absurdly exaggerating his social-political importance. Cain falls victim to the syndrome even while zinging his verbal darts past it to strike some point of Shakespearean reality. Garry Hynes’s skillful but drab production gives him only modest help, getting disappointingly uneven work from her cast. The normally first-rate Pankow makes a startlingly dull Bard. Countryman, powerfully moving as Garnet, and Pittu, a nicely crisp Cecil, come off bland in other roles. The rest, saddled with even less viable material, can do little to make Equivocation more than so-so.
So-so, oddly, is also the feeling one gets from Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project production of The Tempest (BAM Harvey), whenever Juliet Rylance’s strong, forthright Miranda, a world of wonders in herself, isn’t onstage. The actors’ ability isn’t the problem: Whenever Mendes allows Stephen Dillane’s Prospero to drop into a colloquial tone and have a human moment, you see what a fine actor Dillane can be. Unfortunately, Mendes seems to view Shakespeare as a hollowly hieratic, somewhat wooden writer; ignoring the play’s fluid rhythms and its many specific cues for variety in both speech and stage behavior, he turns it into a dull plod through an old story, enlivened by arbitrary bursts of ill temper. In the clown scenes, Thomas Sadoski (Stephano), Anthony O’Donnell (Trinculo), and Ron Cephas Jones (Caliban) brighten the prevailing gloom a little, but Mendes’s obliviousness to this island’s magical music won’t get Shakespeare any new worshippers.
William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker used to have worshippers, too—misled, I suspect, by the fervent ferocity of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, as Annie Sullivan and the child Helen Keller, in Arthur Penn’s original 1959 production. Wish I’d seen it. Kate Whoriskey’s Circle in the Square revival, deriving competence rather than ferocious fervency from Alison Pill and Abigail Breslin, lays out Gibson’s stiff-jointed, hokey, repetitive script so tidily that you can’t be blind to its shortcomings. Playwriting today looks awfully good by comparison.