Thursday, April 5, 2012

Shakespeare in Jail

During a lifetime of hearing fatuous editors say fatuous things, perhaps the single most ridiculous comment came from the Asst. Editor of a now-defunct magazine: “Shakespeare?  Do we need another adaption of a Shakespeare play?  He’s been done to death.  Does he really say anything to us?”


At any rate, it seems that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is too political an artist in some of the world’s hot spots.  As I write these words, the Thai government has banned a new film adaptation of Macbeth because the film “has content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation.”

Thailand has some of the most stringent laws in the world banning criticism of the monarchy.  Offenses could carry as much as 15 years in prison.  So it’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s famous tale of regicide might ruffle more than a few royal feathers, and Shakespeare Must Die, as the film is called there, seems to hit too close to home.  The film incorporates images of violence and unrest redolent of Thailand’s recent past.  The country has been the scene of street protests since 2005, and many see Macbeth himself as a cognate for former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  Also in the film is a red-draped figure that censors thought too mindful of the red-shirt demonstrators who filled Bangkok’s streets in 2010, when protests turned violent and nearly 100 demonstrators were killed.

The film’s director, Samanrat Kanjanavanit, has asked The Christian Science Monitor, "Why do they [the censors] find a 400-year-dead poet so threatening?”  She added, “We don't want to look at ourselves, we want to forget about painful events in our history."

Shakespeare is as relevant now as he was 400 years ago.  New productions seek to find a nexus between the text and current events, and often do so with deft insight.  The Orson Welles production of Julius Caesar in 1937 reflected the stark realities of Mussolini and growing fascism in Europe.  The recent film version of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, has disturbing parallels to recent Eastern European history.  And one of the most harrowing theatrical experiences of my life was seeing Titus Andronicus in Central Park, watching the horrific aftermath of the rape of Lavinia, knowing I was a scant few feet away from where Trisha Meili was brutally raped by a gang of Harlem youths.

As Kanjanavanit said, "We made a Shakespearean film because we are living through Shakespearean times. People find the truth in fictional form threatening."

Perhaps it’s best (as is usual) for the Bard to have the final word.  As he writes in Julius Caesar, “There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind, which I respect not!”

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