The new nihilistic puritans are killing our culture
the Tame the shrew holds the distinction of being Shakespeare’s most performed play that is most rarely shown in its entirety. While modern audiences remain attached to the story of feral cat Katherine and her “tamer” Petruchio, it is rarely staged “directly,” without major cuts or added layers of irony. Contemporary productions tend to square the circle giving Kate an obvious nod to the audience, suggesting she’s somehow “in” on the marriage bet, or else refocusing the play as a tragedy rather than a a comedy, unequivocally presenting her as a victim of domestic violence.
Others prefer to tame the bard instead. Actress Juliet Stevenson has argued that some Shakespearean plays are simply irredeemable – too problematic for a modern company to perform – citing the Tame the shrewand the Merchant of Venice“indispensable” anti-Semitism. It’s a depressing thought, especially from one of the great Shakespearean interpreters of recent years, but also debatable. Compare Shylock to contemporary equivalents like Marlowe’s Jew from Malta reveals an infinitely greater nuance. Although the play can barely be put on for laughs, as it was in Nazi Germany, declaring it unplayable is like giving up, sacrificing moral ambiguity – even Shakespeare himself – to our own lack of imagination.
But there is also a kind of circularity, because culture repeats itself and it is not the first time that theater has attempted a bizarre fusion with virtue. King Lear, with its crushing and dark ending, is arguably Shakespeare’s most nihilistic play, forcing us to ponder the question “Is man no more than that?” But for over 150 years, the original was hardly ever staged. Well into the 19th century, the standard runtime text remained a 1681 rewrite by the Puritan Nahum Tate, with an incredibly happy finale in which Cordelia falls in love with Edgar, and Lear ends up living, happy, restored to his sanity and to his kingdom. It sounds ridiculous now, but when David Garrick portrayed Lear “ripping a passion to shreds,” it would have been that version.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder that refusing to stage “problem” plays is not a radical stance, but one that aligns you with post-Restoration Puritans and 18th-century moralists. But a similar revisionism plagues pop culture today. Television and movie makers are increasingly reviving the classics, partly for financial reasons, partly out of laziness, but often to “redact” aspects of the original that they may find unsavory. Unlike Tate King Learthe public often hates the products of this trend.
Many longtime fans of the series sex and the city were appalled by its recent remake. The original series depicted four women negotiating New York’s frenetic dating scene, who for all their flaws were witty, independent, and friendship-minded. The reboot, And just like that, focuses on humiliating women: imposing a painfully awakened sensibility on what was once a harsh and subversive series. Miranda, the most composed of the group, comes across as particularly unrecognizable – a talkative wreck who can barely talk to a black colleague without making a social faux pas. It betrays any longstanding ties to the series, even retrospectively spoiling our enjoyment in the original; as you watch past episodes with a renewed knowledge of what each character will become.
So also with no time to die, Daniel Craig’s final outing as Bond. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched it yet, skip this paragraph!) Unforgivably, Eon Productions literally killed it. But that seems less of a loss than it should. The doomed version of the transgressive chauvinist was already “metaphorically” dead in the new film due to his out-of-character behavior; turned into a monogamist with a “wife” and a child. An exchange knowingly mocks his former woman-killing credentials, when he tries to hit on a woman and is rebuffed. (“So you thought James Bond could just seduce someone with his own sexual magnetism? You idiot!”) escapism that define the franchise.
New screenwriters were dropped on the star wars sequels, and similarly, Luke Skywalker behaved in ways that seem alien to his initial incarnation. Luke is the new hope of the original trilogy – he’s the one who seeks to bring Darth Vadar back to light when everyone else has given up. Yet the Last Jedi turns him into a bitter fatalist. Actor Mark Hamill, who plays Luke, was appalled and pulled off a few scathing interviews before being subdued by PR officials. “Who is this guy?” he cracked, “How did the most optimistic and hopeful character in the galaxy turn into this hermit?”
You might say it’s a bit rich to complain about consistency in an intergalactic space opera depicting lightsabers and ewoks. On the contrary; all fiction creates a confined universe, and the more fantastic it is, the more vital it is for the characters to behave in a way that is true to our expectations, because suspending disbelief requires even more effort. And when art enjoys lasting appeal, supplanting it out of context will always trigger alienation.
The reboot era does that and more, but above all it suggests a terrible narrowing of artistic horizons. With few exceptions, we may come to view this era as a cultural wasteland – full of caution, self-censorship, and “corrective” remakes. Unable to do anything new, we just destroy the old.