My starting question is very simple: what was your first exposure to Shakespeare?
My first exposure was very classically Laurence Olivier’s "Hamlet" seen on TV as a child, in a poorly translated Persian (my native tongue). At that young age, I was obviously more interested in the ghost and misty battlements than anything else. But the first play I was able to read in full text for a school curriculum was – rather unusually for a school programme – "Coriolanus". The guidance of a passionate instructor made me all at one go fall in love with Shakespeare and want to become a teacher myself. I am much beholden to the gentleman for both reasons, and one of the highlights of my career many years later was to have his son among my students at university for a course on Shakespeare!
As a distinguished scholar of Shakespeare, can you talk us through your educational journey with Shakespeare?
Thank you for the compliment, but honestly, educational journey with Shakespeare is a never-ending process. He was writing at such a pivotal moment for England on the verge of becoming an empire, and the linguistic and literary legacy of that empire made him such a world-wide icon that he is all over the place today and intersects with an ‘infinite variety’ (even that phrase is his) of disciplinary fields and theoretical approaches. Through his work, not only did I understand the classically inherited mechanisms of tragedy and comedy, but I also saw the necessity to move beyond them in problem plays, histories and romances, where the reader or spectator witnesses how much – as in real life – complex questions cannot have easy and final answers.
As a student, the first Shakespeare play I saw onstage was "The Tempest" directed by Peter Brook in Paris in 1991, and it was such an eye-opener. The first postcolonial play I read around that time was Aimé Césaire’s adaptation of the same play, Une tempête. My lifetime passion for Kurosawa’s cinema started with Ran, which was his 1985 adaptation of "King Lear". Later in life, my entry into the world of manga happened thanks to the "Manga Shakespeare" series published by Self Made Hero, just as my initiation to Bollywood cinema was through Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy based on "Macbeth", "Othello" and "Hamlet". Through all these years, Shakespeare has never been a repertory or museum piece for me, but a window to the world and its diversity, and I hope this is what I have been transmitting to generation after generation of my students.
Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play, and if so, why?
Hard to pick just one, so much is ‘not of an age but for all time,’ (to use the words of his colleague and rival Ben Jonson in his tribute to Shakespeare in the 1623 Folio). But I tend to like his more experimental attempts in the later plays and the not-so-neat resolutions of such plays as "The Winter’s Tale" or "The Tempest".
What do you feel are “traps” or pitfalls that people repeatedly fall into when either performing, discussing or dissecting Shakespeare?
The worst of it, I think, is the romantically inherited approach to “the Bard” through what I would call the “author intentional fallacy”. By this I mean the myth of the solitary genius supposed to have conceived the oeuvre single-handedly and in a neat and fixed state to be preserved and revered, leaving as the critic’s sole task to work out what the author’s intended meaning could have been. This is a most outdated, simplistic way of studying literature in general, and it is totally invalid for a period in which there was no copyright and no fixed state of a dramatic text anyway. A playwright, often working in collaboration with other playwrights, would be employed by a company to provide scripts or parts of them for the actors. The company would then rework the texts, often extensively rewriting them for revivals, and only when a play was past its sell-by date in terms of stage success would the company consider printing their bits and pieces of script or the author(s)’ ‘foul papers’ to get some extra money out of the old play.
What has wrongly monumentalised Shakespeare for later generations is really the 1623 Folio published as a tribute by his former colleagues from their theatrical company of the King’s Men, complete with a face (Martin Droeshout’s engraving) and opening pages of hyperbolic praise by Jonson and others for marketing purposes. Modern scholarship has been trying to go back in time and to retrieve the voices and contributions of other early modern playwrights to that inherited ‘Shakespearean’ canon, with for example as much as nearly one third of it attributed by some to Thomas Middleton. More than an individual identity to retrieve – be it that of the man from Stratford or any other more or less fantastic contender, from the Earl of Oxford to Francis Bacon, John Florio, Christopher Marlowe, or even Elizabeth I – ‘Shakespeare’ is for me an umbrella term for a wonderful body of texts from the early modern period which have had an exciting life of their own as a source of inspiration and responses through several centuries. So yes, by all means, let’s feel free to discuss, perform and dissect the oeuvre, each of us, without being frozen in awe by the ghost of a fatherly figure dominating it and making us ‘lose the name of action’ as in Hamlet’s monologue when we revisit, re-interpret, or in the case of an adaptation such as Maximianno’s scenario, partly re-write Shakespeare.
What about Shakespeare do you feel is unique; that je ne sais quoi that has kept him as the most performed and studied playwright (and arguably best) in history?
I have partly given my personal answer to that question above, in what I said about the key role played by the 1623 Folio monumentalising the author and disseminating the oeuvre as a whole body under his name. I also said a word about the history of the empire making English and the literary icon it vehicled a lingua franca across the world. I would add to that a specificity of the early modern English theatre in contrast with, for example, the French classical drama of Corneille and Racine half a century later. Early modern public theatre in England was catering to a large social spectrum of audiences, from the groundlings who would pay just one penny to stand in the yard through the performance to the gentlemen comfortably seated on cushions in the gentlemen’s gallery at a theatre such as the Globe.
As a result, plays designed for that type of theatre are not bound by any rigid unity of time and place. They freely mix and match genres for effects of comic relief in tragedies for example, and are packed with action and rough language. Their wide range of irreverent plots brings together King and beggar ("King Lear"), young love and old love ("A Midsummer Night’s Dream"), the very local ("The Merry Wives of Windsor") and the very international ("Othello"), national myth (the history cycles) and cosmopolitanism ("The Merchant of Venice"), and every conceivable variety of flawed family relationship and gender and identity confusion for all ages! Advertising the plays in the Folio with the three major headings of ‘Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies’ further underlines the material’s potential for variety and universality. People with diverse interests can thus find a common ground in the work, and can endlessly adapt it across their cultures and backgrounds, as indeed they have never stopped doing since the seventeenth century.
Are there any noticeable differences between how Shakespeare is performed in France, compared to the UK?
For the French, Shakespeare has long been associated with the legacy of the romantics, from Victor Hugo’s conception of the ‘drame romantique’ after his model and as a reaction to French classicism, to Delacroix and Berlioz’s immortalising in drawings and symphonies the memory of landmark Shakespearean performances by English comedians at the Parisian theatre of Odéon in the 1820s. Yet, revolutionary though the move was at the time, a century and a half later, the ‘Comédie française’ style of institutionalising and monumentalising Shakespeare no longer drew younger generations’ enthusiasm, with a typically static and declamatory style of acting making Shakespeare sound hardly different from Corneille and Racine in repertory staging and old-fashioned translations.
What has made a big difference in recent years has been the option of properly modernising the translations, making Shakespeare ‘our contemporary’ (to borrow Jan Kott’s phrase) once again and widening the staging options for his wonderfully timeless and universal plots. This is the kind of avenue that Jean-Michel Déprats for example has explored in translations that were specifically designed for the theatre, making us finally move out of François-Victor Hugo’s (Victor Hugo’s son) long-standing standard translations which were primarily meant to be read rather than performed.
Outside of Britain, Shakespeare sets more plays in Rome than anywhere else. When it comes to Greece, was Athens his ‘go to’ location in his plays?
Ancient Rome and Athens are ‘go to’ cultural locations – loci classici – to return to for all Renaissance and early modern artists. But what is endearing in the case of a rurally bred artist like our Stratford man, never attending university, possibly never travelling outside Britain, and having ‘small Latin and less Greek’ at his disposal (as his more educated rival Ben Jonson jokingly put it in his Folio tribute), is how homely his Rome and Athens appear. His Athenian forest in A "Midsummer Night’s Dream" is full of fairies and pucks directly out of English countryside folklore, while his Timon’s earth-digging soliloquy in act 4 of "Timon of Athens" makes the ‘black toad,’ ‘gilded newt’ and ‘eyeless worm’ – coming as it were out of a country witch’s brewing cauldron – cohabit with more majestic ‘tigers, dragons, wolves and bears.’ Little is the difference at that point in the play between the Athenian turned into a wild man and, say, Edgar in his Bedlam beggar disguise as ‘poor Tom’ in "King Lear". What stands out of these differently located plots is neither Athenian nor English, but the essential man.
Am I correct in saying ‘period pieces’ in Shakespeare’s day (such as "Titus Andronicus" set in ancient Rome, or indeed "Timon of Athens" set in ancient Greece) were actually performed in ‘modern dress’, i.e. Elizabethan costume, rather than togas, robes, etc? And was there a reason for this?
The closest we can get to an answer on this is the 1594 ‘Peacham drawing’ left by a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and which represents a staging of Titus Andronicus, either based on eye-witness experience, or imagined by Peacham who noted some lines from the play on the same page. But whether witnessed or imagined, this staging option gives us a view of the Elizabethans’ habits regarding the representation of Romans. On that drawing, Timon, the slave Aaron, and two sons of Queen Tamora are vaguely ‘in Roman’ (short skirts, a sash for Titus to give a toga effect), while the queen’s dress and crown rather look ‘late medieval’, and the two guards are dressed ‘in Elizabethan’ (somewhat like the Pope’s Swiss guards today).
The composite effect is a good indicator of the age’s spirit of mix-and-match, or indeed whatever-goes depending on the resources available at any one time to a company. Although we do not have any equivalent visual testimony for Timon, we may reasonably assume the situation could have been the same for it, a decade or so after this drawing of Titus.
One needs to remember that the common phrase to refer to attending a performance at the time was not ‘to see a play’, but ‘to hear a play’. Think of the Duke’s line in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" when he is ready for the Mechanicals’ play to start he says: ‘And we’ll hear it.’ Like the fictional Duke, audiences at the time had less expectation of realistic or authentic-looking costumes, rather of evocative atmosphere and mind-travelling poetry.
There is a lot of debate around Shakespeare’s sexuality, and certainly this adaptation does not shy away from elements of homosexuality. Do you have an opinion on this or do you feel it’s not relevant (or a requirement) for appreciating his work?
Again, let’s not be straight-jacketed by the ‘author fallacy’, bringing everything back to the Stratford man’s biography, with here a detective-like enquiry into his sexual preferences. It all makes sensational news and attracts audiences, but the time and attention we spend on such endless hypotheses is time and attention that we take away from the plays themselves. Sexual ambiguity is part and parcel of the working of early modern drama, in which as you know all parts were originally held by male actors, with boy apprentices playing the female parts. Rather than hiding this fact as a deficiency, Shakespeare and other fellow dramatists faced it head-on, rather making sexual ambiguity an asset and a way of opening further potentials for meaning in their plays. What if Orlando is actually attracted to the boy Ganymede rather than the cross-dressed girl Rosalind in As You Like It? What if Lady Olivia is taken with Viola herself rather than her male persona of Cesario in Twelfth Night? Etc etc.
When it comes to the Roman plays, I think there is more often than not an extra layer of homoerotic attraction involved in the cult of virility characteristic of the classically inflected plots themselves. Homoerotic attraction is definitely one option for reading the rivalry between Aufidius and the eponymous hero in "Coriolanus", and a similar option is there for interpreting ‘boy’ Octavius Caesar’s fascination with Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra". Making that potential explicit has been a choice in this adaptation of "Timon of Athens", and it is neither inconsistent with other plays in the canon, nor at odds with the common practice of early modern drama. This choice has involved adding a few words or lines to the script, but again, I do not think we should take Shakespeare’s would-be ‘intended’ play as a museum piece. A play text is a living object, and an adaptation is precisely about ‘adapting’ an original for a different context, here for the cinema and modern audiences.
It is believed that Shakespeare would act in his own plays (for example I believe he performed in "Hamlet"). Is there any evidence that he ever performed in "Timon of Athens"?
Shakespeare had the rather exceptional status of being at the same time the house-playwright for the King’s Men, an actor for that company and even a sharer in the same. So technically, yes, he could have acted in his own plays, and he could even have had a say about what parts he wanted to play. But comparatively little is known for certain about his acting roles, though it is commonly believed that he held the part of the father’s ghost in "Hamlet", as well as roles in Jonson’s Everyman comedies. It has also been proposed by some that he may have held the part of the Poet in "Timon of Athens". It makes a touching story to think of the father who had lost a real-life son called Hamnet to keep for himself the part of the father’s ghost in "Hamlet", just as it is neat and tempting to think of him acting as the allegorical figure of ‘the Poet’ in a play of his. The hypotheses are beautiful and indeed tempting, but sorry to be the party-spoiler: I am afraid we do not have decisive evidence to prove either of them.
Ladan Niayesh is Professor of English Studies at the University of Paris Diderot - Paris 7. She is an alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Fontenay -St Cloud. Her PhD was on the representations of cannibalism on the early modern English stage, and her Habilitation was about the representations of strangeness and strangerness in early modern English literature. Her current research interests are in editing travel drama and travel writings in that period, with a particular interest in travels to Persia and Muscovy.
Education and Academic Positions:
1990, Ecole Normale Supérieure
1993, Agrégation d’anglais
2000, PhD, University of Montpellier 3. Dissertation title: Aux frontières de l’humain: Figures du cannibalisme dans le théâtre anglais de la Renaissance
2010, Habilitation à diriger des recherches, University of Montpellier 3. Title: Etrangeté et étrangèreté dans le théâtre anglais de la Renaissance
1995-2000: Allocataire Monitrice Normalienne and ATER at the University of Montpellier
2000-2012, Maître de conferences (Senior Lecturer), Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7
2012-present, Professor, Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7
Board Member, Conseil Scientifique, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris Saclay (Cachan)
Member of the Hakluyt Society Council
Associate editor, Cahiers Elisabéthains
Member of editorial board, Renaissance Studies
British Literature and history of ideas, 16th-17th centuries
Early Modern theatre (Shakespeare and his contemporaries) and its modern adaptations
Travel literature, particularly in connection with Persia and the Ottoman empire in the early modern period