The urge to mutilate Shakespeare is one of the great modern artistic temptations. In an age where poets and artists are obsessed with subversion and appropriation, Shakespeare’s status as the greatest poet of the English language has made him a target of book burners and theater students alike—and one wonders which of them does the Bard more damage.
As the late Charles Krauthammer notes, ”The urge to translate and improve upon the master turns out, unfortunately, not to be the exclusive property of recent immigrants. It is unfortunately now the norm [in reference to a recent “improved” Yiddish translation of Hamlet]. I am not talking here about such conventional devices as abridging the text or using period costume. I am talking about the directorial flourishes that deliberately invade the text, often in pursuit of some crashingly banal political or social statement.”
The Nashville Shakespeare Festival—despite its proud thirty-five year heritage—has gladly contributed more than its fair share of these “improvements” in recent years. Its production of MacBeth Abridged hacked the great tragedy to pieces for the benefit of making it palatable to preschoolers, while also replacing the witches with “social media influencers.”
Their newest adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing has been playing this month in the courtyard of OneC1ty—ground zero for one of the most recent waves of gentrification overtaking the city; with $3,000 apartments and a vegan restaurants. It is a facility so dedicated to science that it still hasn’t turned its water fountains back on due to COVID.
Much Ado About Nothing is hardly the most serious or important of the Bard’s works. Its title impresses that it is literally a play about nothing of importance being given too much attention. Its two primary adaptations on film—by directors Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon—both updated the setting and costumes by centuries and diversity-casted key roles. It is hardly untouchable holy scripture, but plays very well to an audience with its light plot and comedic atmosphere of repressed sexual tension between the characters.
However, the alterations that NSF has made are more than aesthetic. This isn’t just a case of the costumes being set in an incorrect time or thrown together from an eclectic costume closet. The dialog of the play has been edited to set the play in a Nashville-based resort in the 1970s. The characters have all been recast as Vietnam veterans returning from San Diego and activists fighting for feminism and civil rights, between bragging about their romantic exploits with Dukes and Princes from Franklin.
The alterations also include an on-stage band that plays 1970s pop music, which clashes egregiously with the play itself. The prologue even begins with all of the female activists opening with a dance number set to I Am Woman Hear Me Roar.
The mismatch of subject and material is more complicated than one might imagine at first. Much Ado About Nothing contains one of Shakespeare’s most fiercely independent and intelligent female characters in the form of Beatrice—the free spirited noble woman who gradually falls in love with the similarly fierce, marriage-resistant war hero Benedict, in a classic tale of star-crossed lovers.
There have certainly been worse abuses to Shakespeare’s words. It’s not a stretch to depict a character a feminist when she says lines like “Oh god, were I man I would eat his heart in the marketplace.” But the overall aesthetic is kitschy and tone deaf, cramming serious implications and themes into a play that’s otherwise very lighthearted—where the darkest events are a woman otherwise being wrongly accused of adultery and faking her own death.
Some of this is appropriate to the source material. Shakespeare’s plays are often quite scatological and sexual—with borderline nihilistic plots caused by characters lying and attempting to wrongly accuse each other of sexual impropriety—and plotted with witless characters like Dogberry and uncomplicated evil characters like Don John.
But there is a line. Having the cast dance the stage in Disco masks as the guitarist covers Superstition clashes against the high language, drenching some of the most beautiful and romantic words in the English language in an unserious aesthetic of sequin shirts and disco—a vehicle where the double entendres are given extra weight as it’s characters act like frat bros.
The alterations hardly even have an affect on the plot. Historically, progressive alterations have only become famous and well received when the changes are natural to the adaptation and maintain a cohesive logic to the piece—such as Orson Welles’ famous MacBeth set in Haiti, Ian McKellen’s Richard III set in fascist Europe, or Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus set against the modern day War on Terror.
What do NSF’s alterations even add to a work like Much Ado About Nothing besides 1970s camp? It’s questionable if such an aesthetic even addresses these themes well. Is a story alluding to feminism and the Vietnam War appropriate where the story regards Benedict as an unquestionable war hero and resolves with the feminist Beatrice happily submitting to marriage? Why set the play against the Civil Rights movement if the only anti-authority satire in the play comes in depicting Dogberry as an illiterate cop that cannot count, but who is still otherwise defending a legitimate power structure in the play?
Placing a thin progressive veneer on these plays merely ends up undignifying them. Shakespeare’s comedies are stories of disruption and restoration—cycles of society being thrown into chaos and returning order to its rightful place. They are also monarchical and conservative, and changing a few lines of dialog doesn’t change the structure of them or revolutionize them.
It is a testament to the talented actors of the NSF that the show did play well to the audience at OneC1ty, mostly comprised of young people and students. My friends who joined me for the show all found the alterations negligible and soaked in the melodrama and wittiness of Shakespeare’s characters, rooting for the couples to inevitably pair off.
It might just be that I am too much of a snob to lean into the irony of the aesthetics, but I do not imagine I was the only person to experience a full body cringe and a desire to walk out after the first feminist dance number. As much as Nashville sees itself as a city on the grow, shows like this adaptation are a reminder that Nashville is a very young and immature city at heart—for good and ill. As our most recent election reminds us, we live in a city that’s benefiting from the cultural growth of the South while doing everything in its power to undermine it. Adapting Shakespeare in this manner only reflects the fact that the people that can do better do not want to.
“Despite these travesties, the Bard still triumphs. We are still moved,” Krauthammer continues. “He still speaks to us above and around and despite these febrile attempts at translation and improvement. That is the good news. The bad news is about us, plagued by a narcissism that forces even Shakespeare to struggle to be heard above our preening din.”
The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of Much Ado About Nothing will be playing for one more weekend at OneC1ty before moving next week to Academy Park in Franklin for its final performances of the season.
All performances are free to the public, but donations are requested.