“Hamlet is a Mess”: George C. Wolfe on Shakespeare

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In one of Studio 360’s very first episodes, Kurt Andersen spoke with George C. Wolfe about the resurgence of Shakespeare’s plays in American cultural life over the last few decades. Wolfe was then the artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and remains one of the most influential people in American theater. 

The conversation took place in 2000, at the end of a decade with a string of popular, high-profile films including Shakespeare in Love and the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet set the warring clans as business rivals in a Miami-like city, where the events of the play are narrated partly by local news anchors. Although the film polarized audiences, Wolfe sees that blurring of high art with pop culture as wholly salutary. “Shakespeare was a popular artist, so it makes perfect sense that people are now claiming him in very intimate and very personal, and in a broad spectrum of ways,” he says. “I personally am a very big fan of Romeo + Juliet. It had a visceral power to it that I thought was just exhilarating. It was a very arresting and very disturbing and deeply compelling version of the play.” And he’s untroubled by the film’s liberties with the text of the play. “It’s so wonderful that Shakespeare has been taken off some bookshelf and is now in the mix of everybody who wants to claim him and find themselves inside of him.”

Kurt wonders if any adaptation or modernization of Shakespeare goes too far. “If you don’t respect the play in the process, yes,” Wolfe acknowledges. But he finds more danger in the opposite tendency. “If you present him with such reverence, you’re not honoring him either. Anytime you create art, you create a mess. I mean, Hamlet is a mess!  ... If the world that you create obscures that, that’s a problem. If you are sitting there reciting his language as if it is poetry — though it is poetic — then you’re not allowing an audience to get inside the emotional state of it.” Above all, he thinks, is the need for artists to take risks. “I’m more attracted to art that smashes than I am attracted to art that sits on a shelf and is beautiful.”

(Originally aired: November 25, 2000)

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