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Saturday, June 3, 2017

O Brave New World, That Has Such People In't: Grassroots Shakespeare Company's The Tempest and "Original Practice"

Amber Dodge and Jason Sullivan in Grassroot Shakespeare Company's
production of The Tempest.

I was thrilled to bring my little family to Grassroots Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Shakespeare’s many masterpieces, it is a beautiful, delicate piece, and a personal favorite. 

Written in his waning years, it is supposed to be Shakespeare’s last, non-collaborative play, generally seen as his swan song before he retires to Stratford Upon Avon with his family. It seems to be one Shakespeare’s more personal plays and, like the other plays he wrote in this final period, it is in the realm of “tragicomedy,” or what are later called Shakespeare’s Romances. These late plays of Shakespeare mix tragic beginnings with happy endings, have lots of spectacle (to compete with the Jacobean masques that were becoming popular), redeem flawed characters and offer forgiveness over catastrophe, focus on family relationships, and seem to be the mature reflections of a playwright at the end of his life who is seeking a final peace. Along with A Winter’s Tale, it is perhaps Shakespeare’s best example of the genre, despite the affection I also hold for Pericles and Cymbeline.  
The Tempest, on its surface, is a deceptively simple piece, thus easy to mar. Thankfully, Grassroots Shakespeare Company also has a deceptively simple style that hides a more mature understanding of Shakespeare that is up to the task of representing such masterpieces of the English language. 

Now that is not to say Grassroots Shakespeare Company is flawless, nor all they claim to be. Grassroots claims to be an “original practice” Shakespeare Company—though it is a claim I believe ought to be contested. 

For example, Grassroots Shakespeare Company claim that Shakespeare’s actors brought their own costumes and props. They certainly did not, at least not for the characters within the gentry. As noted Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt mentions, what a person wore in Elizabethan England mattered, and the Kingsmen who would have performed The Tempest certainly understood this:
Dress was the opposite of democratizing—nothing could be further from Shakespeare’s world than a culture in which magnates and workmen often wear the same clothes. It wasn’t simply a question of money. By royal proclamation, silks and satins were officially restricted to the gentry. Actors were exempted, but outside the playhouse they could not legally wear their costumes. [1]

To have a royal character, like Prince Ferdinand or King Alonzo in The Tempest, dressed from the closet of an actor, as GSC claims they did, that would have been seen as deeply disrespectful in the stratified society of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It’s possible that actors may have worn their own clothes for a lower-ranking character in Shakespeare’s plays, but for a “higher” bred character, as they would have seen it, Elizabethan government and society would have been seen as societal blasphemy. The color, the fabric, the fashion, etc. that would represent a certain class was all dictated by British law and highly restricted.

Such practices may rub against our more modern, democratic sensibilities, but Shakespeare’s society was anything but democratic. Entertainment was not just entertainment, it was also a way that those in power buttressed that power, and they weren’t going to have some upstart crow of a playwright, nor a gleeking actor undercut their authority. Now, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare didn’t place political messages and moral stands in his plays. He just had to be sly and subversive about it, lest the Master of Revels cut off the offending feet of verse.