Shakespeare Behind Bars and Comedy

One may believe that there isn’t much room for “improv” in a Shakespeare production because the text that is, Shakespeare’s words are usually the star of the show. Directors have cut lines to modernize some of the plays to a manageable two-hour performance (Stratford Shakespeare Festival is notorious for this method.) Hamlet would be over four-hours long if staged in its entirety; which scenes to cut, which lines to eliminate, which speeches to shorten can madden a director. Purists argue that it just isn’t Shakespeare when artistic adjustments are made – whatever the reason. I admit that simultaneously I am intrigued by and repulsed by the thought of removing scenes or lines. The results are limitless and presumably could be workable as evidenced by [amazon_link id=”1552782719″ target=”_blank” ]Stratford[/amazon_link]’s 2008 production of Hamlet, yet I would love to see it just once uncut.

Bringing Shakespeare into the Twenty-first Century really isn’t all that difficult as long as one omits the “histories:” ten plays about English kings (from John to Henry VIII) as well as the plays based upon Roman history (the most famous of these are [amazon_link id=”0743484932″ target=”_blank” ]Julius Caesar[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0743482859″ target=”_blank” ]Antony and Cleopatra[/amazon_link].) Matt Wallace found a workable balance with the editing in his Shakespeare Behind Bar’s production of [amazon_link id=”1439191166″ target=”_blank” ]The Merchant of Venice[/amazon_link] and had glimpses of the modern throughout as evidenced in the actors’ economy of movement.

Serving as the play’s primary comic relief, actor Jerry G.’s interpretation of Lancelot is distinctive; Jerry uses modern gestures in his characterization of Shakespeare’s clown, who initially is Shylock’s servant and later is Bassanio’s. This opposition is repeated throughout the play in various ways and is brazenly exemplified in Jerry’s performance especially in Act II, Scene II where Lancelot is on stage alone speaking directly to the audience revealing his innermost thoughts. Picture Jerry having a puppet in each hand and each side of his conscience, one a “fiend” and the other “honest,” is defending an oppositional point-of-view:

The following text is taken from [amazon_link id=”0199267170″ target=”_blank” ]The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd Edition[/amazon_link] edited by John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor, and Stanley Wells © Oxford University Press 1986, 2005

Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from
this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and
tempts me saying to me ‘Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo,
good Launcelot,’ or ‘good Gobbo,’ or good Launcelot
Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away. My
conscience says ‘No; take heed,’ honest Launcelot;
take heed, honest Gobbo, or, as aforesaid, ‘honest
Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy
heels.’ Well, the most courageous fiend bids me
pack: ‘Via!’ says the fiend; ‘away!’ says the
fiend; ‘for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,’
says the fiend, ‘and run.’ (1 – 11)

The hands “banter” back and forth as if Jerry is a puppeteer and an extremely bad ventriloquist. Another way to explain the scene is to imagine shadow puppets. Jerry is very animated and physical in the moment; he performs Lancelot with a flourish. The effect is hilarious and notable.

Jerry G. says this about his experience: “The Merchant of Venice taught us all to have empathy for our fellow man regardless of race, creed, color, or religion. Only when the power of love overcomes the love of power can we have truth, justice, mercy, and peace for each other.”


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Check out the Shakespeare Behind Bars web site or their Facebook page which have fabulous photographs of The Merchant of Venice and previous productions.


Attention Students: to cite this web article in the current MLA-style, please use the example below.

Dixon, Catherine Jo. “Shakespeare Behind Bars and Comedy.” Feast Of Languages. Catherine Jo Dixon, 30 June 2011. Web. [today’s date].

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English literature students most commonly use the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style to write their papers. This citation reflects the [amazon_link id=”1603290249″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition[/amazon_link] and/or the [amazon_link id=”0873522974″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition[/amazon_link]. For additional information, I recommend a free online writing lab from Purdue University: “The Purdue OWL” which has current, credible information and reliable examples.

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