There is (and has been for a while) a tendency in Shakespeare performance which implies that the more miserable your female characters end up, the more feminist your production is. To wit, Hero should be all but dragged to the altar at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Jessica in The Merchant of Venice should seem like she’s made a terrible mistake, and no one in Twelfth Night should want the partner they’ve got. And, of course, we must keep on physically and psychologically abusing poor old Katherine Minola, just in case.
The opposite pattern– to try and smooth over the endings that are more obviously unsettling, like Measure for Measure and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, feels much less common these days. But that’s the angle I found myself thinking of while watching the Globe’s current production of Two Noble Kinsmen, which does its best to make the bizarre subplot of the Jailer’s Daughter, who goes mad for love of one of the titular kinsmen, as sweet and palatable as possible. As with so much in that play, the intended tone of her plot’s resolution is difficult to discern: a local doctor commands a local boy to pretend to be Palamon, who she loves, and have sex with her, at which point she’ll either be cured and they can marry, or she can just think she’s marrying Palamon. There are certainly some disturbing seeds there, particularly in a play that is overall so skeptical as to whether heterosexual marriage is really all it’s cracked up to be anyway. But in director Barrie Rutter’s version, there are no such concerns. Though there’s much joking about the Jailer’s horror at the doctor’s casual suggestion of extramarital sex, the fact of having sex with a girl under false pretenses is not really given much weight. The Jailer’s Daughter is eager enough, but as her final scene progresses, the softness and sweetness with which she and her faux-Palamon address each other seems to suggest either that her delusion is lifting and she is seeing and loving him for who he really is– or that we as audience are meant to set aside any concerns and accept that this lie-based love might be a kind of real anyway.
From a contemporary performance perspective, brightening up this subplot makes some sense, as the central plot’s resolution is murky and not particularly happy or satisfying. I’m not inherently opposed to this approach. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I loved, took a similar tack, reassigning some of Valentine’s ending lines to Julia, so that she, too, had the opportunity to openly and explicitly forgive Proteus. Despite our tendency to devalue the power of forgiveness, this was an empowering and moving gesture. It was a choice that made the play better, from my perspective as a contemporary audience member, but they did have to change the play in order to make it.
Is changing Shakespeare in this way sort of like taking the n-word out of Mark Twain– censoring the past and attempting to turn a blind eye to the many shortcomings of the most iconic English-language playwright? If we are going to continue to produce Shakespeare, do we have a moral duty to then grapple with all the most troubling elements of his work and lay them bare– and to say, if we find certain elements too troubling to retain, then maybe we shouldn’t be performing the play at all? Or is it better to say that replicating offensive 16th and 17th century patterns is unnecessary, especially when it is often relatively simple to find an angle that allows for more hopeful and empowering readings?
I don’t have an answer, obviously. As you can probably tell, I was a little unsettled by Rutter’s take (though Francesca Mills, who plays the Jailer’s Daughter, is herself one of the highlights of the production), but I loved OSF’s very similar changes to Two Gentlemen. In general, I think in fact it’s more empowering to find ways for female characters to be happy than otherwise, particularly because subverting apparent happy endings often has the unfortunate side-effect of suggesting that even though these characters have told us what they want, we are not to believe them. Perhaps this is the difference between the cases of Julia and the Jailer’s Daughter: Julia is given new words, a new way to consent to what is otherwise unnervingly done on her behalf. The Jailer’s Daughter, on the other hand, has only her old words used a new way– but this new way requires that we take at face value what we know to be a lie.
It’s a trickier question, in other words, than ‘is it okay to change Shakespeare?’– and for now, it’s interesting to see the results of both approaches.