Playwright of the Globe

Paul A. Cantor, “Playwright of the Globe,” Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2006/2007, 34-40.


In June 2006, I was scheduled to fly back from a trip to Sicily via Frankfurt am Main. Having seen the airport many times but not the city itself, I decided to spend a few days there. But as I discovered when I went to book a hotel, there was a little problem. Germany was hosting the World Cup that month, and the city was swarming with soccer fans come from all over the globe to watch the nail-biting zero-zero ties on jumbo TVs strategically placed around the city—one even floating on a barge in the middle of the Main. But I lucked out after all. The sights I’d come to see—the Goethe House, the Städel Gallery art museum, the Liebig House sculpture museum—were virtually empty. In the Städel, I had all to myself the four masterpieces by Robert Campin, right next to Bosch’s “Ecce Homo.” And since the taste of soccer hooligans evidently doesn’t run to the music of Anton Bruckner, I was easily able to get the best seat in the house for his Fourth Symphony at the Old Opera.

But best of all, I realized a long-standing ambition: to see one of Shakespeare’s plays performed live in German. It was an appropriately grim and dark production of Macbeth at the Municipal Theater, in a new translation/adaptation by Jens Groß, directed by André Wilms. As in most Shakespeare performances these days, the production team was not content to leave well enough alone. The adaptation expanded the role of the witches, and added a role for Satan as their master (he later turned into Macbeth’s officer Seyton). The version also rewrote the ending. After killing Macbeth, Macduff is offered the crown, but turns it down, explaining that he did what he did for revenge, whereas Malcolm acted out of concern for the common good and therefore deserved to be king. This optimistic touch was undercut by a reappearance of the witches, who closed the play chanting the same ominous words with which they opened it—the German equivalent of “fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

But despite all this tampering with Shakespeare’s text, the production was basically true to the play, and as good as most English-language Macbeths I’ve seen over the years. At least Groß and Wilms didn’t turn the witches into a jazz combo, which happened in the Macbeth I saw at the Globe Theatre in London in 2001—the single worst production of any play I’ve ever seen anywhere in my life. (When the audience is laughing in Act V of Macbeth, you know something has gone seriously wrong.) What struck me most was how well Shakespeare plays in German. I’d gone to this performance with the specific purpose of testing for myself the power of Shakespeare in translation; German is the only foreign language I know well enough for me to do so. Once I adjusted to hearing the text in German—about halfway into Act I—I really felt I was listening to Shakespeare’s play—just in another language. Perhaps Shakespeare doesn’t adapt quite as well to other languages, but still I believe I learned something important from my experience in Frankfurt. I had some concrete evidence for the traditional claim for the universality of Shakespeare’s genius, epitomized in Ben Jonson’s famous line: “He was not of an age, but for all time.” Here I was, 390 years after Shakespeare’s death, seeing one of his plays performed in a foreign country and in a foreign language, and yet it was truer to the original than a production I’d seen in his home base of London five years earlier.

This impression of Shakespeare’s universality is confirmed by what Groß and Wilms say in their production’s program. They stress how “up-to-date” (“aktuell”) Shakespeare is. Wilms even calls Lady Macbeth “hochaktuell” (“highly up-to-date”), although he tactfully declines to go into any detail after he briefly draws a parallel to Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor. In their effort to find contemporary relevance in Shakespeare, Groß and Wilms avoid any cheap shots, and dwell on genuinely broad themes. Wilms says: “The play tells a lot about contemporary power, conflicts and politics, precisely the thin veneer of civilization, which at any moment can break down.” He cites the American experience of September 11 as an example of what he thinks Macbeth illustrates—the way political violence can suddenly erupt in the “private sphere” of domestic life and destroy it (accordingly, the production is set at first in what is supposed to be Macbeth’s living room). Wilms even raises the possibility of presenting the witches as members of the Taliban (complete with veils!), but he wisely decided not to stage Macbeth in purely contemporary terms. He finds the timeliness of Macbethin its timelessness—the way it’s rooted in universal human experience. He is particularly struck by the symbolism of the moving forest of Birnam, which he regards as a “wonderful image for a modern war” and for the way the civilized world can unexpectedly be invaded by non-civilized forces from beyond its borders…

Claremont Review of Books