Shakespeare for the MTV generation

BBC tells us that their recent production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One was an “adaptation” of Shakespeare’s play. “Adaptation”: it’s a convenient get-out clause. It allows them to enjoy the prestige of “doing” Shakespeare, while at the same time not put off their potential audience with all that boring stuff with language and poetry and whatever. It’s the best of all worlds. 

So, what does this adaptation entail? Lots of quick-cutting and fussy camera movements, for a start. Long speeches shortened to a few lines each, or even cut out entirely. Entire chunks of the play cut, the text butchered. Scenes spliced with each other to prevent the audience becoming bored with any single scene going on for too long. Shakespeare’s carefully considered pacing replaced with a staccato exposition of the plot in fragmented spurts. The intricacy of the various relationships between characters not allowed the time or the space even to establish themselves, let alone develop. And so on. Everything, in other words, that we now accept as integral aspects of modern film-making, and made for an audience supposedly more sophisticated than its predecessors had been. 

But then again, all the reviews I have seen so far have been positive, so what do I know?

18 responses to this post.

  1. Perhaps it’s a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. I haven’t seen it and I can tell you that I won’t be watching it either. I get very annoyed when someone hijacks an author’s creation and butchers it (as you say) putting their name on it. Why can’t they write their own stuff and make it into their creation? Why do they have to pinch someone else’s? Rhetorical question..we know why.


    • Indeed! The BBC will claim, no doubt, that it’s an adaptation of the play (as billed), But why assemble so fine a cast and merely go for an adaptation ather than a performance of the pay itself? And in any case, what is the point of an adaptation that takes out all those elements that made the original work so wonderful in the first place?

      The older BBC productions from the early 80s, featuring Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, were very good. The production values aren’t as good as they are now, but they had respect for the play they were adapting.


  2. Forgive me for being reminded of Adrien Arnold’s “Book a Minute Classics” version of Hamlet:

    “Whine whine whine…To be or not to be…I’m dead.”


    • Wasn’t there a Tom Stoppard play where they go through the whole of Hamlet in about 10 minutes?

      – To be or not to be
      – My lord…
      – Get thee to a nunnery! [exit]

      …and so on.


      • Posted by Ken Shinn on June 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm

        Sort of. It’s called “Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth”, a big favourite of mine. A large oart of it is concerned with how language can be subverted yet still understood (“you don’t learn (Dogg), you more sort of catch it”, and also be a potential tool of subversion (Cahoot’s Macbeth concerns a production of the said play in an authoritarian police state that lapses into Dogg language to bewilder the investigators).

      • That’s the one! Thanks very much for reminding me!

  3. This is a tough one for me: on the one hand, I cringe at the thought of someone removing just one beautiful word out of a play by Shakespeare. On the other hand, if the production introduces someone to Shakespeare and encourages them to read his plays…. then maybe it’s justified? Ah, I don’t know! It’s too hard! 🙂


    • Hello Letizia, and welcome to the board.

      I think that if Shakespeare is to be introduced to a wider readership, then it’s doing neither Shakespeare nor the readership any service at all to misrepresent his work. This production – adaptation, as the BBC calls it – presents the play as essentially superficial: just about everything that makes this play so great a masterpiece has been taken out. And I can’t help wondering what kind of introduction this is!


      • That’s a good point – I haven’t seen the “adaptation” yet so it’s hard to judge, but I am very curious to see it now! Thanks for a fascinating post!

  4. I am one hundred percent with you in objecting to this stuff Himadri. Our society so needs to dumb everything down! It is not just literature and movies. It seems like every aspect of culture from politics to food is being reduced to its lowest common denominator for mass consumption. Superficiality has a high price. Delving deeply into works of art and other aspects of life is a form of mental exercise. With practice we become better thinkers. I believe that there is a connection between these trends and the fact that so many adults find it difficult to think critically.


    • Hello Brian,

      As I say in my reply to Alan Boshier, it is difficult arguing against modern trends without labelling oneself a knee-jerk enemy to anything that is new. If all that makes Shakespeare so great is to be taken out, and then presented as a package as vapid as teh average television soap, then why bother with Shakespeare at all?

      I have often considered having a rant on here about the quite pathetic teaching of literature (or, rather, what passes for such) in modern British schools (being a parent of teenage children, I have some first hand evidence on that score): but perhaps I should keep that for later!

      Cheers for now,


  5. I suspect using the words “MTV Generation” to describe a certain demographic says more about our generation than the ones we are trying to describe 🙂

    More generally the question is one of compromise – should you alter (perhaps dilute, but that already connotates a certain diminution of quality, not far from the dreaded “dumb-down”) a work of art in order to reach more people? Or is art something that should only be presented on its own terms, and it is the audience that has to make all of the effort to engage?

    This approach is not new; Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare was a 19th century attempt to present Shakespeare to children, bowdlerised and summarised into plot synopses with little of the original poetry and language remaining. Did they enthuse a generation of children to seek out the real thing, or do they merely lay bare the fact that in such prosaic form the plots themselves are not what make the plays endure?

    The question becomes more aesthetic and less practical if the BBC had the budget to present faithful, unabridged adaptations as well. Alas they don’t, which means they make choices based on a number of factors, of which audience returns and targets to be reached play no small part.

    I remain unconvinced that the way to lead someone into challenging art is to present them with a compromised version of that art; better to provide the context and additional understanding necessary to enable them to find their own way into “the real thing”. There are many people who will never “get” Shakespeare, but those who might are ill-served by the BBC’s current approach, and those who have are merely vexed.

    The situation isn’t all bad; the recent BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of selected extracts from Ulysses to mark Bloomsday were an object lesson in how to present challenging material faithfully, but I fear that therein lies the difference between a medium which is compromised by a misplaced obligation to use visual trickery to seek your attention and one that is not; the beauty of the spoken word on radio is that there are so much fewer ways in which it can be “sexed up”.


    • Hello Alan,

      It is difficult trying to argue against anything that is characteristic of modern times without facing the accusation of being merely a grumpy old git who is living in the past. This is why so many of us who do argue against modern trends describe themselves – only semi-jocularly – as “grumpy old gits”, or similar: it’s a way of saying “Now that the name-calling is done with, let’s get down to the actual issues”. However, the danger is, of course, that once one has labelled oneself as such, one isn’t often taken very seriously.

      But the issues are serious enough, and while it is true that “MTV generation” or “dumbing down” are terms that have been too indiscriminately applied, they do, I think, describe certain aspects of reality. Let us leave aside the expression “MTV generation” (which, for all your strictures, strikes me as a suitably disdainful piece of vituperation) and focus on “dumbing down”. Back in the last 70s/early 80s, the BBC produced all 37 plays in the Shakespeare canon. The project was not an unqualified triumph, but at its best, it was very good indeed (I wrote a post on the series here). They did not, in those days, even think of simplifying the text, or doing to it what they have done recently with Henry IV, Part One. So, clearly, there has been a change. Can this change not reasonably be described by the term “dumbing down”?

      I agree with you that the situation is by no means all bad. The Bloomsday broadcasts you mentioned were superb. I am also happy to lavish praise on BBC’s recent radio broadcasts of Shakespeare’s plays (and, just to prove that I am not a knee-jerk enemy of all that is modern see here). But this does raise a question, doesn’t it? If BBC are happy to put on Shakespeare plays on the radio without butchering & simplifying the text, why does it not treat the television audience with the same respect? Why do they think that a radio audience is intelligent enough to take in a Shakespeare play without compromise, but that a television audience isn’t?

      It isn’t, I think, a question of budget. Their recent production has very high production values, and, even in real terms, I’m sure cost far more than the rather basic productions from the 70s/80s. It’s a question of someone somewhere saying “We can’t trust television audiences with anything too challenging”. And it seems to me that “dumbing down” is not an inappropriate term to describe this.

      I have no problem either with the “Tales from Shakespeare” approach. Obviously, if you are going to present complex material to children, some level of simplification, at least to begin with, is inevitable- although it should, I think, be mentioned in passing that the Lambs made extensive use of Shakespeare’s language, as did Leon Garfield in his splendid retellings. But BBC’s latest efforts are not aimed specifically at children: they are aimed for a general adult audience. And in any case, if their intent was to make the plays more easily understandable, then, ironically, they probably failed: whizzing through complex drama at such speed makes it more difficult, not less, to follow even the basic plot.

      I think you summarise the situation well:

      I remain unconvinced that the way to lead someone into challenging art is to present them with a compromised version of that art; better to provide the context and additional understanding necessary to enable them to find their own way into “the real thing”. There are many people who will never “get” Shakespeare, but those who might are ill-served by the BBC’s current approach, and those who have are merely vexed.

      I can only add that “those who might” would be best advised not to bother with this at all, but to go instead to the superb productions on BBC Radio, and which are now available as downloads or on CD.


  6. Posted by alan on July 11, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    I saw the BBC Richard II knowing nothing about the play and I enjoyed it.
    I have seen two “proper” productions of Henry IV part 1 so I may have a different experience when I see the BBC version on iplayer.
    However, the Richard II I just saw based on ignorance has left me wanting to see it on stage.


  7. Posted by Mary Gilbert on July 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    I watched both Richard II and Henry IVth part one and two and thought they were terrific. They were films rather than stage plays hence the brilliant mise en scene and cinematography which enhanced the action and added enormously to the atmosphere. The history plays are not my favourite Shakespeare but give the BBC some credit for presenting all four plays with a fantastic cast and a superb appreciation of the original text. Not at all dumbing down in my opinion.


    • Hello Mary, and welcome to this blog. I am afraid, though, that I must respectfully disagree. Not about the cast: the cast, I agree, was very fine indeed. But the essence of Shakespeare is the language; it is through the language that Shakespeare communicates all that does communicate. And when the text is butchered in the way it has been – with not just brutal edits and shortenings, but also splicing different scenes together so that they aren’t allowed to develop at Shakespeare’s carefully chosen tempi – then I would seriously question whether the result may be described as “Shakespeare” at all. A fantasia based on Shakespeare, perhaps. But what, I wonder, is the point of “adapting” Shakespeare in such a way as to eliminate that very aspect that makes for his greatness?

      By the way the Henry IV plays are particular favourites of mine: I love them more than I think I can explain, and, at times, I think they may well be Shakespeare’s finest plays. I do hope that people coming to these plays for the first time do not think that these adaptations are in any way representative of the originals.

      Best wishes, Himadri


  8. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on July 18, 2012 at 10:43 am

    I agree that all this catering and pandering and making ‘accessible’ is hugely damaging. In old orders, youth consulted and had respect for wisdom of experience, which is now considered bunkum.

    Now we have to consult with them and make sure they don’t get too bored, bless ’em. Shakespeare has existed as it is for several centuries and now we have to keep altering it so that xbox freaks don’t lose attention.

    They should b made to root through waste heaps in Indian cities.


    • Hello Shonti,

      Of course, “wisdom of experience” really can be “bunkum”, but one can’t know that unless one has an understanding of what that wisdom is.

      Of course, new generations should find their own way of performing Shakespeare. Performance practice has, indeed, changed over time, and would continue to do so. But to perform it in this manner to accommodate dwindling attention spans seems to me as crassas the 18th century practice of rewriting King Lear to provide a happy ending.

      Just about all film and television drama nowadays assumes that the audience has short attention spans. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the less the attention span is challenged, the more it dwindles. And I really don’t think it’s possible to communicate drama of any depth or intricacy if you’re committed to constant quick-cutting.

      I must admit, though, I’m a bit puzzled by the last sentence of your post!


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