Shakespeare just got more beautiful

Another new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, I see. Well, why not. That play is not going to go out of fashion any time soon, and no number of tired, routine productions will spoil it. But this one has a novel selling point: it has been adapted by Julian Fellowes, creator of the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.

Of course, there are the usual criticisms: Fellowes has received some flak from those pantomime villains, the Purists (boo! hiss!), for “rewriting certain passages and altering the language used in the Bard’s work”. And these usual criticisms have been countered by the usual reply: it “was never intended to be a straight adaptation of the original”.

So far, so predictable. But it doesn’t stop here. Fellowes goes on to say:

…to see the original [Shakespeare play] in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on. I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.

I haven’t been keeping up with the Downton Abbey phenomenon, but I can only assume that Fellowes has a certain public image that is lucrative for him to maintain. It is hard to imagine otherwise how anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together could say such a thing in public. Even if they thought it. The idea that Shakespeare must be beyond those who haven’t had an expensive education, or who haven’t studied at a prestigious university, would indeed be offensive, were it not so damn funny.

In an idle hour, I put all this up on my Facebook page, with a few choice expletives aimed and this Fellowes chappie (which I then took out for fear of causing offence to any maiden aunt who may be reading). Within minutes, there was a targeted ad on to my Facebook page for this new Romeo and Juliet film:

Romeo & Juliet. We all know the ending to this love story, but it just got more beautiful.

No, seriously – that’s what it says, word for word! Thanks to Fellowes, Shakespeare just got “more beautiful”.

Ah – the wonders of an expensive education!

11 responses to this post.

  1. I only read this last month. Think I understood it – something about love? – but then I’ve had a relatively expensive education and been to a relatively presitgious university.

    If all he’s done is take out the quibbling, then I don’t mind. Far too much quibbling in Shakespeare.


  2. Posted by alan on October 10, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    It’s not just Shakespeare. Even more absurdly, have you seen this.
    Perhapd the next generation needs its expensive education paid for.


    • I don’t actually mind taking an existing work as a starting point, and creating something new out of it. Indeed, I find the process quite fascinating. But when you take as your starting point something of an exceptionally high standard, then your finished product will also be judged by very high standards.

      Alexander McCall Smith is a skilful writer, and has a genial authorial personality. But whatever he produces will inevitably be judged by Austen’s standards,

      As for this Romeo & Juliet thing, I have no problem with adapting the play – as long as they make it clear it’s an adaptation, and not a performance of Shakespeare’s play. Butthe reasons Fellowes gives – that people without an expensive education aren’t capable of understanding it – is so absurd that it would be offensive were it not so comical.

      Fellowes emerges from this as one lacking any self-awareness: so much so, indeed, that he emerges as a comic figure.


  3. Posted by ombhurbhuva on October 10, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    I’m sure that he ‘feels good about himself’. His prochronisms are the subject of a blogpost at (yes there’s a blog for that, there also a blog for styles of shoe and boot lacing). It’s all a bit Upstairs, Downstairs. Now they were real ladies and gents. I though Soames Forsyte was hard done by…..


    • Yes – I thought Soames was hard done to as well. Mind you, I was only a child when that classic Forsyte Saga was on television…

      I must admit I haven’t seen Downton Abbey, but those “prochrionisms” in the link you give really are very funny!


  4. I suppose you’ve seen this piece by that idiot Sutherland in The Guardian:

    saying, entirely coincidentally I’m sure, just what Fellowes was saying, but without the excuse of having a production to flog.


    • I think we must concede that the language is difficult, and at times, it can be very knotty indeed. I have spent many a pleasant hour with a Shakespeare play trying to tease out of the language the various different layers of meaning; or, in the case of something as knotty as Troilus and Cressida, just the first layer of meaning. And no, I won’t pretend can take it all in at the speed of speech. This is why I get a bit annoyed, I must admit, at the oft-repeated mantra “Shakespeare is to be seen in performance, not read”: reading can provide certain pleasures that even the best of performances can’t.

      But where Sutherland seems to me to go wrong is to underestimate the power of performance. For it is verifiable, I think, that a good performance can carry along even an audience unused to Shakespearean language. Even with a play such as Troilus and Cressida, where the language is particularly difficult: a friend of mine whose experience of Shakespeare does not extend to beyond his English O-level went to see Trevor Nunn’s production some years ago; and yes, he followed the drama, and he loved it. And he followed it despite not being able to understand every single word, and despite not being able to decipher every single part of the often complex syntax.

      I am not entirely sure how this can happen. But it does. I suspect there is something about the very sound of that language the communicates its meaning even when we cannot unravel it in detail.

      But leaving all that aside, this current spate of “Leave Shakespeare to us who are educated, and don’t worry your pretty little heads over it” is deeply regrettable, to put it mildly.


  5. Posted by Di on May 29, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    Haven’t seen that adaptation (and probably won’t).
    I like the 1968 version.


  6. Ah – that’s the Franco Zeferelli version, isn’t it? Yes, it was very nicely done. It’s actually a very difficult play to bring off: I think I’ve seen more poor productions of this play than just about any other. The BBC Shakespeare production from the late 70s was a disaster.

    This is also the play we (ie my wife and I ) went to see at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre the very night after our wedding, nearly 28 years ago. Niamh Cusack and Sean Bean played the leads, but Michael Kitchen as Mercutio stole the show. (Mercutio often does!)

    I think I’ll give this latest one a miss as well. And as far as the fellow Fellowes is concerned, one doesn’t need an Oxford- Cambridge education to appreciate Shakespeare plays, any more tha Shakespeare needed one to write them.


    • Posted by Di on June 2, 2014 at 11:49 am

      Yeah, that one’s directed by Franco Zeffirelli (off-topic: have you seen his “Jane Eyre” film?)
      Why is it a difficult play to bring off? Do you think it mostly depends on the actors playing Romeo and Juliet?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: