Working Title: The Interpretation of the Time or So Our Virtues Lie

Will Leschber discusses the merits of Shakespeare set in modern times.

It’s been near 400 years since William Shakespeare passed from this world and his works are in more supply than ever before. His reach is positively exhaustive: from home book shelves to the auditorium halls of high school onward to local community and professional theatre to the big screens of plentiful major motion picture adaptations and even globally to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 two-year tour that aims to take Hamlet to every country in the world. The influence spans to the far ends. Why does the Bard timelessly ring true after all the years come and gone? Any ordinary English teacher will tell you that the unearthed truths of the human experience are mined nowhere more deep than in Shakespeare. Hence, we still relate. We still need to see our tragic heroes die, for in their deaths we see the folly in ourselves. My question then is this: How much relevance does a contemporary setting lend to a Shakespeare adaptation?

Impact Theatre’s current production ofTroilus and Cressida sets their scene in modern war. Traditionally, the play takes place at the end of the Trojan war, but this production clads the heroes of history in American war garb reminiscent of Desert Storm and Vietnam.


The setting is familiar and our characters look like young friends or acquaintances we’ve known who have gone to fight for their country. Is this enough reason for the setting change? For some, yes. More importantly though, does the change of setting bring us closer to the plight of our ever-true Troilus and kind-eyed Cressida ? Does the play resonate more because of the setting switch? In this case, the production would have played just as well in a classic setting. The Middle Eastern conflict connection didn’t detract from the themes built into the play but didn’t necessarily enhance either. One thing this conveys is that wars throughout time are alike. Our emotional maneuverings can play against any wartime backdrop. We must then ask, when it comes to stage adaptations does it matter since the human drama at the heart of the play is the same? Of course it does. Resetting a play is a tool for creation and that tool can be used adequately or excellently just like any other aspect of theatre creation.

Adapting Shakespeare can be a feat regardless of the medium. Academy Award nominated actor Ralph Fiennes made his film directorial debut with 2011’s modern retelling of Coriolanus. Coriolanus shares a number of themes with Troilus and Cressida (pride, hubris, vanity, arrogance, strength, submission) and both are set in times of war. But again I ask, is a modern adaptation about more than a setting shift? With this film at least, the answer is yes.


That being said Shakespearean film adaptation can be tricky. When modernizing a play 400 year old play, does one simply trim the length and let the scenes play long relying on the actors to carry the pace and weight of the scenes? Or does one trim and split the scenes to lay on top one another, supporting each other thematically and then allowing editing or camera work to create flow and pace. The answer is a creative choice and can go either way. In this case, Fiennes adapts Coriolanus as if it were conceived as a film to begin with. This is the way to go with any film adaptation. Film had its own rules and expectations. Often when audiences are watching a film adaptation of a play they want exactly that: a film. Not a filmed stage play… which has it’s own place and purpose. However, the best adaptations use the tools unique to the medium to enhance the story in a way that the stage cannot. Realistic locations, wartime scenarios played out in full desolation, a close-up that allows an intimate soliloquy to be whispered: Fiennes utilizes these tools while relying on the language to carry the narrative.

Where this adaptation shines the most is how Fiennes draws a parallel between modern news agencies/social media and their connection to the tenants of public rule within Ancient Rome. Coriolanus, who serves as such a perfect wartime weapon, is of little value in times of peace. His pride and arrogance call for scorn.

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows!

Coriolanus, Act III, scene iii

His cursing lines here remind me of contemporary feeble rumors of facebook and overbearing media that fans our emotions. The times are similar and people will not put up with being called out on their ignorance! The voice of the people calls for banishment! Have we not seen public out cry fueled by media and social networking call for the downfall of a public figure? Do we not see soldiers return to an unwelcoming home country after their service? We see these things today as we saw them in the 60’s and as Shakespeare saw them four centuries ago.

When banished, Coriolanus is shown wandering through ravaged neighborhoods reminiscent of war torn Eastern Europe. On a small, trash-littered peninsula he sits. The upward reaching bare trees reflect in the still waters below him as if he were the middle of a world upturned. In the separate war worlds of Troilus and Coriolanus, tides turn in spite of what is right. Love and honor shift on the voiceless winds and settle uncertainly down in the ashes of war. Any generation who has known war knows the uncertain world that these Shakespearean characters inhabit. Both are relevant because of the human truth built within. However, the superior adaptation is one that ties modern aspects not present when the play was written to the human truths that were always there.

Troilus and Cressida plays at Impact Theatre until Dec. 15th. Coriolanus is available on Netflix and many other digital rental sites.

Photo Credits:

Isaacs, Cheshire. Consoled by his brother Paris. 2013. 3 Dec 2013.

Coriolanus. 2013. 3 Dec 2013.