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Shakespeare in Modern Dress

An essay in the Souvenir Program for the Festival’s inaugural season in 1953 by Alec Guinness.

There is nothing new about presenting Shakespeare in modern dress. In fact the plays were always performed in contemporary costume until about one hundred and twenty years ago, when the actors Charles Kean and Macready startled theatrical London with their elaborate productions, the results of painstaking historical research.

Perhaps the ideal way of presenting the plays is to dress them in Elizabethan or early Jacobean costume, as Shakespeare did; but he was notoriously indifferent to historical accuracy and was quite content to make ancient Romans refer to clocks and rapiers, buttons on their togas and a dozen other anachronisms. On the other hand the English historical plays cover a comparatively short span of years and are not too far removed from Tudor times for Shakespeare’s carelessness to be noticeable, and I think it right that productions of these should at least suggest their own periods. When it comes, however, to some of the plays of no particular period, I believe that modern dress will often pay rich dividends in presentation. In a difficult play like “All’s Well That Ends Well” many points can be elucidated by dress. If an actor appears in a dressing gown audiences will be immediately aware that he has come from his bed; if he is in evening dress they will know he is at a social function; if in military uniform, that he is a soldier; if he is extravagantly overdressed they will come to conclusions about his character, and if, for instance, the heroine appears in academic robes, they will credit her with scholarship, and so on. Our lack of knowledge of ancient costumes would let these often important points of character and situation pass unnoticed.

If people object to archaic language (sometimes quite as startlingly alive and modern as the latest phrases from New York) being spoken by people in contemporary clothes, I would suggest that it is really no more odd than Elizabethans speaking in iambic pentametres, which of course they never did. Modern dress will often breathe fresh air on an old play and give it a fair chance of revaluation, firmly pointing out how little the human heart changes through the centuries, and how remarkably alike we are to our forebears. We hope that this may be the case with a moving and strange play as “All’s Well,” which is so seldom performed.

The actor’s style of playing naturally changes with his clothes. An over life size flamboyance and largeness of gesture which may fit happily with tights, velvet, long sleeves and fur trimmings are obviously unsuitable with a tuxedo. The actor has to think in terms of realism – or at any rate with real emotion – without forgetting that the play is written in lyrical verse and formal prose. This, at its best, will mean that he cannot resort to “staginess” or vocal tricks, but must treat his part carefully and seriously as if it was written by Shaw, Maugham, Eliot or Fry, and I think few would deny that Shakespeare is worthy of such treatment, or that it is an excellent approach to strive for.

The basic lines of modern costume are most appealing – we all have a quick sense of what is elegant or dowdy – and when the cheaper and nastier trimmings of present-day life are removed, and with them, I hope, the danger that people might think Shakespeare in modern dress pretentious or vulgar, I can see no reason why the eye should not be as well satisfied as it would be by anything from the remote past.