Rethinking Shakespeare

Michael Kahn: When I was the director of the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Connecticut, I was staying at a famous French teacher's home, and I picked up a copy of Shakespeare, and I read Henry V.  Now, this was right during the Vietnamese War and I was opposed to the war as almost everybody my age was at the time.  And I thought I don’t want to do Henry V.  My knowledge of Henry V was from Laurence Olivier’s film which was a very famous film.  It was clearly a nationalistic, jingoistic epic.

I got to the first scene of the play after the chorus does "O For a Muse of Fire" and there’s the Bishop of Elie and the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about how Henry wants to tax them inordinately, and they’re going to lose their lands and some of their wealth.  So what can they do to dissuade him or really to turn his attention away from this.  

I thought oh my Lord, this is, this is already an extraordinarily powerful thing where the church is lying to the king to send him to go to war not for anything other than their own reasons.  That for somebody in their late 20s was perfect.  So I said I’m going to do this play.  And then I found out other things that Henry does.  He kills the French prisoners against the Rules of Engagement; oh, and he kills his best friend Bardolph.  

So I did this Brechtian, very cynical production, very modern; we lit candles at the end, you know; and marched to 42nd Street for a candlelight vigil.  But I had difficulty; I could do all of that, all the tough stuff about hawks and doves, of killing prisoners.   But when it came to all the great speeches, like say Crispin Crispian, and Once more unto the breach, dear friends, I couldn’t, I had to turn them around in some way and say they were propaganda.  I had to take all of that greatness away in order to make my theory that this was a anti-war, anti-government play.

When I came back to do it again--and I had realized over the year that the genius of Shakespeare is not that it’s anti-war or pro-war, anti-government or pro-government, but that the issue of leading a country is the complicated one; perhaps you do things in order for the country that are somewhat shady; perhaps you do things that are against you because you know it’s better for the whole.  You can be heroic and you can be shallow.  You can be idealistic and yet still have some cynicism.  You can be all of these things in a rounded character.

I did almost the same physical production four years later, except my emphasis was on the contradictions in Henry.

You know, you can do a lot of what you want with Shakespeare, but I like to suggest to directors that Shakespeare’s thought is wider and richer than our own.  Because Shakespeare doesn’t have a moral point of view, he is imminently re-interpretable by generation after generation or century after century, and it’s right to do so.  The plays are there to be looked at afresh each time.

Michael Kahn directed two very different stage versions of Shakespeare's Henry V, which helped him realize the full complexity of leadership.

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