Shakespearean plays or operas in modern dress

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when they get all creative with Shakespeare plays or the classic operas and transpose their settings to modern times–i.e., Hamlet set in modern corporate America, or the characters in “La Boheme” portrayed as hippies. To me, Shakespearean dialogue coming out of someone in a business suit just seems silly.

Occasionally (very occasionally), I have found it successful. But 99 times out of 100, it’s a pointless distraction, IMO.


Bear in mind that the Elizabethan garb worn in most traditional productions of Shakespeare was once the “modern dress” of another time and period…


Shakespeare’s company of actors wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing, for example, Roman togas to play** Julius Caesar**, or antique-style armour and weapons to play ***Henry V ***(which was set a bit over a century before it was written by him). Instead, they wore the dress of their own time and place.

That our directors of today do the same makes you think about what is actually said and done in his plays, what their relevance is for today, and emphasises how utterly timeless and deeply insightful most of them actually are.

Generally, it’s awful when they do it. I never support it.

Hmm, I do think I didn’t mind it that much after I got over it with one rendition of Richard III, but really normally it just spoils the whole matter. I agree, 99 times out of 100, bad.

They do these horrible abstract art things with The Ring often enough lately, and there was this terrible rendition of Tristan…

I always assume the characters are in period dress when I read the plays. I never go see them although I saw a couple of the movies and a few dress rehearsals in my life; I can’t remember if I ever saw a real Shakespeare production onstage, but it sounds like a cool thing to see.
Ophelia should be in a 14th Century (I think) Danish unmarried noblewoman’s style of clothes, and Brutus needs a toga, and so forth. That’s how I picture them. If I saw Brutus in a doublet and Elizabethan ruff I’d be pretty distracted. Same if he wore a sweatshirt and cutoff fatigue pants. Or a suit and a tie. The story takes place in ancient Rome.

So it doesn’t matter to you that that’s not how the Elizabethans did it?

I don’t think that the fact that the Elizabethans did it that way is enough reason for us to imitate them. But it does make it pretty silly for folks to say that period dress is somehow necessary. There is no “right” or “wrong” here, just what works dramatically. Several folks have said that for them modern dress doesn’t work dramatically most of the time. I respect that opinion, though I’m not sure I share it.


Or maybe how Shakespear’s Cesear wore a doublet and hose :wink:

I’ve seen just as many substandard operas and Shakespeares done complete with ‘authentic’ costume, as ones where the costume and setting weren’t of the right period but were nonetheless great. Perhps it’s a matter of seeing several different versions and comparing and contrasting.

I don’t think anyone who’s seen Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Hamlet, done in 1800s costume, and compared it with Mel Gibson’s version, done in period costume, would say that Branagh’s suffered in the slightest for not being in dress of the ‘correct’ period.

Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, to me, is another example. While I wouldn’t say it was faultless (I didn’t especially like Leo di Caprio, for example), for me its modern day setting wasn’t one of the faults. And overall I loved it.

Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, is the only example i can think of that is modern Shakespear that has worked, but then it is a Baz Luhrman film and the man is a genious director. I found Leonardo Dicaprio a very good Romeo actually, he is an amazing actor I still have not got over his performance in the Aviator. I think that it is impossible to set Shakespear in modern times because they try to squeeze in modern way of life and ruin it, the way the play is written and the way the characters think and behave are diffrent to now and it just takes all the beauty out of it. One of the reasons that Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet did so well and was so good was because he set it on the edge of reality, he did not try and fit it around a world that trivilises Shakespears work. I really don’t like modern set Shakespear, Baz Luhrmans adaption is the ‘only’ exception ^_______^

But they’re NOT different to now, not really! That’s the whole point. Human beings don’t fundamentally change, and Shakespeare’s (and Puccini’s and others’) genius is that their characters are still fresh and vibrant, when well-acted, unlike the plays and operas of most of their contemporaries.

Shakespeare’s young Montagues and Capulets are the same at their core, as Luhrman showed, as modern-day street punks.

His Othello and Desdemona are the same in essence as a modern-day black politician and his white wife. Racism is still prevalent enough that such a pairing would lead to the comment - and jealousy - we see in the play.

His Petruchio and Kate could very easily be a modern tough guy and spoiled loud-mouthed rich gal (say a sports star who gets into a combustible relationship with a Paris Hilton type).

I’ve LIVED with characters very much like the poor students in La Boheme, in share housing when I was a poor student myself. I’ve known young Asian women who’ve become involved with Western men in relationships strikingly similar to that between Pinkerton and Butterfly in Madam Butterfly (not that I know of any that ended in quite the same tragic way, of course).

There are an infinite number of very close modern-day parallels to these characters, so at their essence they are absolutely of today.

I’d enjoy seeing a production as the Elizabethans put it on if it were really true to Elizabethan theater, architechture, audience behavior, smell of the air and all, ust for immersion-experience purposes, once ro twice. But then I would want to see the plays in the dress and stage sets of their settings, not their first runs. It makes it more believable for me.

I recently saw “As you like it” in modern garb. I liked it. The clothing took me aback at first, but after they started it really did not matter much. I thought it a very good production. It was staged in a small shell and adjacent area of a wooded park. I enjoyed it very much. Some acting troupes are quite limited in their budgets when they put on a production. In this case the donation bucket was passed around to which I gladly contributed. Most of the actors were students at the University of Cincinnati CCM. The story was unaffected by the lack of Elizabethan garb.
When they do another I will go.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit