How Shakespeare Can Explain Christian Denominations

There are many performance adaptations of Shakespeare — ‘performance’ being the key word here. If you think about it in this way, performance controls how something is said versus what is actually said. And how something is said, for example, can make or break a sales pitch, a command, an inquiry, or even a faith.

Consider 1996’s modern adaptation of Romeo & Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clair Danes. Swords are replaced with guns and the Montague’s & Capulet’s are shown as warring mafia families. Some plot elements are modified, some names are changed, and some characters are completely left out (Ahem, Friar John). It’s abridged, I get it, but perhaps the question to ask is “Does this accurately portray one of the Bard’s most famous pieces?” Aspects, yes, but not the whole story.

Say you and I are standing in a hallway. I say, “I’ll be right back,” and proceed to open a door and enter a room shutting and locking the door behind me. Ten minutes later I open the door and join you in the hallway. In my right hand is a knife that’s covered in blood, and in my left hand a sleeping kitten; and all I say is, “Needed to save a cat. Let’s go.” Now as a device, keeping details from an audience is part of storytelling exposition, but eventually you get the whole story (or maybe you don’t due to artistic license). Point being is that most of us don’t want the short version. We want the details, especially if it pertains to an archaic faith system.

I see most Christian denominations as adaptations of the true source. Some adaptations add, some take away, and some simply leave out. On the one hand I’m glad there’s not one single expression of the faith as this would undermine our inherent diversity. But on the other hand, when sharing the faith, we run into the problem of which flavor to present – or to circle back to the initial illustration, of which adaptation to watch. This might be why there’s such a push, at least in the younger millennial generation, to do away with organized or superficial performances of the faith and connect with the true original source.

I don’t want to beat this metaphor to death but to the outsider, as well as the insider, there are modern perceptions of Christianity that are somewhat skewed. Many Christians now have a knee-jerk reaction when asked to explain why horrible things have happened in the name of the faith. Because they may have to go on to explain some fatalistic theology that informed the faith at the given time in history. If someone wants to know the Romeo and Juliet story, we don’t hand them a VHS tape from 1996; no, we send them to the library where they can read the text, word for word. We then assure them that if they have any questions about the story, they can come to us for help.

Perhaps the various expressions must be mindful that they are interpretations of the real source and to take care not to obscure said source: To be conscious of how they are practicing, how they are communicating, and how they are thinking about the source. Historically, we’ve messed this up, and from a marketing standpoint these obscurities have devalued the authenticity of a beautiful faith. It won’t be perfect, it’s not meant to be. And who knows, maybe Shakespeare himself might even get a kick out of these adaptations. But since we don’t know that, and since that is a fiction, it’s likely best to err on the side of less interference.

All this being said, if there’s any saving consolation, the film did receive an academy-level nomination: For set and design.

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