Jan Kott, Fifty Years Later: Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?


Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary was published in English translation in 1964, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. This was the same year that Burton’s Broadway Hamlet and Kosintsev’s film adaptation of the same play were provoking critics to ramp up discussion of a reconsidered, reimagined Shakespeare for their own time. It was the year during which Northrop Frye wrote, in A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance, that Shakespeare’s conscious anachronisms “help to universalize a historical period,” with the effect that “the past is blended with the present” (20). It was also—for better or worse—the year that the Beatles enacted the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a BBC television skit.

Kott’s book arrived at an auspicious moment. It had a deep and immediate impact on Peter Brook and other practitioners of theatre. It also provided an antidote to a decade of doctrinaire formalism. Kott thought in terms of the immediacy of performance and the permanence of big, historical themes.  He presented the heady possibility that Shakespeare could actually mean something directly to cold-war, age-of-anxiety people like us. His book—or at least, the idea of his book—persists in our attempts to explain why Shakespeare ought to matter in the current moment of technologically-driven consumerism, defunct bookstores and shrinking English departments.

Fifty years later, the time is at hand for a reassessment of this audacious, relentlessly provocative book. Does Shakespeare Our Contemporary have endurance beyond its charismatic title? Or is it merely another milestone in the essentialist tradition that began with Ben Jonson’s 1618 panegyric, found a height of its expression in Samuel Johnson’s theory of “general nature,” survives unexpectedly in Marjorie Garber’s unapologetic assertion that “every age creates its own Shakespeare” (Shakespeare After All, 3) and lives out its dotage in our students’ insistence that Shakespeare’s plays need to be (cringe) “relateable”? After all, Kott did claim that “Shakespeare’s universality has never dated” (131).

But it’s worth remembering that Kott wrote explicitly that he did not “have in mind. . . a forced topicality” (59). His Shakespeare did not send us coded messages. Kott’s project was for us to discover ourselves in our own historical moment through our experience of Shakespeare’s plays, not necessarily to scour them for direct correspondences and analogues for our own condition (to use a mid-century word). I maintain that, for Kott, our experience of Shakespeare’s plays went beyond revealing exemplars; it became a way for us to come to recognition of ourselves—indeed, to become ourselves in the same midcentury currency that led Frye to make the rather thrilling declaration that Shakespeare’s “plays are existential facts, and no understanding of them can incorporate their existence” (51).

Kott’s existentialism is evident in his discussion of As You Like It, in which he discovers in the representation of character a world in which “everything is real and unreal, false and genuine at the same time.” Kott sees affinities with the “theatrical aesthetics of Genet” and concludes: “To be oneself means only to play one’s reflection in the eyes of strangers” (270).  Kott was a student of Sartre, and had translated his plays into Polish. Knowing this, we might expect that he would have thrown a grapnel in the direction of “derealization” as Sartre discussed it in his essay on Genet’s The Maids; he didn’t. Instead, he relied on the sheer force of the connections he made between Shakespeare and the theatres of Brecht, Beckett, Genet and Ionesco to shift the equation toward vital performance and away from the sentimentalized, commodified Shakespeare of the earlier twentieth century.

Kott’s writing on The Tempest may be his most incisive—and courageous. He scorned the readings of Chambers and Wilson, who were still influential in the early 1960s, as “ridiculous and childish” (297). Kott insisted on the “philosophic bitterness” of the play, as he struggled to find an authentic Tempest, deeply enmeshed in the concerns of Renaissance intellectuals: “A wonderful, cruel and dramatic world, which suddenly exposed both the power, and the misery of man” (299). The Tempest as either an operatic fairy tale or allegory of poetry and theatre-making was exploded, and with authority. In its place is a Tempest that Greenblatt and the other 1980s and 90s contextulizers of the early modern would recognize, “a drama of lost illusions, of bitter wisdom, and of fragile—though stubborn—hope” (299).  In this way, the existential humanist is also revealed to be an historicist.

Kott’s plodding discussion of Coriolanus weaves its way through a maze of endless quotation and plot summary to his conclusion that the play is a “drama of historical inevitability” (206). “Shakespeare does not need to be modernized or brought up to date. History. . . finds its reflection in [the tragedies], in every age” (204). But, as Sartre had pointed out in his 1959 discussion of the play, the nature of the reflection is ideologically determined: French fascists applauded the play as “anti-democratic” in 1934, while a postwar Milanese audience embraced “the play’s critical attitude and examination of dictatorship as a mystification of the masses.” At any rate, it is no surprise that for Kott, whose engagement with Marxism was profound, history—more than man—was finally the measure of all things. This is very apparent in a lecture Kott himself gave at Gresham College, London in 1986 under the title I have appropriated for this review: “Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?”

Kott’s own answer to this question was initially playful: “Sometimes Shakespeare is more contemporary than in other times.”  But it is clear from his lecture that the determinants of Shakespeare’s contemporaneity are two: performance and history.  He began with Brecht’s consideration of Hamlet in the Little Organum: “The perspective of Brecht reading Hamlet is the perspective of Yalta and of the division of . . . East Europe under the occupation of Russia.” He discovers Stalinist echoes in Kosintsev’s Hamlet, particularly the big statue of Claudius in the palace. This may seem strange to Western audiences, he declares. For Kosintsev, “the contemporary character in Hamlet . . . was Claudius, Claudius as the image of Stalin.” A Hegelian historiography—history as conflict—is the catalyst that makes Shakespeare contemporary, and leads to the audience’s recognition of their own historical imperatives, even as they experience what Kott calls “contemporization.” It’s clear from his lecture that this experience of the realization of historical difference is what provokes the immediacy of Shakespeare. In this way, “anyone who has the experience of Poland . . . knows [the end of King Lear] is the end of everything.” “At this time in the great Bolshoi theatre in Moscow was a great performance of Macbeth. And in one scene, in which Lady Macbeth came down on stage facing the audience with her red hands soaked in blood, the audience was frightened. For the audience, this image of Lady Macbeth with her hands soaked in blood was the image of Stalin.” History. Difference provoking immediacy. Experience in performance.  

Twenty years after the publication of Shakespeare Our Contemporary, John Drakakis declared, in Alternative Shakespeares, an end to the essentialist doctrine: “Shakespeare can never be ‘our contemporary’ except by the strategy of appropriation” (24).  This is certainly arguable, but it misses the point of Kott’s engagement with what he called “universal madness of Nature and History” (236). We need only read Kott’s meditation on eroticism and bestiality in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or his vision of Arden as a place from which “there is no escape” (281) to be convinced that this is not the work of someone tinkering with facile correspondences. Rather, Shakespeare’s contemporaneity is discovered in the historical conditions of time and place—Shakespeare’s own, and ours. It is not a static condition. The brilliance of Kurosawa’s Ran, Kott asserts, is “to find a new historical place, a new historical time for Shakespeare . . . It is to find a new universality . . . a new understanding that finally the meaning, the real meaning of King Lear is terror and to find a place for terror is to find a new, contemporary Shakespeare.”  That place might be Japan in the Edo period, the Stalinist Soviet Union or twenty-first-century Aleppo.

Viewed from the perspective of fifty years, Shakespeare Our Contemporary may be, after all, an inspired muddle of fragmentary thoughts and quirky paragraphs—attributes that, when I first encountered the book as a college sophomore, I mistook for some mysterious, European brilliance. But it is also a monument to the intellectual (and I would even say moral) courage of an existential humanist, engaging monumental questions and seeking in Shakespeare’s plays “knowledge without illusions” (285).