Universal and timeless?

by Meritxell Riera Prims


Scottish actor David Tennant in a 2009 TV adaptation of William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet.

Shakespeare is neither universal nor timeless, stop repeating that.

Even if Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa adapted two of his classic works: Macbeth and King Lear (Throne of blood and Ran, respectively).

American anthropologist Laura Bohannan read Hamlet to an African society, the tiv, while she was doing fieldwork in Nigeria, to prove herself that the British playwright’s works had a universal scope. She failed.  (You can read about her experience here).

Not that I don’t find the idea of trying to bring classic stories to the modern era interesting. And it’s true that this man -just as Greek and Roman playwrights- wrote about life, death and love in a way that is still in force, since it has its roots in primal human feelings.

But please: let’s not forget context.

This reminds me of people claiming Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary or Jane Austen‘s novels are romantic (yes, Austen is a writer located in the romantic period, but I’m talking about the typical acceptation of the word ‘romantic’).

Anna Karenina criticizes the hipocrisy and morality of Russian upper classes in the nineteenth century -ironically, Tolstoy ends up being a moralist himself. And Karenina and Vronski’s love story is an essential vehicle for this purpose.
And if Jane Austen came back from the grave and saw her works turned into ‘chick flicks’, I think she would shudder.
Yes, OK, her works always end with her heroine’s marriage, even if -or maybe because- she never married in real life. It could also be some artistic and/or commercial license, I don’t know. But her literature is a realistic criticism of English society, their classism and sexism… whereas film adaptations -although I admit I love most of them- focus on the exquisite garments from the Regency era or the luxurious mansions.

So, summing up: no, the classics are neither universal nor timeless.