Thomas Sutcliffe: The poor old Bard's a bit past it

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You can play a High Table version in which you're only allowed Elizabethan vocabulary and metaphors but, frankly, that can very quickly turn twee (try explaining the fashionable appeal of SUVs without using any words less than 400 years old and you'll soon see what I mean). So mostly I just make do with the beginner's version - which takes it as read that Shakespeare will understand everything you say.

The point of the game is to restore the lustre of novelty to a world worn flat by familiarity. You might not find traffic lights very interesting, for instance, but for a short while at least Shakespeare does, and, since he's a figure of famously all-embracing curiosity, your explanation of traffic lights is likely to lead to subsidiary explanations, each of which in turn will branch off into further questions and answers. You can go very rapidly from the mechanical to the political and the psychological.

The fantasy is twofold - first of all, that you get some sense of what it would feel like to be a historical stranger in your own time, but also (rather less dignified this) that one of the great minds of history is hanging on your every word.

I'm not the only person to play this game, of course. I noticed this week that Radio Times was having a go, with a cover devoted to the BBC's new Shakespeare season. "Would the Bard have ever believed his plays would look like this?" read the strapline, underneath a group photograph of the female stars of the plays, each of which takes a Shakespeare plot and updates it for a modern setting. The tone of this remark was a bit hard to read - but there was something distinctly crowing about it, I thought, the implication that poor old Shakespeare was inextricably embedded in history and probably wouldn't even get what was going on.

The article inside added to the general sense of condescension. "I'm sure virginity was a huge hoo-ha in his day," says Sarah Parish, who plays a TV presenter Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, "but if you made such a big deal about it today, you'd be laughed out of town". And, naturally enough, the A-word crops up. "It makes her more accessible to a contemporary audience," says Keely Hawes, explaining why Peter Moffat's version of Macbeth - set in a three-star Michelin restaurant - had been explicit about Lady Macbeth's childlessness.

Accessibility always makes me think of wheelchair ramps and automatic doors - and it can't help but raise the question of who's helping who here. Is it the modern television audience that needs the guide rails or is it poor old Shakespeare? Wonderful for his age, of course, but he's getting a bit arthritic these days and he has trouble making himself understood. What's more he hasn't a clue about how to construct a decent television drama.

"You have to fill in the gaps for a 21st-century television audience" says Peter Moffat, "Shakespeare very often leaves things unresolved, whereas the rules of television say you have to finish what you've begun." The odd thing is, though, that the notional beneficiary of all this thoughtful alteration is nowhere to be found when the results are unveiled. True, he leaves an impression behind him here and there - in a sonnet read aloud or the odd famous quotation - but you could only seriously think these plays had anything to do with Shakespeare if you took the view that a play is its plot alone. And if you believe that, then you're going to have to come to terms with the fact that Shakespeare's Hamlet is actually Thomas Kyd's. I recall the writer Alastair MacLean complaining that he received letters from fans announcing that they'd come up with a fantastic plot for his next book and if he would just write it up, they would be happy to share the royalties. Writing it up, he replied testily, was where all the real work lay.

Something similar is still true here - since it requires some ingenuity to retrofit an Elizabethan five-acter as a 90-minute television show. And that surely is the point - just as it was with the BBC's similar Chaucer exercise. The originals aren't really being honoured here - they are being used as a highly branded literary puzzle, and whatever pleasure there is in the series lies in seeing how cleverly the various writers solve their bit of it. It's a parlour game, in short. And there's nothing really wrong with that, as long as you don't succumb to the illusion that Shakespeare is really in the room.

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