Shakespeare Our Contemporary: a catchy title. The first time I heard it was in an undergraduate Shakespeare class at the University of Massachusetts, taught by. Notable works, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. Notable awards, Herder Prize ( ). Jan Kott (October 27, – December 23, ) was a Polish political activist, critic and. For those unfamiliar with the name, Kott (–) was a Polish professor whose book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, published in.

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D oes anyone still read Jan Kott? For those unfamiliar with the name, Kott — was a Polish professor whose book Shakespeare Our Contemporarypublished in English inhad a profound impact on theatre. Reading it again today, I am stunned by how much of it has been absorbed into our theatrical culture. Although we live in an age of great Shakespearean scholarship, represented by figures such as James ShapiroJonathan Bate and Stephen GreenblattI can’t think of anyone today who influences production in quite the same way as Kott.

Partly, that stemmed from Kott’s experience of living in a Poland that was either under Nazi occupation or Soviet domination. As Peter Brook wrote in the introduction to the English edition, Kott is the only Elizabethan scholar to assume that his readers “will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night. His famous essay, Shakespeare or Endgamedrew provocative parallels between King Lear and Beckett’s compressed masterpiece and suggested that in both cathartic tragedy had been replaced by a sense of the grotesque: But isn’t all this old hat?


Project MUSE – Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary

Don’t we now accept as a matter of course Kott’s arguments that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is packed with animal eroticism, that Shakespeare’s histories are about grand conetmporary forces, and that Hamlet is a deeply political play about surveillance, fear and corruption that ends with a foreign military invasion?

But it’s interesting how these points still, subconsciously or not, affect productions. Even confemporary Filter’s madcap version of The Dream, currently at London’s Lyric HammersmithTheseus’s reference to conquering Hippolyta with his “sword” acquires a Kottian phallic association. Michael Boyd’s RSC “Shakespeare history” cycle in demonstrated impersonal forces at work in its progress from late medieval England to the modern world.

And I’ve seen countless productions of Hamlet, from Richard Eyre’s and Nicholas Hytner ‘s in the UK to Yuri Lyubimov’s Russian version its set dominated by a terrifyingly mobile white curtainbased on eavesdropping and espionage. Anyone who doubts Kott’s continuing relevance should first read his essay on Coriolanus and then go and see Ralph Fiennes’s viscerally exciting new film.

Kott shrewdly analyses the contradictions in the character of Coriolanus and the play. All that is left to him is self-destruction. I suspect Kott goes a bit far when he argues that it is the cinema, not the theatre, that best conveys the “fluency, homogeneity and rapidity of action” of Shakespeare’s plays.

But I would put the argument the other way around: We expect any Shakespeare production to possess the fluidity and speed of a good movie.


That’s yet another reason why I find Rupert Goold the most exciting Shakespearean director around today. His celebrated Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart in the leadwas not only stuffed with filmic references but possessed the edge-of-the-seat-quality we associate with a vintage horror movie. And Goold’s Merchant of Venicewhich the RSC has criminally allowed to disappear from the repertoire after it closed last year, took us into a Las Vegas-style world shakexpeare casinos and gameshows that I suspect Kott ja have appreciated.

K is for Jan Kott

If we still see Shakespeare as our contemporary, we have a largely forgotten Polish theatrical scholar to thank for it. Michael Kustow’s obituary for the Guardian.

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