Twelve larger-than-life characters queue in the wings – masked and appropriately distanced, naturally. They’re ready to take the stage (pending enthusiastic consent from the stage) for a livestream ‘Broadway’s Back!’ performance/conversation entitled ‘21st Century Shakespeare in America.’ The stage manager pipes in applause; the men settle into a line of directors’ chairs.
Hamlet, dressed negligently in black Armani, crosses to center stage. ‘To be true to mine own self… I must acknowledge that I’ve been lucky. I come from privilege.’
The others nod.
‘But I admit that I haven’t always lived up to my high expectations for myself. I’ve failed. Fantastically. I failed my father, and my mother, and myself. During my orisons, all I could remember were my own sins. And sometimes, I didn’t even want to be any more.’ A pause. ‘I’m hoping that, by being open about my own struggles today, I can help reduce the stigma around mental illness.’
He waits for applause, flashing a brave smile and an I’ve Been Vaccinated sticker.
Jasmine, an intern from a less dazzling part of the city, is moderating the online chat; at a direction from the stage manager, she interjects. ‘Hamlet, a question for you. Emily from Chicago is asking about the recent Netflix series ‘Hamlet versus Ophelia’?’ Her question is, ‘Will you acknowledge the imbalanced, perhaps predatory, power dynamic between yourself and O–’
‘I think it’s time to open the floor to diverse voices,’ says Hamlet, passing the microphone to Othello – who stares at him for a beat before taking it. Othello honors Black American entertainment trailblazers, lauding Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday, then says, ‘My wife loved me for the dangers I had passed. But those dangers still exist, almost five hundred years later. Let me be clear: Black Lives Matter.’ Then he too passes the microphone, before Jasmine can share a question about him loving ‘not wisely but too well’.
Richard III makes a deft turn from ‘now is the winter of our discontent’ to global warming. He cuts Jasmine off, declares that his wife Anne is ‘fine’, that his nephews are ‘off riding horses in the country’.
Macbeth holds up a sign which reads ‘Protect All Great Neptune’s Ocean,’ declining to speak. Bassanio apologizes for his friend Antonio’s anti-Semitism. He implores Shylock’s forgiveness, noting that ‘the quality of mercy is not strain’d’ – without crediting his wife. Petruccio disavows his previous adherence to ‘right supremacy’ and says that his relationship with Kate has been ‘the subject of gross misinterpretation’.
Caliban rises. ‘My history would have gone a lot differently if I’d been the one telling it,’ he says. ‘Instead, that imperialist puppet master controlled the narrative – othering me! – enslaving me – though I was mine own king –’
Jasmine interrupts: ‘We’ve actually got Miranda on the chat…’ His expression clouds. ‘Miranda says to tell you, ‘Time’s Up!’’
Caliban scowls; Oberon sails forward, preventing Caliban from committing an imminent EEO violation, and settles him back in his chair. Then Oberon turns regally toward the audience, holds up a map of the green forest. ‘As a leader, I’ve worked tirelessly to create a safe space for my subjects – fairies, lovers, changelings…’ He spots Jasmine signaling to him, then adds, furiously, ‘Before the “woke police” arrive – let me say that any… ah… variance from monogamy in my marriage was, ah, mutually consensual…’
Romeo expresses remorse for Tybalt’s death and the ‘cycle of violence’ he perpetuated. He proposes defunding the police and including social workers in responses to tense situations / Hatfield & McCoy-style blood feuds. King Lear rails against elder abuse and pretends not to hear Jasmine ask after Cordelia. Titus Andronicus dismisses a question about Tamara, declares he’s seen enough blood, and presents his new vegan cookbook.
The hero of Much Ado About Nothing shrugs. ‘I’d just like to apologize to Beatrice. I’ve lived up to my name.’ He grins. ‘Benedick all my life.’
He drops the mic.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines.