12. 17. 2012. 16:15

Teenagers in focus – classic/popular Shakespeare?

A case study of present-day Hungarian reception

Shakespeare is an appealing cultural commodity in present-day Hungary. Even today, however, teenagers mostly face an archival and canonical view of Shakespeare’s plays, though there has been a shift towards a more up-to-date appreciation.

Shakespeare and the grammar school curriculum

In Hungarian grammar schools Hungarian as a subject entails approximately 25% grammar and linguistics and 75% literature, traditionally with a strong emphasis on the history of literature, and especially on Hungarian literature. Nevertheless, due to the influence of persistently dominant Humanist ideals and Hungarian High Modernist ideas of education, according to which Hungarian literature is an inalienable part of Goethe’s “world literature,” the literature of other European nations is taught quite extensively in Hungary. However, in reality teachers consider these sections of secondary importance, therefore they usually devote less time and care to presenting them, largely because the curriculum is vast: in four years the students are supposed to learn about “everything important” in the history of literature from myths of creation and the epic of Gilgamesh to Postmodernism (although this is somewhat challenged by the national curriculum, the majority of textbooks and teachers remain traditional in this respect). The other reason for a partial neglect of non-Hungarian literature is that the compulsory final exams at both levels (ordinary and advanced) place a very strong emphasis on Hungarian literature: out of the twenty compulsory topics at the oral exam only two are based on world literature. In sum, a grammar school graduate might not have to give a report of his knowledge of Shakespeare at all. In practice, however, it is usually a Shakespearean drama which is chosen as a topic for “Theatre History.”

Canon-forming textbooks

The majority of textbooks support the approach outlined in the final exams. Teachers of literature are relatively free to choose one of the textbooks available on the market, usually titled “Literature” – but only from the ones which have been sanctioned by the official committee at the Ministry of Education and have been “declared a textbook.” (It is possible to use an alternative textbook but this is extremely complicated: all the parents have to formally agree, these textbooks are usually very expensive, etc.) I have examined seven “official” textbooks which are available and used in today’s grammar schools, though they enjoy varying degrees of popularity among teachers. The most popular and most widely used textbook is still the so-called “Mohácsy” (unofficially named after its author). This is actually quite an old book, with a first edition from 1988,7 but it was revised and “enriched” with illustrations in 2009. I have no exact data as to the precise numbers, but Mrs Pethő’s book is usually preferred with advanced level students, and the remaining five books are used less frequently in schools. All the books devote roughly 15–25 pages at the end of the Renaissance section to the English Renaissance theatre (with a brief overview of medieval theatre as well), Shakespeare’s life and times (quite short in the latest textbooks) and his career. The close reading and interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet dominate, and there are some remarks on other plays as well. In the more modern textbooks a lot of questions and exercises are designed to help students to discover the text for themselves, but even in these there are very few  questions to incite the teenagers to relate the problems to their own personal experiences. Old-style textbooks, such as Mohácsy, Gintli–Schein and Ritoók et al. prefer a prescriptive (and sometimes very subjective, though consistently so) interpretation of the plays. All of these textbooks correspond to final exam criteria (affirming Shakespeare’s status in theatre and literary history) by laying considerable emphasis on data about Shakespeare’s theatre, with the ever-present illustration of the Globe or the interior of the Swan theatre. However, visual stimuli are used very sparsely, if at all, and in most cases they provide mere illustration instead of inviting open discussion. This approach represents an outmoded though cultic attitude to Shakespeare as opposed to the idea of an “open work” serving as inspiration for students. These textbooks were not designed to win over a generation brought up in a world of vivid and ubiquitous visual stimuli. Another general characteristic of these textbooks is the prevailing open or latent cultic attitude to Shakespeare. This cultic attitude to Shakespeare, conceived in 19th-century Hungary, where it was ubiquitous, is evident both in the initial presentation of Shakespeare and in the often romantically idealised interpretations offered in textbooks.

The highly cultic attitude of several textbooks presents a problem for teenagers: the image of Shakespeare remains for them frigid, fossilised in cultic images,hindering a direct and personal relation to his works, not to mention the usual anti-authority stance of students who tend to revolt against any authoritative sounding cultic utterances. Unless an enthusiastic and spirited teacher overcomes these attitudinal and authorial problems, Shakespeare is doomed to the unquestioning official adoration conveyed by most textbooks.

Mohácsy’s textbook deserves special attention because it enjoys the greatest popularity among more traditional teachers, i.e. it is the most widely used textbook even today despite its outmoded authorial intent and attitude. The analysis of Romeo and Juliet is possessed of a curious mixture of Romantic and Marxist thought, for instance concluding that “The young ones unwillingly clash with the old feudal morals, thus involuntarily they become the carriers and heroes of the Renaissance desire for freedom”.

Book publishing

Targeting this age group, book publishing regarding Shakespeare serves two masters: on one hand there are cheap students’ editions of Shakespearean plays as compulsory or recommended reading, on the other hand popularised, commercial and more expensive versions dominate, which try to ride the waves of such marketing vogues as the Twilight series or the Japanese comic books, the mangas.

Students’ editions are cheap and easily available paperback editions, often reprinted, and most of the time conserving a classical view of the plays. On the other hand, three recent books merit attention for their attempt to combine popular culture with high culture as related to Shakespeare: the so called “Twilight Romeo and Juliet” (Szeged: Könyvmolyképző, 2010) and the series of “Manga Shakespeare” with two volumes already published (Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, both in 2010, Budapest, by Agave, a publishing house of high-quality popular fiction). One of the teachers I interviewed remarked how closely the highly popular Twilight series mirrors the story of Romeo and Juliet, and the book market seems to respond to this new vogue of vampire romanticism. In 2010 Romeo and Juliet was published as paperback, quite an inexpensive edition with a striking cover recalling the cover art of the Twilight series, positioning Shakespeare’s play among the highly romantic love stories of vampires, werewolves and teenage girls. The advertisement on the ink-black back cover in alternating white and red lines is worth quoting in full, as it recalls not only the sentimentalism of the Twilight series but also the flowery, hyperbolical and romanticised style of the Hungarian cult of Shakespeare: “Special edition! Shakespeare’s evergreen love chronicle in translations by two Hungarian geniuses, Dezső Kosztolányi and Dezső Mészöly. By now both translations have become ennobled, refined classics. Which version enchants you more? Choose freely!” [there follow two short excerpts emphasising the aspect of romantic love from either translation] Have you been in love? Will you be in love? Then this book is for you. Be careful though, just like true love, this book is no easy prey, it only yields itself to you piece by piece. But, from twilight to the break of dawn you can discover its secrets. Open up your heart! Recommended from the age of 14!”

While the publishing house of the Twilight version professes the decent educational aim of making their readers bookworms (“könyvmolyképző” means “bookworm-trainer”), such an unusual coupling of classic and popular is a novelty in the Hungarian book market. The other highly interesting experiment, the Manga Shakespeare series, was imported from London. Manga, a Japanese style of cartoons is highly popular among teenagers even in Hungary, which must be the main reason for such a strange combination and the entrepreneurial incentive behind it. This edition is a definite deviation from such openly educational projects as for instance presenting Macbeth in the refined, classical style of Hungarian cartoons. The most interesting fact is that the series editor, who is also responsible for the Hungarian text in speech bubbles and the advertisement on the back cover, is Ádám Nádasdy, one of the eminent contemporary Shakespeare translators and scholars. Besides the obvious benefit of popularising Shakespeare for teenagers, the quality of the Manga Shakespeare is outstanding both in visual and textual rendering, which might account for its being quite expensive, priced as a regular volume of popular fiction. The possible educational impact of such attempts can only be surmised at this stage but they might be incorporated into the curriculum any time, and the final examination theme “Borderlines of literature” certainly invites discussion of such adaptations.

Theatre and film

Romeo and Juliet is a popular asset in theatre programmes, but not all performances that target this age group prove successful. For instance, the young and celebrated Hungarian director Róbert Alföldi’s production in Új Színház in 2006 never did become popular with teenagers (it only ran for two seasons), although it was based on the new translation by Dániel Varró, a young contemporary poet, much favoured by teenagers for his closeness to them. Neither the translation nor the actual performance catered for this age group; Varró’s translation is less modernised than Nádasdy’s, it preserves much of a traditional poetic style and the vocabulary rarely reflects today’s use of language. His usual virtuoso skill in rhyming and language use is hardly detectable in this translation, and Alföldi’s strong directorial emphasis on a more mature Juliet and Romeo undercut the fresh and very active use of theatre space, where actors and actresses ran long distances along long slopes above the audience or in the enlarged backstage area. Thus for all his intended modernity, Alföldi seemed to subscribe to a classical, artistic view of Shakespeare, which failed to target teenagers successfully.

The performance which has proved immensely popular with teenagers was Gérard Presgurvic’s musical version, imported from France (2001). The official Hungarian version has been on non-stop since 2004, performed both in the capital and in the provinces, in both permanent theatres and in sport stadiums. Although it is a reworked adaptation of the story (using almost none of Shakespeare’s text, mostly preserving only its scenic structure with not a few major differences), it is easy to see why it has become so popular with this age group: beautiful young actors and actresses dominate the spectacularly lit and decorated revolving stage, dancing and singing at the top of their lungs, expressing the characters’ emotions in a heartfelt, passionate way with active physicality. It has all the dazzle and impetus of a good old 1950s Hollywood musical or a Disney movie. Even the poster foregrounds the beautiful half-naked young bodies of the protagonists, with a striking blue background. The costumes and the makeup are expressive, creative, very modern (sometimes a bit vampire-like even), songs switch to rap easily – it successfully targets an audience with high sensibility to musical and visual impact.

Among alternative performances Krétakör’s hamlet.ws (2007) deserves a special place; as it intends to prepare a grammar school audience not only for a postmodern interpretation of the play but also for a postmodern approach to the theatre, acting and the actor’s body. It is an experimental performance by three actors playing different parts in a circle formed by spectators–students, with intertextual modifications. However, because the company only go by invitation to the school, it unfortunately cannot be considered a general theatrical experience for present-day teenagers.

Regarding films there is little to say here. Luhrmann’s international success with a hyped-up but congenially faithful Romeo+Juliet was notable in Hungary, too, as well as the popularity of Shakespeare in Love. There is only one Hungarian animated film, Áron Gauder’s Nyócker, which adapts Shakespeare and Luhrmann’s gangster-style feud to a specific Hungarian environment, i.e. to the particularly crime-infested and problematic 8th district of Budapest. It was shot in 2004, and was celebrated as the Best Animated European film in 2005 at the Annecy Festival, but it never reached a really wide audience, for many reasons. Both the nature of the alternative music and the highly fantastic events in the story (e.g. discovering a Texan oil field in Budapest) evoke an underground, alternative atmosphere, which speaks only to a limited audience among teenagers.


Shakespeare is a well-known and appealing cultural commodity in present-day Hungary. One striking example is the TV advertisement of Erste Bank, which presents Romeo and Juliet as members of the Hungarian Pantheon together with other national folk heroes, such as Ludas Matyi, the clever and cunning boy who beats the oppressive landlord three times, King Mátyás, the just king of Hungary and Miklós Toldi, the strong hero of a national epic – of course, all asking for a loan to help them along their way to love, fame, or justice. Romeo and Juliet seem to be ingrained in Hungarian cultural memory, to which both textbooks and popular adaptations have probably contributed. Even today, however, teenagers mostly face an archival and canonical view of Shakespeare’s plays, though there has been a definite shift towards a more lifelike and up-to-date appreciation, in which (at least in my opinion) the creative combination of popular and classic culture (such as the Manga Shakespeare) may prove a valuable asset. Shakespeare being present everywhere at intersections of popular and high culture is the hoped-for start of a new and fresh approach to his works by the coming generations.

This is a shortened version of a paper originally published in Confrontations and Interactions. Essays on Cultural Memory. Edited by Bálint Gárdos, Ágnes Péter, Natália Pikli and Máté Vince. L'Harmattan: Budapest, 2011

Natália Pikli

Tags: William Shakespeare