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Is Shakespeare Modern Enough?


The recent announcement about Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s three year project that will commission modern playwrights to translate Shakespeare’s plays into modern English has caused quite a stir within the theatre community. The news first broke Monday when Playbill spilled the big announcement with very few particulars. Classical theatre lovers and English majors alike have since been left scratching their heads – WHY would a Shakespeare company do this? The chatter on Facebook alone has been fervent with commenters lamenting the dumbing down of classical language for the “idiot masses”, highlighting that Shakespeare was in fact written in modern English, even likening this project to translating Shakespeare into another language.

In response, OSF released their official statement on Tuesday. After reading and getting a better understanding of what their goal is there is one giant question that still looms over the discussion – how did we get here?

In my very first blog post, I quoted John Barton saying, “Shakespeare is his text” and while it is understandable for a language other than English to have a modern translation, I don’t understand why translating Shakespeare into modern English is necessary or needed.

There are plenty of study guides and tools available for both teachers and students to get a better understanding of not only what Shakespeare wrote, but how to teach it, and make it easier to understand. “Shakespeare for Dummies” may personally make me cringe with its side by side translations that ignore the importance of the poetry but they get the point across and can be extremely valuable for students, teachers, actors, and directors alike.

Many modern editions (Arden, Folgers, RSC, etc.) of Shakespeare’s works already translate into “modern English”. These edited texts replace antiquated words that no longer exist (or no longer mean what they used to) with their modern equivalent. The punctuation is modernized and made grammatically correct to make for easier reading comprehension. Footnotes are given for all obscure references and most of the structure of first folio is removed for easy accessibility for a modern reader.

It appears that the primary question the OSF’s project is looking to answer is “What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work?” I read that to mean – what would we learn if we were to edit, analyze, and dramaturg these plays as though they were contemporary works of art? But I have to ask, isn’t this part of the rehearsal process already? What is the added value of additionally rewriting Shakespeare’s works?

As an actor or director, when you first begin work on a classical text isn’t studying the verse structure and text among one of the first things you do? You do your book work. You see where the stresses fall, find all the irregularities in the meter, look for repeated words and themes, and ask why does the character speak prose in this speech but not that one? Then you decipher it so that you can make informed choices for your character and performance?

So again I ask, if the actor has effectively translated the text and is presenting a clear, strong performance – why is “translation” necessary? What is the value of using words that are not Shakespeare’s especially if the work is to be performed live?

In the theatre, the training wheels come off there is no need for study guides, side-by-side translations, or footnotes. Instead, it is the audience’s sole responsibility to be present and listen. If the production team has done their homework, these beautiful texts that have existed for 400 years will stand on their own. They will be engaging, fun, and vivid.

It’s far too common within the theatrical community we do not trust our audience. We assume they will not understand out of our own insecurities or some misconceived notion that Shakespeare is hard. Unfortunately, it’s easy to embrace those insecurities as truth and hide behind a fancy concept or translated text in an attempt to make the content relatable. It’s my belief that doing so takes everything that makes Shakespeare unique and special out of his plays. More and more, I’m seeing productions that take a modern “realistic” approach to Shakespeare by no longer actively engage with the audience during a soliloquy – instead they take the speech inwards speaking only to the air and their conscience. But this cuts the audience out of the action, isolates them. They no longer have the opportunity to be the sole confidant of Hamlet during his “To be or not to be” speech. Or Richard III conspirators as he unfurls his “winter of discontent.” Instead they are awkward bystanders peering into a personal moment. So now I ask you – which is more relatable? Being someone’s friend and listening to their inner most desires? Or watching someone talk to themselves?

We look at the plays, and think “My God, how do I make this understandable, and make a people today care as much as I do? How do I prove these plays are still important and relevant?” So we go about putting our own spin on these plays and adding concepts. We set Julius Caesar on Wall Street. Henry V puts on a leather jacket and leads a gang. King Lear becomes a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. These are all interesting concepts and valid choices – they highlight the characteristics of the story that the director wants to tell and add extra nuance to these already rich stories., But are we doing ourselves a disservice by adding so many extra layers in an effort to make it more relatable or are we over complicating it and alienated the audiences we so desperately hoped to connect to?

Maybe an audience can’t relate to King dividing his lands amongst his children, but they can relate to a father wanting to leave a legacy for his children as King Lear does.

Most people have experienced the throes of love – be it infatuation, mutual affection, or star-crossed and we’ve done some crazy, unexplainable things in loves name just as Rosalind, Hermia, and Juliet have done.

We have the capacity to be driven crazy by jealousy as Leontes, or hate based on status and perceived slights as Iago, or become so convinced to know the truth as Claudio that we ruin the relationships that matter most to us.

At the core, these are the things that Shakespeare was writing about. His plays, however epic in nature, can be broken down into the most intimate of stories that focus on what it means to be human. That’s why they have withstood the test of time. They are relatable.

This whole project may have started one conversation about “translating Shakespeare,” but maybe that’s not the conversation we should be having.

Maybe rather than lamenting the “wrongness” of it, or that audiences are stupid, instead shouldn’t we be asking ourselves as actors, directors, and producers how can we bring an audience who may not be as familiar with Shakespeare along on a journey that we are already traveling? How can we empower them to follow the story and appreciate the rich language even if they don’t understand every single word?

Perhaps it’s time we start breaking the stigma that Shakespeare is hard (or long, or boring, or impossible to understand.) And instead support them to find how Shakespeare is modern and that his characters, his passions and his ideas are everywhere – all you have to do is look.

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