Improving on Shakespeare

I’ll soon be headed to Ashland, OR, to see performances of Shakespeare, as I’ve been doing every spring for a number of years now. Ashland hosts one of the best Shakespeare Festivals in the country, and the performances there are always extremely well-acted and well produced. It’s become an annual pilgrimage, and with good reason: performances of Shakespeare and other playwrights that I’ve seen in Ashland rank among the most memorable theater I’ve ever experienced, and this from a person who tends to see a lot of theater every year. So I’m very sorry to see that the people at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have decided to “translate” Shakespeare into modern English.

Let me take a step back. This week I’ve pulled down my Norton Shakespeare and have been reading “The Winter’s Tale” in order to prepare for the performance of it. This is something I do every year so that I can enjoy the play more fully. It only requires minimal “effort” on my part—most of Shakespeare’s plays can be read in a few hours, at most—and it’s a very good investment of my time. Even a little acquaintance with the plotlines, major characters, and memorable moments/lines tends to make a performance of Shakespeare immensely more rewarding and enjoyable.

Moreover, I’m happy to have the excuse to pull down my Shakespeare: after all, how many of us will just read a play of Shakespeare’s for no particular reason? I’m sorry I don’t read my Shakespeare more often, because of course once I do start reading, I always wish I had done so long before. These plays are wonderful, and it’s always a pleasure to have a good reason to take some time and get back into them.

Because of all of this, I was very disappointed when I learned that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was planning to give Shakespeare a “facelift,” in the lovely phrasing of John McWhorter. As he puts it, the OSF’s plan is to prepare:

translations of all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years. Yes, translations—because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension.

This is undoubtedly true—as I’ve just got finished saying, I read through Shakespeare as a means of preparation for a performance. And I’m always glad to do it, as reacquainting myself with Shakespeare’s language is a wonderful experience, and it’s even better to see people act out those words on stage after I’ve read them and thought over how they might be performed.

But I think McWhorter’s—and the OSF’s—protestation’s of Shakespeare’s “difficulty” are vastly overstated. As you’ve probably guessed, I have many doubts about OSF’s idea to “modernize” Shakespeare. McWhorter’s case for altering Shakespeare is fairly simplistic: it comes down to “Shakespeare is hard, so we should make him easier for theatergoers.”

Regarding Shakespeare’s frequently archaic language, where words have changed meaning in modern usage (or have just been eliminated altogether) McWhorter writes,

We can piece these meanings together, of course, by reading the play and consulting stacks of footnotes. But Shakespeare didn’t intend for us to do that. He wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time.

Well first off, I doubt even in Shakespeare’s era theater-goers picked up on every last nuance. This is some of the most intricate, poetic language ever written in the English language. Good luck picking up all of that during a performance! And of course the point of seeing Shakespeare isn’t to “get everything.” It’s to see an enjoyable night of theater, which I’ve never had a problem doing at OSF because the acting and staging is so good that even when I get lost in a torrent of dialogue I still have an accurate sense of what is happening on stage. There are many ways to get across meaning—intonation, gestures, facial expressions, body language, movement, lighting, sound, props, set design. Shakespeare’s words are just one, and if we at times lose our connection to them, we can still get the play.

After spending a lot of time making hay over all the words of Shakespeare’s that we’ve lost the meaning of, McWhorter moves on to phase two of his argument:

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

No, of course we are not satisfied with a Shakespeare that is strictly for the elite; although, let’s be honest: the cheapest available seats at the OSF go for about $60. These plays are an elite experience. If this was really about making Shakespeare available to those who are not a part of the elite there would be a way to get people into the theater who didn’t have an upper-middle-class income.

But forget that. As I’ve just got through explaining, Shakespeare’s language is not for the “elite.” I first read Shakespeare in 9th grade, when I was 14. Surely an adult can handle this language.

Furthermore, you can get a grasp of everything you need beforehand by just taking a couple hours of your time and reading the text. It’s not hard—it’s actually a very fun, rewarding experience—and it seems like a reasonable investment to ask for people who really want to have a cultural experience and aren’t just going so that they can get dressed up in their fancy clothes and put on airs. After all, do we retouch the paintings in the Louvre so that they’re most palatable to our tastes? Do we reconstruct the Acropolis so that it conforms to our standards of architecture? Of course not, so why would be deprive Shakespeare of his strangeness and his archaism? Why should we not spend a little time connecting with Shakespeare and attempting to understand him, instead of having someone else decide what we could not understand about him and how it should sound for our ears?

Longtime readers of this blog will not be surprised to see that I’m rarely swayed by arguments for simplifying culture for reasons of convenience and accessibility. Most often, valuable culture is supposed to make you think, or to take you outside your own frame of reference. These are things that take time and some effort; were they easy, we would not need the likes of Shakespeare to make them happen to us. I’m not compelled by arguments like McWhorter’s because they seem part of the simplifying, speedifying zeitgeist of our times. In many walks of life it’s fine to make things as seamless and convenient as possible, but I would like to preserve some aspects of our lives untouched by those currents. If you do not protect Shakespeare from the lust for ease-of-use, what do you protect?

Aside about the debate over convenience and accessibility, there’s a deeper point here, about how we treat the foundational documents of our culture. Look, for instance, at the Constitution of the United States, which has been edited only two dozen or so times in 250 years. Every word in that document is held as sacred, as it should be, even if we do not agree with every word in it. It is only edited after lengthy thought and laborious procedures. This is how it should be: it is the foundation of our history and of us, and it is no small thing to alter it.

Many have made similar arguments for Shakespeare, which is often seen as the origin of the modern conscious, particularly the Anglo-American variant. I don’t want to get into the debate over the extent to which the Bard made us, but the fact is that these plays are held as central origins of our culture. These are things one should not change lightly, and arguments like McWhorter’s seem like the worst reasons imaginable for doing so.

I’m happy to see Shakespeare this year in Oregon, and I will continue to go, as the OSF has assured me they will continue to perform unadulterated Shakespeare, even as they move forward with presenting their translations. But it will feel different once they begin presenting these plays. Something sacred will have been tampered with, some genie will have been let loose. I hope they eventually decide to reverse their decision.

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Hi Scott,
Thanks for the thoughtful write-up and your continued attendance & support of OSF. There’s been a lot of misinformation out there about Play On, and we wanted to provide you with some more info about the program (check out all the amazing artists involved by clicking the link below!), which is creating companion pieces and not replacing “original language” Shakespeare at OSF.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival and John McWhorter are making very juvenile assumptions about the intelligence of the playgoing audience. They make such a remedial argument that thinking people feel compelled to say, “It’s not hard! It’s actually very fun!”

I’m curious, has OSF identified the writer who will make these “translations”? Is it anyone in particular, or will the new play be written by committee?

Here’s one way they could elevate the debate: select a phenomenal, outstanding playwright like Kushner or Ruhl or Albee to redo the text of a Shakespeare play. Give them license to change the words however they want. Because the new text would be contemporary English, and people would go to see it, OSF would still accomplish their goal without caving to the forces of illiteracy.

Scott, that ‘translation’ idea sounds terrible. Part of the vigor and music of Shakespeare’s language is that it’s somewhat unfamiliar, to us – and what is wrong with learning something new while seeing a drama or comedy? – and absorbing that. This infantilization of almost everything is a way of making people stupid.

Thanks for this article. Informative, if depressing. I agree with your points almost 100%; my divergence would be in not going to the festival at all, as a protest, but that’s just me.

That fool McWhorter has been pushing this “simplified Shakespeare” idea for ages now. It’s very unfortunate that anyone has taken him seriously enough to implement it.


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