10 Shakespeare in Modern English?

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributor

Shakespeare in Modern English?

By JAMES SHAPIRO  OCT. 7, 2015

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Credit Kelly Blair

THE Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for today’s audiences to understand. It recently announced that over the next three years, it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.

Many in the theater community have known that this day was coming, though it doesn’t lessen the shock. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been one of the stars in the Shakespeare firmament since it was founded in 1935. While the festival’s organizers insist that they also remain committed to staging Shakespeare’s works in his own words, they have set a disturbing precedent. Other venues, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the University of Utah and Orlando Shakespeare Theater, have already signed on to produce some of these translations.

However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow. The problem is not the often knotty language; it’s that even the best directors and actors — British as well as American — too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.

Claims that Shakespeare’s language is unintelligible go back to his own day. His great rival, Ben Jonson, reportedly complained about “some bombast speeches of ‘Macbeth,’ which are not to be understood.” Jonson failed to see that Macbeth’s dense soliloquies were intentionally difficult; Shakespeare was capturing a feverish mind at work, tracing the turbulent arc of a character’s moral crisis. Even if audiences strain to understand exactly what Macbeth says, they grasp what Macbeth feels — but only if an actor knows what that character’s words mean.

Two years ago I witnessed a different kind of theatrical experiment, in which Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” in the original language, trimmed to 90 minutes, was performed before an audience largely unfamiliar with Shakespeare: inmates at Rikers Island. The performance was part of the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit initiative.

No inmates walked out on the performance, though they were free to do so. They were deeply engrossed, many at the edge of their seats, some crying out at various moments (much as Elizabethan audiences once did) and visibly moved by what they saw.

Did they understand every word? I doubt it. I’m not sure anybody other than Shakespeare, who invented quite a few words, ever has. But the inmates, like any other audience witnessing a good production, didn’t have to follow the play line for line, because the actors, and their director, knew what the words meant; they found in Shakespeare’s language the clues to the personalities of the characters.

I’ve had a chance to look over a prototype translation of “Timon of Athens” that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been sharing at workshops and readings for the past five years. While the work of an accomplished playwright, it is a hodgepodge, neither Elizabethan nor contemporary, and makes for dismal reading.

To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse. They will search for them in vain in the translation: The music and rhythm of iambic pentameter are gone. Gone, too, are the shifts — which allow actors to register subtle changes in intimacy — between “you” and “thee.” Even classical allusions are scrapped.

Shakespeare’s use of resonance and ambiguity, defining features of his language, is also lost in translation. For example, in Shakespeare’s original, when the misanthropic Timon addresses a pair of prostitutes and rails about how money corrupts every aspect of social relations, he urges them to “plague all, / That your activity may defeat and quell / The source of all erection.” A primary meaning of “erection” for Elizabethans was social advancement or promotion; Timon hates social climbers. The wry sexual meaning of “erection,” also present here, was secondary. But the new translation ignores the social resonance, turning the line into a sordid joke: Timon now speaks of “the source of all erections.”

Shakespeare borrowed almost all his plots and wrote for a theater that required only a handful of props, no scenery and no artificial lighting. The only thing Shakespearean about his plays is the language. I’ll never understand why, when you attend a Shakespeare production these days, you find listed in the program a fight director, a dramaturge, a choreographer and lighting, set and scenery designers — but rarely an expert steeped in Shakespeare’s language and culture.

A technology entrepreneur’s foundation is bankrolling the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new venture. I’d prefer to see it spend its money hiring such experts and enabling those 36 promising American playwrights to devote themselves to writing the next Broadway hit like “Hamilton,” rather than waste their time stripping away what’s Shakespearean about “King Lear” or “Hamlet.”

James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia, is the author, most recently, of “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 7, 2015, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Modernizing the Bard?. Today's Paper|Subscribe