31 January 2016

Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare



[On 26 January, I published an article by Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to ROT, on “Frank Kermode on Shakespeare’s Language.”  Kirk took off from an announcement by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland that they were commissioning modern-English translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays; that dovetailed into a book report/review of Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language (2000, Farrar Straus Giroux).  As a follow-up (and prequel) to Kirk’s discussion, I thought I ought to post OSF’s original news release of 29 September 2015 (Oregon Shakespeare Festival [website]; https://www.osfashland.org/press-room/press-releases/play-on.aspx) and several articles from the press reporting or commenting on the project.  Below are the OSF release, three New York Times articles (including an op-ed column and a report aimed at children), and the New Yorker article Kirk mentions in his piece, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s “Why We (Mostly) Stopped Messing With Shakespeare’s Language.”]

 “OSF LAUNCHES THREE-YEAR SHAKESPEARE TRANSLATION COMMISSIONING PROJECT”

Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare; playwrights and dramaturgs paired for 39 plays

Ashland, Ore.—The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced today the launch of a 39-play, three-year commissioning project, Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare. Supported by a generous grant from the Hitz Foundation and inspired by long-time OSF patron Dave Hitz’s passion for Shakespeare, the project is led by Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy.

Play on! has engaged many of the nation’s leading playwrights, dramaturgs, theater professionals, expert advisors and emerging voices in the field. Among the goals of the project is to increase understanding and connection to Shakespeare’s plays, as well as engage and inspire theatergoers, theater professionals, students, teachers and scholars. Play on! also will provide translated texts in contemporary modern English as performable companion pieces for Shakespeare’s original texts in the hope they will be published, read and adapted for stage and used as teaching tools.

“We began this project with a ‘What if?,’ Douthit said. “There are differences between the early modern English of Shakespeare and contemporary English. What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work? Would that help us understand them in a different way? ‘Translate’ is an inadequate word because it implies a word-for-word substitution, which isn’t what we’re doing. I’m going for something much more subtle. But I like the rigor that ‘translate’ implies. What excites me the most about this is who will dig into these texts. We have paired 36 playwrights with dramaturgs, and we are asking them to go in and look at what the plays are made of. The writers get the great joy of tagging along with the world’s best poetic dramatist. It will be the geekiest exercise ever.”

The project has commissioned a playwright and dramaturg for each of the 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare (including Two Noble Kinsman and Edward III). By commissioning diverse playwrights (more than 50 percent women and more than 50 percent writers of color), OSF will bring fresh voices and perspectives to the work of translation.

In approaching the task OSF has established two basic rules. First, do no harm. There is language that will not need translating and some that does. Each team is being asked to examine the play line-by-line and translate to contemporary modern English those lines that need translating. There is to be no cutting or editing of scenes and playwrights may not add their personal politics. Second, put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his. This means the playwright must consider the meter, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric, character action and theme of the original. These translations are not adaptations. Setting, time period and references will remain unchanged.

OSF will continue its commitment to producing all of Shakespeare’s plays between 2015 and 2025, and all these productions will use the original texts. One or more of the Play on! translations may be produced at OSF along with the complete original canon. It is the hope and expectation that a production will inspire audience members to return to Shakespeare’s original texts, ideally with much greater understanding and enjoyment.

“My interest in the question of how to best create access to these remarkable works is life-long,” OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said. “As a seventh grader, I translated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into contemporary English for my classmates to better understand it. I am delighted that the Play on! translations will give dramatists a deep personal relationship with Shakespeare’s words and that they will give artists and audiences new insights into these extraordinary plays.”

“I’ve been seeing Shakespeare plays since I was a child,” Dave Hitz said. “I love reading a play before the show, especially out-loud with friends, in order to understand the performance better. When I learned that foreign translations of Shakespeare are in modern language, I was jealous. I fantasized about seeing Shakespeare performed in contemporary modern English. I’m thrilled that OSF is taking on this project. No translation can replace the original, but it can broaden the audience and provide new understanding even for those of us who love the original language. I hope these translations will attract a new audience to Shakespeare and lead them back to his original words as well.”

Each play will have a reading and workshop with a director and actors to provide further insight into the work before the final drafts are submitted. OSF will produce readings and workshops of these translations all over the country. In addition, an annual convening will be held to facilitate dialogue and shared discovery among the writers.

Kennenth Cavandar’s translation of Timon of Athens, a pilot for this project, was produced at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014. At this point in time three translations are scheduled for production: Pericles at Orlando Shakespeare, Two Noble Kinsmen at University of Utah, and The Tempest at Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

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[Jennifer Schuessler posted the following report on the New York Times blog ArtsBeat on 1 October 2015 (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/oregon-shakespeare-festival-plans-shakespeare-translation-project/).  A version of the blog article appeared in print on 2 October 2015, in the “Arts, Briefly” column in “The Arts” section of the paper with the headline: “A Plan to ‘Translate’ Shakespeare Into English.”]

THEATER: OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL PLANS
SHAKESPEARE ‘TRANSLATION’ PROJECT”
By Jennifer Schuessler

Taylor Mac, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Lloyd Suh, Lisa Peterson and Naomi Iizuka are among the diverse group of playwrights the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has enlisted in a three-year effort to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary modern English, with the goal of making the sometimes difficult plays more accessible to contemporary audiences while also “bringing fresh voices and perspectives.”

“Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare” pairs playwrights and dramaturges to work on 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare, including “Edward III” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” More than half of the playwrights are women and more than half are minorities, according to a news release.

Lue Morgan Douthit, the festival’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, said in a statement that while the new versions would not be translations in the strictest sense, the word captured what she characterized as “the rigor” of the project. Unlike free literary adaptations of the sort included in projects like the Hogarth Shakespeare [a project of Penguin Random House in which Shakespeare’s plays are retold by contemporary bestselling novelists], the Oregon effort allows no cutting or editing of scenes, no changes to a play’s setting or references, and no insertion of a playwright’s “personal politics.”

“The writers get the great joy of tagging along with the world’s best poetic dramatist,” Ms. Douthit said. “It will be the geekiest exercise ever.”

A pilot for the project, Kenneth Cavandar’s translation of “Timon of Athens,” was produced at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, Ore., said it may produce one or more of the modern translations, while also continuing its commitment to staging original-text versions of all of Shakespeare’s plays between 2015 and 2025.

[Jennifer Schuessler is an editor at the New York Times Book Review and a reporter for the ArtsBeat blog.]

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[Here is the New Yorker article by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner that Kirk Woodward mentions in “Frank Kermode on Shakespeare’s Language,” published on 6 October 2015 (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-we-mostly-stopped-messing-with-shakespeares-language).]

“WHY WE (MOSTLY) STOPPED MESSING WITH SHAKESPEARE’S LANGUAGE”
by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

Critics of a project that will translate Shakespeare’s plays into modern English may have forgotten the long history of the Bard’s scripts undergoing heavy editing for the stage.

Last week, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it had commissioned thirty-six playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. The backlash began immediately, with O.S.F. devotees posting their laments on the festival’s Facebook page. “What a revolting development!” “Is there really a need to translate English into Brain Dead American?” “Why not just rewrite Shakespeare in emoticons and text acronyms?” Beneath the opprobrium lay a shared assumption: that Shakespeare’s genius inheres not in his complicated characters or carefully orchestrated scenes or subtle ideas but in the singularity of his words. James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, used a regionally apt analogy to express this opinion: “Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It’s like the beer I drink. I drink 8.2 per cent I.P.A., and by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light. Bud Light’s acceptable, but it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of that language.”

I don’t disagree with Shapiro, but, as a literary historian who studies the way Shakespeare has been reinvented, I’m struck that so many serious Shakespeareans over the centuries have argued the opposite: that Shakespeare’s genius had to be salvaged from the obscure, indecorous, archaic, quibbling mess of his language. For poets, playwrights, editors, and actors from the seventeenth century through much of the nineteenth, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t intoxicating so much as intoxicated: it needed a sobering intervention. These days, we tend to assume that productions can change anything about Shakespeare (the setting, the period, the characters’ race or gender), as long as the script stays intact—cut or reordered, perhaps, but not rewritten. This is a fairly recent notion. Until the late Victorian era, stage performances usually observed the setting and period implied in the play, but they transformed the language. Shakespeare’s script was the first problem that a production had to remedy.

At the end of the English Civil War, when the restoration of the monarchy reopened the theatres, Shakespeare’s fifty-year-old plays looked, to many, out of date. Playwrights polished up his rusty parts for performance, pruning his unruly plots to fit a French-fuelled demand for dramatic unities, tweaking his politics to suit an age wary of further unrest, recasting his roles to accommodate newly licensed female actors, and rewriting the rough bits that violated neoclassical decorum. John Dryden and William Davenant introduced their adaptation of “The Tempest,” in 1667, as Shakespeare resurrected for the present: “from old Shakespear’s honour’d dust, this day / Springs up and buds a new reviving Play.” Restoration playwrights treated Shakespeare much as he had treated his sources: as fertile soil ripe for tilling. John Crown found “Henry VI” full of “old gather’d Herbs”; he added a dressing of “oyly Words” along with “a little vinegar against the Pope” to pique the taste of his Protestant audience. Shakespeare was seen as an untutored poet of nature who was, as John Milton memorably put it, apt to “warble his native wood-notes wild,” and who lacked the art—and knowledge of classical precedent—to shape his fancy. (The prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition stems, in part, from Dryden’s attack on this “common fault” in Shakespeare and his contemporaries.) “There are Lines that are stiff and forc’d, and harsh and unmusical,” the playwright John Dennis complained as he tuned up “Coriolanus.” “There are Lines in some Places which are very obscure, and whole Scenes which ought to be alter’d.” The Irish poet Nahum Tate cast “King Lear” as “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht”; his notorious resetting of those smudged gems modernized the language, cut the Fool, and added a happy ending in which Lear survives to see Cordelia marry Edgar—an anathema to our current judgment, but popular enough to hold the stage for the next hundred and fifty years.

Even the eighteenth-century vogue for printed editions of Shakespeare, which often sought to rescue the plays from the perceived travesties of the playhouse, found his work faulty. Nearly all the editions modernized the plays’ spelling and punctuation; some went further. Striving to refashion Shakespeare as a more genteel poet, Alexander Pope, in the preface to his 1725 edition, acknowledged his subject’s shortcomings: “It must be own’d that with all these great excellencies he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better so he has perhaps written worse than any other.” Pope’s solution was to flag the excellencies with a comma in the margin—or, if they were particularly “shining” examples, with a star—whereas “excessively bad” passages were “degraded to the bottom of the page.” Although Pope blamed these faults on Shakespeare’s need to please the debased taste of his audience, another poet-editor, Samuel Johnson, thought Shakespeare’s defects could not be excused by the “barbarity of his age.” He disdained the comic characters, whose “jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious”; he deplored the labored tragic writing where “the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity”; he criticized narrative scenes for “a disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution”; and he lamented Shakespeare’s wordplay, sighing that a pun or “quibble was to him the fatal ‘Cleopatra’ for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.” Although Johnson regarded Shakespeare as the greatest modern writer to depict our “general nature,” he preferred Tate’s “King Lear” for the poetic justice of its ending.

As the scholar Michael Dobson has argued, canonization fuelled adaptation: if Shakespeare was the newly minted national poet, his plays had to be improved to be worthy of his stature. (That impulse spurred Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler’s expurgated “Family Shakespeare” edition, which advertised that it removed “from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value.”) In 1838, the great actor-manager William Macready restored Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” complete with the Fool and the original body count, but he could not persuade his audiences to accept Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Colley Cibber’s trim Restoration adaptation, with its popular lines like “Off with his head! So much for Buckingham,” was preferred until 1877, and even Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film kept some of Cibber’s alterations. “The Taming of the Shrew,” frequently revived in adaptations throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was not performed in Shakespeare’s version until 1887, almost three hundred years after its Elizabethan début.

So what changed? How did Shakespeare’s original texts regain their popularity? German Romantics had something to do with it. They rebelled against French neoclassical restraint and cited Shakespeare’s unruliness as a liberating precedent. British critics in the nineteenth century followed suit, celebrating Shakespeare’s capacious characters and poetic imagination instead of worrying whether his plots fit Aristotelian unities or if his style matched Augustan decorum. Rather than subject Shakespeare to critical standards, Shakespeare became the standard. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge apologized for importing the clunky term “psychological” from the German, but he said that English lacked a word to capture Shakespeare’s “Philosophy of the Human Mind.”)

Then, with the rise of English as an academic discipline in the Victorian era, scholars took over the business of editing Shakespeare, working to establish more historically authentic texts, rather than correcting poetic defects—-an editing goal matched by the nineteenth-century taste for spectacular antiquarian stage productions. (John Philip Kemble inaugurated a tradition of playing Macbeth in a Scottish kilt.) Shakespeare’s plays entered the new compulsory public education system in 1870; the national assessment standards required classes to recite Shakespeare passages for an examiner. Shakespeare stocked the cultural arsenal for Britain’s overseas campaign as well, getting a push in the colonies from the British Empire Shakespeare Society, whose motto read, “Using no other weapon but his name.” Even the Oxford English Dictionary helped secure Shakespeare’s status as the source of the imperial tongue; one editor instructed researchers to stop looking for earlier instances once they found a word listed in the concordance to Shakespeare. George Bernard Shaw feared that the Victorian tendency to see Shakespeare as immune from criticism verged on “Bardolatry,” warning that “it is false admiration to worship him as an infallible demi-god.” But Shakespeare was well on his way to becoming secular scripture. In the twentieth century, New Critics enshrined Shakespeare’s plays as complex poetic art, unified through patterns of metaphor, irony, and paradox, and generations of students were compelled to write exegeses of his linguistic richness. If witty intricacies appeared opaque, that was the fault not of the poet but of the audience who failed to grasp his genius.

Even in a climate of reverence for Shakespeare, the authentic text of his plays remains elusive. No manuscripts for the plays survive, so contemporary editions and performance scripts cobble together the most plausible passages from early quartos and folios, modernizing the spelling and punctuation and relying on the history of editorial emendations to clarify obscure cruxes. (There is also the tricky business of attribution for scripts that appear to be collaborations between Shakespeare and other playwrights.) Most editors of “Hamlet,” for instance, silently translate “porpentine” to “porcupine” without incurring outrage, though whether the porcupine is “fretful” or “fearful” depends on whether you follow the folio or the second quarto. Every printing of an early modern book was slightly different; hence the oddity of the Norton Facsimile edition of the First Folio, which reproduced the cleanest version of each page from different copies, generating the facsimile of a volume that never existed. The Norton edition of Shakespeare’s complete works that I helped edit when I was a graduate student printed three different texts of “King Lear” (the quarto, the folio, and a conflated version of the two). At the Internet Shakespeare Editions, you can find seven different texts of “King Lear,” along with ten facsimiles. If Samuel Johnson were asked today whether he preferred Nahum Tate’s version to Shakespeare’s, he would have to answer: Which one?

In light of this history, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s translation project seems fairly conservative. The translations are billed as “companion pieces” for Shakespeare’s originals, not replacements. According to the O.S.F. Web site, the playwrights are charged not to cut, not to edit, not to add personal politics, not to change the setting or time period or references. “First, do no harm,” the commission states. Instead, O.S.F. wants its writers to “limit their efforts to updating the more antiquated language in the plays” while putting the “same kind of pressure on the language”—rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric—“as Shakespeare put on his.” Although accessible, stylish play scripts could offer handy entry points for Shakespeare newbies, one almost wonders why O.S.F. needs thirty-six playwrights (and supporting dramaturgs) to do the sort of clarifying work that annotations to modern editions have been doing for years. In its combination of updating and deference, O.S.F.’s commission looks like an eighteenth-century project couched in nineteenth-century terms.

What is genuinely radical in the commission is not the process but the people involved. Under the leadership of O.S.F.’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, Lue Morgan Douthit, more than half of the selected playwrights will be women, and more than half will be writers of color. Shakespeare’s scripts have always resulted from collaborations among playwrights, actors, and editors. For most of the history I have traced, those collaborators were white men. Updating Shakespeare isn’t a new business, but now its ranks will reflect the rich diversity of artists who, four centuries later, both relish and renew his language.

[Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who trained at Yale University as a Shakespearean actor, teaches Shakespeare, Renaissance drama, and British literary history at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.  His research focuses on Shakespeare adaptations—how writers have transformed Shakespeare’s plots, characters, and style into literary forms that speak to their own cultural moment.  He has published numerous articles on Shakespeare and other English literary figures, has assisted in editing the new Norton Shakespeare, and is completing a book on Shakespeare and the Victorian novel.  He has appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting and given public presentations at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.]

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[This Op-Ed column by James Shapiro appeared on 7 October 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/opinion/shakespeare-in-modern-english.html).  A version of this column appeared in print on the Opinion Pages of the New York edition on the same date, with the headline: “Modernizing the Bard?”]

“SHAKESPEARE IN MODERN ENGLISH?”
by James Shapiro

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.”

[I agree in principle with Shapiro, especially with respect to actors and directors assuring that they understand the content of Shakespeare’s words.  (See my articles “Acting Shakespeare” and “Staging Shakespeare,” posted on ROT on 5 and 21 September 2009, which treat both endeavors.)  Further, in “Frank Kermode,” Kirk Woodward addresses the idea that Shakespeare meant for some of his lines to hard to understand, asking “Did they try to straighten out passages that Shakespeare left obscure . . .”?  (I responded in my closing remarks with an anecdote about a play by Heather McDonald of a production of which a dramaturgy teacher of mine complained that the director “ironed out all the quirks.”)

[James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia, is the author, most recently, of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (Simon & Schuster, 2015).]

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[The following article, directed to young readers, was posted on the Learning Notebook, a New York Times blog, on 14 October 2015 (http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/14/is-shakespeare-too-hard/).]

“IS SHAKESPEARE TOO HARD?”
by Michael Gonchar

Reading Shakespeare is pretty much a rite of passage in many high school English programs. Students are expected to stumble through centuries-old dost’s and thou’s to discover the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and explore the twists of his classic plots. After all, Shakespeare is generally thought of as the greatest writer in the English language.

But is Shakespeare just too hard for today’s students — and today’s audiences?

In “Shakespeare in Modern English?,” James Shapiro writes about changes at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to make the bard more accessible:

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.

Students: Read the entire article, then tell us . . .

— Is Shakespeare too hard for today’s students and audiences? Does the difficulty of Elizabethan vocabulary get in the way of appreciating the rich and colorful language, plot lines and characters?

— Is adapting Shakespeare to modern English a good way to engage students and audiences with these classic texts?

— Or do students and audiences lose the essence of Shakespeare’s plays if they read or see them in modern English? Is something lost in translation?

— Have you ever read or watched a Shakespeare play in the original language? Do you have a favorite play? Did you enjoy the experience? How did you cope with the difficult vocabulary?

— Have you ever read or watched a Shakespeare play translated into modern English? Did the adaptation enhance or detract from the experience?

[On the website (the link for which is above), 34 students 13 and older had commented at the time I uploaded this post.  Have a look at what some young Shakespeare students had to say about OSF’s project.

[Michael Gonchar started teaching in 1996 as a humanities teacher at East Side Community High School in Manhattan.  He joined the Learning Network in 2012 after spending ten years as a school coach, instructional coach, and teacher-mentor in over two dozen New York City public middle and high schools.]

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[OSF’s “translation” project is dubious in my view, but if it “does no harm” (a dramaturg’s pledge, by the way—borrowed from the medical profession; I bet OSF’s literary manager had a hand in writing the release), I suppose it’s innocuous.  I note that of the four translations being staged, three are among Shakespeare’s less-frequently produced plays: Timon of Athens, PericlesTwo Noble Kinsmen.  The rationale might be that a script that’s easier to follow might make them more appealing to general audiences.  That’s at least a laudable goal on the theaters’ part (OSF’s and ASF’s).  That was principally the thinking of Classic Theatre for Schools, an outfit I did some work for in the ’80s, and the Classroom Classics modern-language adaptations they published.  It was also the reason I started reading the Charles and Mary Lamb Tales from Shakespeare (which, of course, were early 19th-century texts rather than 21st) back in the 1950s: I could follow the story without having to slog through what was very difficult language for a middle-schooler.  (It worked, too: from that time on, I have loved Shakespeare’s plays.)  As Kirk quoted from the New Yorker’s Pollack-Pelzner above, if it gets some “newbies” into the theater or a Shakespeare text, then it’s all good.

[Here is a list of the playwrights and dramaturgs OSF has commissioned to make the Shakespearean translations:     

All’s Well That Ends Well:  Virginia Grise (playwright), Ricardo Bracho (dramaturg); Antony and Cleopatra:  Christopher Chen (p), Desdemona Chiang (d); As You Like It:  David Ivers (p), Lezlie C. Cross (d); The Comedy of Errors:  Christina Anderson (p), Martine Kei Green-Rogers (d); Coriolanus:  Sean San Jose (p), Rob Melrose (d); Cymbeline:  Andrea Thome (p), John Dias (d); Edward III:  Octavio Solis (p), Kimberly Colburn (d); Julius Caesar:  Shishir Kurup (p), Nancy Keystone (d); Hamlet:  Lisa Peterson (p), Luan Schooler (d); King Henry IV, Part One:  Yvette Nolan (p), Waylon Lenk (d); King Henry IV, Part Two:  Luis Alfaro (p), Tanya Palmer (d); King Henry V:  Lloyd Suh (p), Andrea Hiebler (d); King Henry VI, Parts One, Two, Three:  Douglas Langworthy (p), Mead Hunter (d); King Henry VIII:  Allison Moore (p), Julie Felise Dubiner (d); King John:  Brighde Mullins (p), Katie Peterson (d); King Lear:  Marcus Gardley (p), Nakissa Etemad (d); King Richard II:  Naomi Iizuka (p), Joy Meads (d); King Richard III:  Kwame Kwei-Armah (p), Gavin Witt (d); Love’s Labor’s Lost:  Josh Wilder (p), Jeanie O’Hare (d); Macbeth:  Migdalia Cruz (p), Ishia Bennison (d); Measure for Measure:  Aditi Brennan Kapil (p), Liz Engelman (d); The Merchant of Venice:  Elise Thoron (p), Julie Felise Dubiner (d); The Merry Wives of Windsor:  Dipika Guha (p), Christine Sumption (d); A Midsummer Night’s Dream:  Jeff Whitty (p), Heidi Schreck (d); Much Ado About Nothing:  Ranjit Bolt (p), Lydia G. Garcia (d); Othello:  Mfoniso Udofia (p), Ayanna Thompson (d); Pericles:  Ellen McLaughlin (p), Alan Armstrong (d); Romeo and Juliet:  Hansol Jung (p), Aaron Malkin (d); The Taming of the Shrew:  Amy Freed (p), Drew Lichtenberg (d); The Tempest:  Kenneth Cavander (p), Christian Parker (d); Timon of Athens:  Kenneth Cavander (p), Lue Morgan Douthit (d); Titus Andronicus:  Taylor Mac (p), Jocelyn Clarke (d); Troilus and Cressida:  Lillian Groag (p), James Magruder (d); Twelfth Night:  Alison Carey (p), Lezlie Cross (d); The Two Gentlemen of Verona:  Amelia Roper (p), Kate McConnell (d); Two Noble Kinsmen:  Tim Slover (p), Martine Kei Green-Rogers (d); The Winter’s Tale:  Tracy Young (p), Ben Pryor (d).]


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