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).]


26 January 2016

Frank Kermode on Shakespeare's Language


by Kirk Woodward

[Taking off from a recent announcement from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that it has commissioned modern-English “translations” of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Kirk Woodward, who’s contributed frequently to ROT on various topics (most recently, “Four Worthies” on 5 January), is taking up Shakespeare’s language.  Kirk’s discussion is a kind of book report/review since he’s using Frank Kermode’s 2000 Shakespeare’s Language—which Kirk told me “really is wonderful”—as his guide.  Many theater pros, especially actors and directors, declare that they rely on the language of Shakespeare’s plays, both his diction and the prose’s and poetry’s rhythms, to be their guide for performance.  Kirk and Kermode here show us some of the reasons that’s both a valid and practical tactic.  After all, did the Bard’s Hamlet not advise the players: “Speak the speech , I pray you, as I pronounced it to you . . .”?  Who are we to reject Shakespeare’s own advice?]

The announcement by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on September 29, 2015, that it has commissioned thirty-six teams of playwrights and dramaturgs to “translate” the plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) into modern English has generated a great deal of comment. It is a little unclear exactly what results are expected. The official press release says:

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.

The Festival does not say it intends to produce the results of the project, beyond workshop productions. It does report that four “translations” already have been or are scheduled to be produced; one was Timon of Athens, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014. (The A.S.F. set Timon in New York City, but whether that was the “translator’s” intention is unclear.) That same theater is also scheduled to produce a translation of The Tempest, the first “major” play of the translation series to have a production. (The others scheduled so far are Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen, neither generally considered masterpieces.)

The Festival undoubtedly welcomed the controversy its announcement caused, on the often repeated principle that “any publicity is good if they spell your name right.” Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, writing in The New Yorker on October 6, 2015 (“Why We (Mostly) Stopped Messing With Shakespeare’s Language”), provides an historical perspective on the discussion:  adapting Shakespeare’s plays, he points out, was the rule rather than the exception for 300 years, so the O.S.F. project “seems fairly conservative.” In fact,

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.

(Pollack-Pelzner points out that over half the “translators” are female and/or members of minorities, a welcome development.)

In all this discussion, I have not yet seen one of the apparent assumptions of the “translation” project questioned. That assumption is that although we don’t readily understand Shakespeare’s language, his original audiences did.

There is an alternate possible assumption sometimes raised, one that as far as I know is not widely held by scholars: that, contrary to the first assumption, Shakespeare’s audience wasn’t really very bright (a bunch of illiterate rowdies and orange peddlers), and that Shakespeare basically wrote over their heads.

And neither of these assumptions considers a third possibility: that there were times when Shakespeare, while presumably respecting his audience, wrote without regard for whether his audience understood every word or not.

These reflections came to mind as I read Shakespeare’s Language (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000) by Frank Kermode (1919-2010). I first leafed through the book while visiting Stephen Johnson, author of the outstanding novels The Book of Squirrels and Those That I Guard, and an avid reader. The little I saw of the book encouraged me to get it for myself.

At the time I knew nothing about Frank Kermode, who, I have since learned, was born on the Isle of Man, taught at many universities in both Great Britain and the United States, including Cambridge, Harvard, and Columbia, and is widely admired for his criticism and book reviewing. Richard Howard, quoted on the jacket of Shakespeare’s Language, says that Shakespeare’s Language “is, and will doubtless remain, the first book one should read about Shakespeare’s plays, and with those plays.”

That’s a bold claim considering how many books have been written about Shakespeare, but I’m not certain Howard isn’t correct. Here are some reasons:

First, Kermode is sane. One has hardly opened the book before encountering the following, which I think is worth quoting at length:

There are modern attitudes to Shakespeare I particularly dislike: the worst of them maintains that the reputation of Shakespeare is fraudulent, the result of an eighteenth-century nationalist or imperialist plot. A related notion, almost equally presumptuous, is that to make sense of Shakespeare we need first to see the plays as involved in the political discourse of his day to a degree that has only now become intelligible.

These and other ways of taking Shakespeare down a peg seem, when you examine them, to be interesting only as evidence of a recurring need to find something different to say, and to say it on topics that happen to interest the writer more than Shakespeare’s words, which are, as I say, only rarely invoked.

The tone of these novelties is remarkably self-confident. The critics need to value their own opinion above that of many predecessors whose qualifications they might not in general wish to dispute. They have to treat as victims of imperialistic brainwashing Johnson, Keats, and Coleridge, to name only three.

Of course if you can rubbish Shakespeare you can also rubbish these and comparable authorities; respect for them is merely another instance of our acceptance of unexamined bourgeois valuations. But in the end you can’t get rid of Shakespeare without abolishing the very notion of literature.

I could not agree more, particularly with the last sentence, which reflects what many of the critics he describes seem to want to do.

Second, he writes as a human being – the book is intended, as he says, for “intelligent readers rather than specialists” (thank you!), and occasionally his own personality shines through, as in this (Kermode served in the British Army during World War II):

Since the principal characters [in Othello] were soldiers, the setting couldn’t be other than military in character. Shakespeare had plenty of experience doing the military – the life of various kinds of soldier is amply recorded in the History plays and All’s Well, and is not absent from Hamlet – but he had not hitherto attempted that almost invariant type, the foul-mouthed N.C.O. I myself have memories, happily remote, of Iago-like warrant officers, sycophantic self-seekers, the main difference being that Iago has a surprisingly educated vocabulary.

Then, as a reader of Shakespeare’s plays, Kermode amplifies the meaning of many passages and words in a grounded and helpful way. He balances alternatives and credits those who have different opinions, but his own choices of equivalent words are splendid. He sees in Coriolanus that “voices” is Shakespeare’s word for “votes;” that Macbeth shows evidence that Shakespeare was familiar with the Confessions of Augustine (who in his Confessions writes “How long? How long? Tomorrow and tomorrow?”); that Timon of Athens “likely… was sketched out in advance, and… some sections were written in a final form while others were not. … [For example] Apemantus’s announcement of the arrival of the Poet and Painter (IV.iii.351) would presumably have been altered in any final version, since it occurs eighty odd lines before they turn up.” These and numerous other insights fill the book.

Next, Kermode is by no means an apologist for Shakespeare. In many of the books about the Bard, one gets the impression that he can do no wrong. Kermode seems to take seriously the fact that Shakespeare was a working playwright, with a theater company always demanding more “product,” and that he did his best, but not always with a consistent result. For example, in Kermode’s report on the early Henry the Third Part VI (written in 1590-91?), he sees how “the heat of battle cannot prevent Richard of York from expressing himself in similes” (I.iv.3-21), and goes on,

To a modern ear this seems, as a report on a military defeat, to be on the lazy or languid side. . . . It is hard not to think it absurd that in such a desperate extremity the Duke should seek out two comparisons with ships and lambs to describe the flight of his army, and even explain why the wolves were in pursuit. Likewise, the more far-fetched comparison of a swan swimming against the stream. An Elizabethan audience would not have thought these conceits useless ornaments; they were an accepted way of making one’s points, of decorating, of enforcing pathos, and so on. Yet it is plain that as the stage developed its own habits of language these rhetorical devices came to seem inadequate.

Understandable, then, since Shakespeare is still practically in his apprentice period as a writer. But of Measure for Measure (1602-04?), a product of Shakespeare’s astonishing middle period, Kermode can write:

Much has been written in defense of the second half of Measure for Measure, but it surely is a muddle. There are fine things in it, of course . . . but it tends to be prosy and incredible . . . interest, as I see it, is sacrificed to expediency . . . .

And in The Tempest, a late (1611?) and very great play, Kermode nevertheless points out that in Prospero’s expository speech in Act One, Scene two,

with some agitation and some bad-tempered admonitions to Miranda, of which the primary purpose is to prevent his having to deliver an unbroken monologue, he then describes the plot that overthrew him [I.ii.777-87] . . . . The general sense is not in dispute, [but] all this in a single sentence, and the unwieldiness of a paraphrase arises from the repetitiveness of the original, the hurry and disconnection of its metaphors.

One can count on Kermode, then, to candidly describe the strengths or weaknesses of a particular passage without fearing that he is somehow slandering Shakespeare. Even better, though, his examination of Shakespeare’s language leads to an exciting discovery: that in around 1600, something happened in Shakespeare’s life – Kermode does not attempt to say what – that led to a significant development in the way he wrote:

Shakespeare became, between 1594 and 1608, a different sort of poet; as in the study of all artists, connections between early and late remain detectable, but the manner and purpose of his activities is transformed . . . in a context altogether more complex and ambiguous.

In Kermode’s analysis, the change he describes can be seen in Hamlet (1600-1?), in particular in a remarkable linguistic feature: a steady stream of “doubles” of both word and action. Once noticed, it is hard not to see this feature remarkably often in Hamlet and other middle and late plays, for example in this speech by Polonius (II.i.61-65):

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out;
So my former lecture and advice
Shall you my son…

Similarly Claudius (I.ii.10-13):

      As ‘twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole

Shakespeare’s doublings can contain two of the same thing (“Angels and ministers of grace”), or two contrasting things (“spirit of health, or goblin damn’d”), or an ambiguous relationship called a hendiadys, “marked by identifiable tension or strain, as if the parts were related in some not perfectly evident way” (“a cutpurse of the empire and the rule”). They contribute to what Kermode calls the “melody” or the “tune” of the words of Hamlet and the other plays of its period. (I think immediately of Macbeth’s “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” an opposition that sets in motion a vast series of contrasts that continue through that play.)

What is all this doubling about? Kermode, sticking to his analysis of language, doesn’t draw a moral, but my sense of it is that Shakespeare has come to detect a profound ambiguity in personality that expresses itself, for example, in a contrast between good and evil, between honest and dishonest, between valuable and worthless, between open and guarded, between a “public self” and a “shadow self.” The doubling reinforces the ambiguity that Kermode sees as an element of all Shakespeare’s later work, as Shakespeare refuses to settle for a simple explanation or judgment of behavior, or for that matter for an easy answer for anything. Under such examination, a difficult play like Troilus and Cressida begins to seem coherent, because doubling and ambiguity of personality is in fact its subject.

Reinforcing (should I have said doubling?) Kermode’s observation about “doubling” is the equally important observation that after 1600 Shakespeare tends to repeat key words throughout a play, with a close to subliminal effect. Examples include “honest” and “think” and related words in Othello, “see” and “look” in King Lear, and “done” and “blood” in Macbeth. It is not only that Shakespeare uses such words repeatedly, but that he sets them in shifting sets of contexts, so that the different usages almost serve as comments on each other. Kermode calls this a subtle

change, from the simpler expressiveness of the early plays to an almost self-indulgent, obsessive passion for particular words, their chimings and interchimings, their repetition.

I have only described a few of Kermode’s many insights about Shakespeare’s language. I want to present one more. In Kermode’s words,

we have more to deal with dramatic language that was almost certainly difficult to the audiences for whose pleasures it was originally written. . . . It is simply inconceivable that anybody at the Globe, even those described by Shakespeare’s contemporary, the critic Gabriel Harvey, as “the wiser sort,” could have followed every sentence of Coriolanus. Members of an audience cannot stop the actors and puzzle over some difficult expression, as they can when reading the play. The action sweeps you past the crux, which is at once forgotten because you need to keep up with what is being said, not lose the plot by meditating on what has passed.

After considering several such passages in Coriolanus, Kermode tells the following story:

Once in Stratford I asked a well-known actor how he would deliver some lines in The Tempest that still baffle commentators: “But these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labors, / Most busil’est when I do it” (III.1.14-15). He said he would try to speak them as if he understood them perfectly. The idea was to prevent the audience from worrying about the meaning, the next best thing to making the meaning clear.

(Kermode adds that “I myself, when editing The Tempest, wrote a note of about a thousand words on the passage, to nobody’s great benefit.”)

Often complexity and even obscurity of thought matches the anguish of a character’s mental processes, as for example in Claudius’ soliloquy (Hamlet, III.iii.56-64), of which Kermode writes:

Here we have the energy, the flurries of oblique association, that characterize Shakespeare at his best. The play of figures, echoing one another, the failure or refusal to follow the old course of milking similitudes, the changing depth of focus . . . the colloquial roughness . . . the persistent but not expansive legal references testify not only to a different range of metaphorical usage but to a different, dramatic manner of representing a man thinking, under the stress of guilt or fear.

Complexity and even obscurity of language becomes for Shakespeare a tool for (among other purposes) mirroring the complexity and obscurity of a character’s thoughts and feelings.

One final observation about Kermode’s book is that Kermode, unlike many an academic writer, never loses sight of the fact that Shakespeare’s language is meant for the theater. Not the Sonnets and the long poems, of course, although Kermode makes interesting observations about their relation to the plays. But the plays were written as performance pieces – by a poet. The language, Kermode demonstrates, is not something added on to a plot; it is the dramatic substance of the piece.

An analogy, mine, not his, is that you can’t pull a turtle out of its shell; the turtle and the shell are one. Try to take the turtle out of the shell, or pull the shell off the turtle, and you kill it.

And with that we arrive where we began, with a discussion of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s project to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays. Is it appropriate to clear up the ambiguities in Shakespeare’s plays, if he intended them to be there, or if their presence is an important characteristic of his writing? And is there a prospect of success for the project, if Shakespeare’s language is the movement and the meaning of the play, or will translation kill the plays?

I for one would have already concluded that the Oregon project is doomed, if it were not for the fact that translations of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly into German, have been successfully performed. I am not qualified to determine how much of the essence of the plays, as we think of it, carries over into another language. Did the translations of, say, August Schlegel (1767-1845) and Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) give the Germans the same Shakespeare that we know? And how did they handle, as Kermode calls it, “the increasing obscurity of Shakespeare’s language?” Did they try to straighten out passages that Shakespeare left obscure, in which

we register the pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them. This is new: the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighing of confused possibilities and dubious motives; the proposing of a theory or explanation followed at once by its abandonment or qualification, as in the meditation of a person under stress to whom all that he is considering can be a prelude to vital choices, emotional and political.

It would be ironic if the main result of the Oregon project were to straighten out what Shakespeare had deliberately left crooked.

Whatever the results of the Oregon project, one suspects that Shakespeare’s work will survive them. And all, no matter what play by Shakespeare they read or see and in what version, will find the experience of the play deeply enriched if they keep at hand Frank Kermode’s invaluable book.

[For the record, my next post on ROT will be a compilation of articles, including OSF’s original press release, covering the translation project.  Interested ROTters are encouraged to return to the blog to see what the theater said for itself and what the New York Times and the New Yorker said about the plan.

[I can’t speculate on how a German spectator “hears” Shakespeare when he sees a German rendering of the Bard’s plays, anymore than I can tell you whether I hear the same Schiller or Molière when I see translations of their plays in English.  But I can say that when I’ve read an original-language text of a play I’m working on in English (for example: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Anouilh’s  Romeo and Jeannette, and Jacques Deval’s Tovaritch in French and Sologub’s  Petty Demon and Chekhov’s Wood Demon in Russian), there are all kinds of things that are lost, as it were, in translation.  Some are significant, some merely useful, some are inconsequential (though interesting); some can be restored, some are irretrievable.  One problem, of course, is that if you don’t know both the original and the translation, you don’t realize what’s missing.  (When My Fair Lady was translated into German for the Berlin stage, the translators didn’t even try to render Lerner and Loewe’s and Shaw’s cockney-infused London speech and characters into German; they transferred the whole thing to 19th-century Berlin and used a Berlin dialect for the Doolittles.  On the other hand, when Fiddler on the Roof was produced in Tokyo, spectators were quoted as exclaiming, “It’s so Japanese!”)  I have no idea how this connects with Kirk and Kermode’s point.

[By the way, this suggests something that amused my dad from when he was a young student of German in high school back in the ’30s, reading German versions of Shakespeare and other English classics.  On the title page there was an annotation for the translator that read “Übersetzt und verbessert” by whomever.  The German means “translated and improved . . . .”

[Kirk’s remark about straightening out what Shakespeare deliberately left crooked reminds me of a comment my former dramaturgy teacher Cynthia Jenner said about a production of a play by the then-novice Heather McDonald, whom Jenner liked and thought was unique and promising as a young writer.  The production, Jenner lamented, had “ironed out all the quirks” of McDonald’s script.

[Kirk’s final comment brings to mind something someone once said to me about bad productions of good plays—and the same is true of ill-conceived adaptations/translations: they’re not “crimes against humanity.”  The plays continue to exist for future stagings and reading; it’s not like painting a mustache on the “Mona Lisa.”]