Among the litany of ridonculous nonsense I had to put up with this week was a post about Shakespeare — specifically, about the ruination of Shakespeare by the (previously-by-me) respected Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival’s organizers are now commissioning translations of Shakespeare’s plays — that’s right, “translations” of plays written in an English that is, in the scope of the language, already rather modern — into contemporary diction.
This is harmful and stupid.
The organizers claim that audiences feel disconnected from Shakespeare’s language, that it’s too difficult to understand. The article I linked above makes the point, which I agree with, that usually the problem is that actors and directors don’t really understand the language well enough themselves to be putting it on their stage in the first place. I can’t even count the number of unfortunate productions I’ve sat through (at least until intermission) that were filled with people sawing the air with their hands and shouting dramatically at each other by the third scene, how many shows where the actors paused their sentences in the wrong place, not paying attention even to the punctuation in the script, much less to the depth of the meaning or the subtext.
This is similar to the problem I have with so many interpretations of Shakespeare which take his plays out of his time. Sometimes a director will set the play in a different time and place, but this only works when the themes and conflicts relevant to Shakespeare’s play are also actually relevant to the new time and place. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet had its flaws, but feuding families transported from Renaissance Italy to the gang-infested streets of 1990s Los Angeles county — that worked. Setting Twelfth Night in the 1980s — yes, the narcissism of Duke Orsino’s character writ large against a soundtrack that included David Bowie, Morissey, and New Wave, men and women in gender-ambiguous costumes and make-up — lovely.
But I once saw a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing set amongst the football players and cheerleaders of a college campus in the 1950s. Clever and interesting in some ways — and serious props go to the very young and ambitious person who wrote it, for certain — but that play is about a young woman’s virtue being a function of her virginity, and the disastrous break-up of her imminent marriage when her fiancé believed her to have been “not a maid.” How much of an issue was premarital sex among football players and cheerleaders in 1950s American colleges? Probably not a big enough deal for a girl to apparently die over it at the altar.
I get the argument, really I do. “Young audiences can’t relate to Shakespeare’s time so let’s set it in one they can recognize.” On the surface that might seem to get more people into the theater, but the result of this well-intentioned mountain coming to Mohammed is that those audiences might become less able, in the future, to understand and relate to Shakespeare as it truly is. As a high school English teacher, one who tries every year to help fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds appreciate the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s language and his historical context and the work’s inherent magic, I have to lament the decisions that take the Bard out of his moment. Sometimes, when not executed thoughtfully or well, these choices do my students a disservice and make my job harder.
Look, I’m not a complete snob. I know Shakespeare is challenging. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t still be reading and producing and watching it four hundred years later. The language is all he left us, and it is glorious. Take that away, and you’re left with Cliff’s Notes and one more trudge forward in the dumbing down of our culture.
If you really have a burning desire to contemporize Shakespare, hire authors to write novels.
Rebecca Reisert’s The Third Witch tells the story of a young woman who falls in with a couple of weird sisters scavenging a battlefield, a woman whose post-traumatic stress and ensuing ferocity inspire her to avenge the heinous wrongs wreaked upon her family. This domestic-drama-turned-medieval-thriller is an imaginative retelling of Macbeth from the perspective of a character who, in the play, is fairly minor. It’s an excellent read, and it enhances one’s understanding of the original in a way that gives audiences something new and fresh.
It doesn’t treat the audience like six-year-olds. It assumes their intelligence, their familiarity with Macbeth and his lady, and it asks them to consider all the ways in which Lady Macbeth can be a villain, all the ways in which a thane-turned-king can be ambitious.
This is a good book. A dear friend gave it to me for my birthday, and I remember picking it idly up one afternoon while I was checking my email just to browse the first chapter, fully intending to read it after the semester was done. I opened to the first page and began reading — and I didn’t look up again until chapter five.
Don’t bastardize the Bard. Give us true ekphrasis, something new in response which pays homage to the original’s depth and plumbs the profound alongside it, rather than instead.