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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival sets out to update Shakespeare. Is that a good thing?
Shakespeare doll

I’m a little late to this particular party, but the big news in classical theater circles is that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has announced an ambitious plan to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English:

OSF is commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions. We are also excited about the potential for a highly engaging national conversation about language that this project could prompt, and we hope you’ll join in that conversation on Facebook and Twitter. Check back often for updates and glimpses into the work being done by our extraordinary set of playwrights. Play on!

Reactions so far have been varied, and frequently vehement. James Shapiro is extremely skeptical:

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. . . .

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.

By contrast, John McWhorter hails the effort:

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.

In “Hamlet,” when Polonius famously advises Laertes to “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” much of what he says before that point reaches our modern ears in a fragmentary state at best. In the lines, “These few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character,” look means “make sure that,” and character is a verb, meaning “to write.” Polonius is telling Laertes, in short, “Note these things well.”

He goes on to say: “Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment,” which seems to mean that you should let other people criticize you but refrain from judging them—strange advice. But by “take censure” Shakespeare meant “evaluate,” so that Polonius is really saying “assess” other men but don’t jump to conclusions about them.

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

And Daniel Polack-Pelzner highlights the way in which the terms of the debate are distinctive to this particular point in history:

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. . . .

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. . . . 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. . . .

In light of this history, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s translation project seems fairly conservative. . . . 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.

I want to get more information about the project, hopefully directly from the Festival itself, before writing more fully on the subject. But here are my initial thoughts.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with adapting Shakespeare. Some of my very favorite versions of Shakespeare – like Akira Kurosawa’s film, “Throne of Blood” – are adaptations that stray significantly from their source. Indeed, Shakespeare has to be adapted very nearly every time the plays are performed. Many of the plays have multiple, incompatible variations, and most are too long to play effectively for current audiences.

Indeed, some of that adaptation has likely already been done before a director ever sits down to make his own cut. The reason there’s an original spelling movement is that there is a case to be made that modernizing the spelling has erased important shades of meaning present in the original – and of course, that “original” was itself not published by Shakespeare at all, and so was filtered through who knows how many contemporary ears and hands before reaching print.

If all O.S.F. is doing is extending this process one more step, then really they are doing the work of a dramaturg – and perhaps that’s actually what is the primary impetus for the project. If so, it’s a worthy purpose. Most working actors don’t have the opportunity to get a thorough classical education. Ditto with most working directors. And many productions can’t afford a real dramaturg, or don’t have the time to really work over the text and study the footnotes. I can see the value for theaters with fewer resources than O.S.F. to having versions that are, frankly, easier to play than Shakespeare often is.

But if that’s the goal, it’s not the audience that primarily needs help. Yes, occasionally you do have to change a word here or there just to make a line play sensibly. I’ve done this myself – in a screenplay adaptation of Timon of Athens, I changed the word “generation” to “derivation” to make the intended meaning – “of the same descent,” not “of the same age” – clearer. But more often than not, you don’t. McWhorter, above, frets about audiences being able to understand that when Polonius says “look” he means “make sure that” or that when he says “character” he means “inscribe.” But I guarantee you: if the actors are totally clear on the meaning, and know how to speak verse, the audience will get those lines with no problem at all. I took my son to see Hamlet for the first time when he was not quite six years old, and he got it. (His review: “Hamlet talks too much when nobody’s listening.”)

The problem is when the actors aren’t totally clear, and there’s nobody involved in the production with the knowledge (or the time) to clarify.

And that’s a real practical problem. It won’t do to lament lack of classical training and leave it at that. For one thing, training costs money. And not just directly, but indirectly, in terms of opportunity cost. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that pursuing classical training can be actively harmful to your career as a working actor, in that it signals to casting directors that you are likely to have hifalutin’ notions about art and won’t submit to the time constraints of a television or film shoot. (On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that once you break into film and television – assuming you do – your classical training will be enormously beneficial even when what you’re playing could hardly be compared to Shakespeare. Think Alec Guiness in “Star Wars.”)

The harder Shakespeare is to do, the less-likely ambitious, career-minded types of actors and directors are to do him – or to do him well, with attention, as opposed to imposing some preconceived idea on the plays and roles. That just means that the general theatrical culture gets progressively more cut off from Shakespeare. And if the general theatrical culture has less access to Shakespeare, that’s bad not only for Shakespeare but for the general theatrical culture. We shouldn’t ever be building walls in this area, but only bridges.

Beyond that, my main question is why limit themselves to these kinds of dramaturgical emendations, assuming that’s what they are doing. If you’re going to hire some of the best working playwrights, why not get a distinctive version of King Lear – something really new? Some plays cry out for serious work – you can’t mount an incomplete play like Timon of Athens without doing some serious surgery on the text. Why simply translate it? Why not do a real adaptation, and make it a play that works?

David Ives has done wonderful work adapting Corneille and Molière, blending the French playwright’s spirit with his own and producing new works that are funny and contemporary and full of heart – and all in rhyming pentameter (itself an adaptation, since the originals are in hexameter). Why not have that be the model of how to update Shakespeare for contemporary audiences? Hamlet is never going to be displaced in performance by a single modern “translation,” if only because too many directors are going to want to return to the source and come up with their own Hamlet, just as every actor will. But I would dearly like to see Lin Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona or Troilus and Cressida – and I wouldn’t want him to do it with one hand tied behind his back.

In any event: as I say, I hope to have the opportunity to speak for people actually involved in the project. When and if I do, I’ll report on what they say.



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