A Facelift for Shakespeare? Fie on dumbing us down!

It showed up in our Facebook feeds: “A Facelift for Shakespeare: A new translation effort aims to make all of Shakespeare’s plays comprehensible to today’s audiences”.

We tracked down the Wall Street Journal article and found ourselves torn between annoyance and amusement at the author’s discussion of what we consider a non-problem—but one the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is championing by commissioning modern English translations of Shakespeare’s thirty-nine plays.

Mr. McWhorter, a respected academic in the field of linguistics, does his best to make a case for the need of translating Shakespeare into something he considers more accessible by the lay person.  

We were reminded of the suggestion from Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, a couple years ago that the Bard’s language is inaccessible without “a very expensive education.” At the time, Dame Janet Suzman, a London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) graduate, responded with “patent piffle.” Well put, we say!

Dame Suzman continued: "I have worked with prisoners who have no education whatsoever, as well as with homeless men in South Africa, and their response to Shakespeare has been shatteringly powerful. There's an instinctive emotional connection: you don't have to have an education to respond to it."

We could not agree more.

McWhorter argues that Shakespeare’s language is difficult to comprehend four centuries after the publication of the First Folio, the published collection of the plays that preserved the work for modern debate. He contends that the work is perceived as “medicinal,” that the “words are ‘elevated’ and that it is our job to reach up to them,” and that because the work is poetic, it is difficult.

Since the vast majority of Shakespeare’s text is in verse, it’s certainly fair to say the language is poetic. But have we reached the point where all poetry, by definition, is hard to comprehend and in need of translation? Is it a bad thing to be challenged by complexity?

Doonesbury did a riff on this a while back, where "What light through yonder window breaks" became "Oh wow, look at the moon." The difference is self-evident. While the project the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is sponsoring does not propose such a radical translation, we argue that no translation is necessary.

The reason we’re still reading and attending these plays is not because they have brilliant plot lines. Most of those were borrowed and re-worked. While we may identify with the characters, many of those characters were stock and worn.

It’s the language.

Someone once suggested that Shakespeare’s language reflects an Elizabethan notion that artifice could produce a simulacrum of reality. If you were a master of rhetoric and poetry, if you could manipulate sound and rhythm, use antitheses and imagery, and artfully "set the word itself against the word," you really could make a mere "cockpit hold the vasty fields of France".

Readers and actors derive meaning from the sound, depth, and nuance of Shakespeare’s inspired choice of words. The genius of Shakespeare is that it reaches us on multiple levels that we are scarcely conscious of at first encounter. This poetry melds heart and brain and takes us to places we didn’t realize existed, places that feel like home and yet come packed with a frisson of revelation. And it’s something we all can feel.

A 14-year-old in the Upstart Crows of Santa Fe youth Shakespeare group said, “Save us from the horror of modern people who want everything to be simple for their snow-pea brains.”

If we are to “embrace Shakespeare for real and let him speak to us,” then we should actually let him speak to us—speak in the extraordinary language he had a hand in inventing, in the language that has left such a powerful impression on our ears and minds until, four hundred years later, we’re still using the phrases and the words he coined.

Fie on dumbing us down!