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Are We Too Dumb For Shakespeare?


The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is translating William Shakespeare into English. If that seems strange, it should, because Shakespeare wrote his plays in English. All 39 of the bard’s works have been assigned a playwright and a dramaturge, who will alter its text to create a present-day, modern English version they hope will be more accessible to modern audiences.

That’s not all that lies behind this dubious effort. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), in keeping with the spirit of modern theater, ensured that 50 percent of the artists involved are women and that 50 percent are people of color. I suppose one should be grateful they’re not simply dumping Shakespeare from the canon, as some have suggested. But that gratitude is mitigated by this odd desire to diversify the words of a playwright.

It’s unclear what OSF hopes to gain from these translations. They promise to keep producing the originals, as well, but see these new works as a kind of CliffsNotes for his work. But there are already CliffsNotes for Shakespeare’s plays. These new versions seem geared towards audiences who will not, or cannot understand the plays.

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For nearly half a millennia English speakers have enjoyed, or at least consumed, Shakespeare’s work in its original language. Often the plays are shortened, sometimes variants from different folios are chosen, but Shakespeare’s words have never been changed wholesale to accommodate the intellectual laziness of a generation of artists and audiences. Why now, when more people graduate college than at any time in our history, do we need Hamlet for Dummies?

Why now, when more people graduate college than at any time in our history, do we need Hamlet for Dummies?

Is Shakespeare’s language difficult at times? Yes. Does it require effort to understand? Sure. But has anything happened to the English language or its speakers that make the works inaccessible? Absolutely not. Telling students and audiences they aren’t smart enough to get Shakespeare, that some appointed “experts” need to simplify it for them, turns appreciation of his work from an accomplishment into a literary participation trophy.

There is no reason for any of this. Shakespeare remains relevant to us on stages, in movies, and in our classrooms. Beyond that direct contact, works like “West Side Story,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Strange Brew” all use his stories in unique modern ways. But how equipped will we be to appreciate these adaptations if we don’t have a solid grounding in his actual plays?

Without Shakespeare’s Words, What’s Left?

This brings us to an important question. Is Shakespeare in present-day, modern English still Shakespeare? What is it that OSF hopes audiences or readers will come away with after they run history’s greatest playwright through the de-flavorizing machine? All but three of Shakespeare’s plays come from known sources. So it’s not like he invented these plots and stories. His use of the five-act Elizabethan dramatic form is compelling, but not groundbreaking. More than anything else, it is Shakespeare’s words that make him the revolutionary writer that he was.

What is it that OSF hopes audiences or readers will come away with after they run history’s greatest playwright through the de-flavorizing machine?

When Shakespeare was starting out, almost all plays were written in verse, either rhyming or blank. Iambic pentameter—ten syllables with five strong stresses—was the standard form of dramatic language. Throughout his career, Shakespeare broke with this tradition.

Often he used prose, a more free form of speech, for lower-class characters, to distinguish them from more elite characters. He also used it to create more naturalistic speech in general. These moments, when natural speech smashes the stifling cage of verse and meter, transformed theater and literature forever. That is the dawn of modern drama that we glimpse in his work. Without it, little is left.

How will these present-day, modern English translations capture that important feature of Shakespeare’s plays? Do the playwrights and dramaturges involved in the project have the training and knowledge to balance intelligibility with verse and meter? For that matter, do they know enough about Elizabethan language and culture to effectively translate the plays? People spend lifetimes studying such things. Can a playwright, no matter how talented, steep himself in these matters for a year or two and really be an expert? That seems unlikely.

You Can’t Diversify a Playwright

Perhaps the strangest part of OSF’s mission in translating Shakespeare is its attempt to make the works more diverse. Shakespeare’s plays are perfectly intelligible to people of any race or gender. The idea that we need women and persons of color to make the work less white and male is just bizarre. Shakespeare was a real person. He was indeed male and white. He was also marginalized in his own society in many ways.

The idea that we need women and persons of color to make the work less white and male is just bizarre.

Shakespeare wasn’t noble, he wasn’t born into great wealth, and he may well have been a secret Catholic in Protestant England. It was an enormous uphill struggle for him to overcome his disadvantages and achieve what he did. To this day, many people refuse to believe that such a humble figure could have written such marvelous words.

Now, OSF is somehow claiming that Shakespeare exemplifies the dominant culture too much. This literal, literary revisionism seeks to obscure Shakespeare’s words and intentions in favor of a politically correct, and very modern set of ideologies. This is all well and good for a seminar at Sarah Lawrence College, but to pretend it is somehow really Shakespeare is hubris.

Shakespeare Is Too Good for Us

In his great book “The Revolt Against the Masses,” Fred Siegel outlines how the much maligned “cookie cutter” culture of the 1950s actually far surpassed our own in middle-class consumption of fine art. People flocked to their televisions to watch Leonard Bernstein talk about classical music. They watched modern plays and Shakespeare, and they devoured volumes of the great books of the West.

Siegel believes the cultural elites of the 1960s set us on a course to remove these works and ideas from middle-class life. In their place, campy entertainment was created to control the minds of the masses. This ensured they were not left to their own devices when thinking about culture and art. A close look at OSF’s “translator” lineup offers some interesting evidence that Siegel is right.

Among the playwrights listed are gender-bending performance artist Taylor Mac, who is translating “Titus Andronicus.” Mac is a gifted entertainer who has performed in the past for my company in New York, and who is a delight to watch. But I was reminded of something he wrote in a manifesto 2 years ago:

I believe I did not move from the suburbs to the city to see work about the suburbs. I believe if we model our theater after a suburban mentality we will perpetuate the status quo. I believe the great American middle class is not great. I believe the Greeks and Shakespeare wrote about successful people falling from grace, in their tragedies, and they wrote about down and out people rising and falling in and out of doldrums, in their comedies, but didn’t bother with the middle class because the middle class is boring.

Setting aside the fact that Shakespeare did in fact have many characters that were middle-class by his time’s standards, we see here a crystal-clear picture of the phenomenon Siegel described. What influence will Mac’s obvious disdain for the middle class have on his approach to translation? As an artist, will he be focused on what Shakespeare wanted to say, or what he wants to say?

Love Shakespeare As He Is

Mac, like any artist, is free to interpret Shakespeare any way he pleases, but for OSF to claim the result will actually be Shakespeare in any sense is ludicrous, and dismisses the ability of regular people to experience their own culture. In this way they are actually stealing that culture and hiding it away, only to parcel it out in acceptable forms.

This is not a celebration of William Shakespeare, it is an attempt to delete him and his works.

OSF is not translating Shakespeare. They are re-imagining stories that Shakespeare himself re-imagined almost 500 years ago. They are announcing in their heady elitism that Shakespeare is dead, and it is time for new, culturally appropriate writers to reweave these tales. This is not a celebration of William Shakespeare, it is an attempt to delete him and his works. Those of us who believe that we must know and even love our cultural history must reject these efforts.

We don’t need Shakespeare in modern English because Shakespeare wrote in modern English. In fact, in substantial ways Shakespeare invented modern English. Attempts to ruin our sacred idols are nothing new in the culture wars. But they must be resisted, and they can be. Ultimately, Shakespeare doesn’t belong to OSF and its band of rewriters—he belongs to us. If we will have him.