A Tragedy of Shakespearean Proportions

A Tragedy of Shakespearean Proportions

IMG_3042Forgive me as I wax passionately poetic on something that really riseth my passion, and chapeth my hide.

I read recently that The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has  commissioned a translation of all of The Bard’s plays into contemporary modern English.

OK, fine.

But perhaps the saddest, and most egregious of their aspirations is that they intend these adaptations to be used as teaching tools! To change the original, and pass it off as canon.

Inconceivable! (And yes, that word does mean what I think it means)

These translation heretics say that their goal is to increase people’s understanding of Shakespeare’s work. Well, YES! I am all for increased understanding! I am all for interpretation! …Of individual performances though, not of altering the original art.

Fans, affectionados, and purists all recognize and innately understand the bard’s words, but only after some study. All will also admit that the literal meaning of those words has often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.

Yes, Shakespeare goes over our heads.

But, that is because we (in the words of Professor John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society) “…don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.”

I for one am passionate about Shakespeare, but some people find Shakespeare’s language very difficult to follow. I know this first hand, as Downtown Dad can attest, (and protest) to all of my attempts to share a bit of humor or profound thought that I find from my reading. Downtown Dad and other remedial readers welcome simplification of the plays’ language if they don’t have someone at hand (like me) to explain. But, consider this: What a sad travesty of Western culture and values when everything has to be oversimplified because social media-obsessed teenagers and young adults can’t be expected to exert themselves and enjoy the luminous quality and profundity of great literature?

Shakespeare is, first and foremost, a performing art. Yes, you have to read the text before you see the play, sometimes repeatedly. But, for me,  there’s where the magic is. If you’ve put in the work beforehand, once you see the performance, you are drawn back again and again to the printed words.

Its like you and Shakespeare just had a private moment and the joke is on the rest of the world because they just don’t get it.  

Shakespeare’s work is almost all derivative, (meaning that he got the plot from stories that already existed) but the magic he brought to these stories is the way he made it universally accessible. You can enjoy it without understanding everything, but the more you understand the context in which it was written, the more you can enjoy it on multiple levels.

Here’s my secret: Reading Shakespeare will teach you the skills to treat his writing as a kind of secret code. This, I think gives you the tools to pick the play apart; decide for yourself what it’s about; and how that fits into your life.

And, another thing! Shakespeare’s plays weren’t meant to be read silently in a vacuum. That is to say, the words were meant to be heard. In addition to having to write poetically as was the manner of his time, Shakespeare was also a notorious punster. His abuse of the language literally wrote the book on performance comedy and twist of phrase.

The fleeting time that the actors actually strut and fret upon the stage, are mere stage business. The costumes, lighting, sets, and music, are also all temporary, and use as their unwavering foundation, the inimitable, uneditable, groundbreaking words of The Bard himself. 

Of all of these, I think the most important reason to not “mess with the Bard” is that Shakespeare’s writing, at it’s heart, is poetry. The Sonnets undisputedly so, but to a fan, a scholar, a student of Shakespeare, so too are the plays. These words, historic words have importance beyond their mere dictionary meaning.  To change them would be to alter the poetic meaning, the meter, the original iambic pentameter.  Is it accurs-ED or accursed? Is it t’ward, or toward? And why? 

Learning Shakespeare IS learning another language – a language that no longer exists, but is a hauntingly transcendent ancestor to our own. It seems not only a shame, but a sin to squeeze the Bard’s magnificent idiom into contemporary form, even in the service of accessibility.

One of the things I most love about Shakespeare is his use of English, the original English from England. That’s not translatable, because it’s his use of English in the context of the time that I love.The thing that makes Shakespeare so great is that the plays stand the test of time, and are meaningful four full centuries later, not just one way but many ways.

The beauty of Shakespeare is not in the comprehension of each word, or the meaning of each sentence, but in the lyrical qualities such incomprehensibility holds. Deciphering the word play as written, is truly magical. Moreover, it does something to the brain that is badly needed in this day and age: to engage the right side – the creative side. There’s no need to be literal. As I said, the stories are rather simple, and not original. The important thing is to let the magic of incomprehensibility engage your imagination. In my humble opinion, efforts to “modernize” the original text will destroy this magical beauty. 

You learn to enjoy food by eating and cooking things, and not by reading cookbooks without ever experiencing the taste, texture, aroma and feel of the food. Yes, archaic language is a speed bump, but it’s not nearly as big a hassle as it’s made out to be, because that IS NOT not the point of the exercise.

Read Shakespeare’s  plays, watch Shakespeare’s plays, enjoy the experience, then read the text again to see how the words make up that enjoyable experience.

In his words… The play’s the thing!


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