An uproar ensued after it was reported that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)—southern Oregon’s 80-year-old annual theatrical extravaganza—would be commissioning playwrights to “translate” all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.
The project drew jeers from Shakespearean professors, arts practitioners and others who believe passionately in the power of Shakespeare’s original texts, who abhor any attempt to “dumb down” their language.
OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Douthit and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch maintain that OSF is undertaking a bold, not sacrilegious, experiment. Nevertheless, howls of outrage have followed what Douhit ruefully has deemed a “career-ending” announcement for those involved.
As an educator and lover of Shakespearean drama, I remain committed to the value of presenting Shakespeare’s plays in their original language. I require my students to read Shakespeare’s plays in their original form, and through my work on the World Shakespeare Project, I’ve witnessed undergraduates in places such as Uganda, rural India and Buenos Aires enthusiastically respond to the challenge.
Yet the outrage over the OSF’s new modernization project is misguided. The organization—which is known for experimentation—is simply participating in larger, centuries-long tradition of molding, melding and adapting Shakespeare’s original texts.
Shakespeare for dummies?
Among those criticizing the new project is Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, a prominent Shakespearean scholar who maintains that “by changing the language in this modernizing way…it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of [the original] language.”
Earlier this month, before an audience at Shakespeare’s Globe, he added, “It’s a really bad idea.”
Notably, however, Shapiro (along with many others) responded quite differently to the translation of a different classic text. On Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s oft-praised 1999 rewriting of Beowulf, Shapiro wrote in The New York Times:
Examples like this add up to a translation that manages to accomplish what before now had seemed impossible: a faithful rendering that is simultaneously an original and gripping poem in its own right.
In this instance, at least, Heaney’s talent apparently overcame Shapiro’s objections to the concept.
The playwrights the company has commissioned to “modernize” the language of Shakespeare’s works may or may not achieve the majesty attributed to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. But for whatever reason, changing the language of Shakespeare remains an anathema, while the setting, costuming and theoretical conceptualization of his plays are fair game for innovation.
The hottest theater ticket in Britain at the moment, for example, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which caused similar outrage for opening with the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, rather than the traditional “Who’s there?.” By the end of previews, the speech was moved back to (one of) the places it traditionally resides. Cumberbatch’s audiences have been comparatively silent, however, about the production’s addition of modern props, like a phonograph player.
London’s Young Vic Theatre, meanwhile, is currently presenting a strong version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with a set filled with dozens of naked, anatomically correct, inflatable dolls. Like the phonograph player on the set of Hamlet, it’s unlikely that theatergoers will object to the dolls, nor will they protest the video screens employed during the performance.
But when it comes to changing the language—well, the main objection, it appears, stems from concerns that it will encourage series such as Shakespeare for Dummies or No Fear Shakespeare, which presents original Shakespearean text adjacent to what its editors call “the kind of English people actually speak today.”
Such projects are understandable, if worrisome. Shakespeare does have a reputation for being too dense for ordinary people to easily comprehend.
At the same time, there are many remarkable projects that bring Shakespeare’s plays to even the most unconventional audiences. There’s Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars, which offers prisoners the opportunities to present full-length Shakespeare plays, while former Royal Shakespeare Company artist Kelly Hunter’s project Shakespeare’s Heartbeat uses Shakespearean drama as the basis for games designed for children with autism.
It’s worth noting the OSF is not planning to replace Shakespeare’s original texts during its current presentation of the complete Shakespearean canon, which will take place over the next decade.
While the company hopes that the newly commissioned versions of Shakespeare will be performed in Oregon and elsewhere, they also retain their commitment to presenting the conventional texts, albeit with regular tweaks and cuts.
As Shapiro and many others admit, Shakespearean drama has been altered, rewritten and reimagined repeatedly since the plays were first presented during the reigns of Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart.
During the English Restoration, King Lear was given a happy ending. More recently, the 2001 film Scotland, Pa. offered a modern retelling of Macbeth, set at a fast food restaurant. Henry IV found itself placed among male prostitutes in Oregon in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. Even Justin Kurzel’s acclaimed new film Macbeth opens with a twist: the funeral of Macbeth’s toddler.
The best adaptations—West Side Story, the musical Kiss Me, Kate and the Japanese film Throne of Blood—thrive. The bad, silly and unfortunate—Romeo and Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss and Animal Planet’s Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey’s Tale—fall by the wayside.
As poet Andrew Marvell might say, there is “world enough and time” for any number of Shakespearean adaptations and iterations.
While Shakespeare’s original language is remarkably rich and compelling, like Cleopatra, “age will not wither it.” Neither will OSF’s revisionary experimentation.