Why translate Shakespeare

Romeo, Romeo, why are you Romeo? Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project will “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into language modern theater-goers can understand without footnotes.

ROMEO AND JULIET, from left: Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, 2013. ©Relativity Media/courtesy Everett Collection

Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as Romeo and Juliet ©Relativity Media/courtesy Everett Collection

It’s not “dumbing down,” writes Bill Rauch, the festival’s artistic director. “We have the opportunity to delve more deeply into the language of the texts and to create companion pieces (not replacements) to the original texts.”

OSF will produce the 37-play Shakespeare canon — with the original text — for the fifth time by 2024, he writes. In addition, one or more translations may be produced.

“There are shocking and glorious layers embedded in some of the language that are only accessible to most people by footnotes,” says Rauch. “The clarity we aspire to get from the translations will make us better appreciate the vibrancy of the original.”

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood played Tony and Maria in West Side Story.

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood played Tony and Maria in West Side Story.

After all, Rauch argues, “West Side Story didn’t replace Romeo & Juliet. Happily, it expanded the theatrical canon.”

“I’ll just be really honest to say I can’t understand all of it all the time,” Lue Douthit, OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, tells NPR.

Most Shakespeare products are adaptations, she says. Scenes are cut for length. Settings are changed to new time periods. But changing the language is different, say critics. A rose by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet.

“Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language,” says James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar and English professor at Columbia University. “It’s like the beer I drink; I drink 8.2 percent IPA. And by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light.”

Playwright Kenneth Cavander was asked to translate Timon of Athens.

Original passage: 

Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general filths
Convert o’th’ instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents’ eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal:
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law.


And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place …
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now — why wait? —
And do it while your parents watch … Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal — your bosses are crooks
In fine suits, bandits raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.

I have to say that “to general filths, convert o’th’ instant, green virginity” makes a lot more sense in the modern version. On the other hand, why lose “grave wrinkled?”

Romeo (hearts) Juliet

Shakespeare’s most famous plays have been translated to emoji, text speak and slang, reports the Daily Mail.  The OMG Shakespeare series includes YOLO Juliet, srsly Hamlet, A Midsummer Night #nofilter, and Macbeth #killing it.

In the OMG balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet text each other. Juliet confesses she “hearts” Romeo, though the Capulets will be “pissed” she’s talking with a Montague.

Balcony scene: In this extract from Romeo and Juliet, nearly 500 words of carefully-crafted verse, in which the characters profess their love, are condensed into a few lines of text speak, peppered with emoji

In the first scene of Srsly Hamlet, Marcellus takes a picture on his phone of the ghost of the late King Hamlet before showing it to fellow guardsmen Bernardo and Horatio.

“Dumbing down” Shakespeare’s language is well-intentioned but “absolutely disastrous,” said Alan Smithers, a University of Buckingham professor. “Let’s make Shakespeare more accessible to children and students – but let’s do it with better teaching.”

Is Shakespeare necessary?

Does Romeo and Juliet have any interest for today’s students?

Shakespeare’s just another dead white male with nothing to say to ethnically diverse students, writes a California English teacher, who’s featured on Answer Sheet.

Dana Dusbiber doesn’t like Shakespeare herself — the language is too difficult — and doesn’t teach it to her “ethnically diverse” students.

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior.

. . .  as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important.

Shakespeare lived in “a small world,” she believes. The oral tradition of Africa, Latin America or Southeast Asia “includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior,” writes Dusbiber.

If there’s not enough time to do it all, dump the Western canon. “If we only teach students of color, . . . then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, if we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives.”

It is “ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare,”, responds Matthew Truesdale, who teaches English at a rural South Carolina high school. He likes to teach Othello.

So what Shakespeare wrote 450 years ago is not applicable to her teaching today?  Ethnically diverse students don’t foolishly fall in love and over-dramatize every facet of that experience?  Or feel jealousy or rage?  Or fall victim to discrimination?  Or act desperately out of passion?  To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as “NOW.”

. . . When the general Othello, who has lived a life full of valor and who has had experiences far beyond and far greater than those of his men, still falls victim to Iago’s head games for no other reason than that he is different, an other, and can’t quite forget that, no matter his accomplishments, we empathize precisely because we’ve been there.

Teachers can link Shakespeare’s plays with other traditions, writes Truesdale. But we shouldn’t assume Shakespeare is for whites (or white male British-Americans) only.  Dusbiber’s argument “turns the English classroom into a place where no one should be challenged or asked to step out of their comfort zone, where we should not look beyond ourselves.” 

I’ve always thought people read Shakespeare for the language, not for life lessons. Well, I guess students could learn that feigning death is not the best way to get out of an arranged marriage. And don’t commit suicide — or murder your wife or your king —  too quickly. It might not be a good idea. On the other hand, don’t think too long about murdering your uncle. Get on with it before 3/4 of the Elsinore population is dead too and you need a Norwegian mop-up crew.

As it happens, I’m on my way to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to see some plays. For fun.

Fifth-grade reading in high school

High school students need to read challenging books to prepare for college and informed citizenship, writes Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas in response to to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report. High school students’ top 40 books average a 5.3 (just about fifth grade) reading level, according to the company, which makes Accelerated Reader. That’s down from 6.1 in the 2008 report, notes Stotsky.

This republic cannot flourish in the 21st century, no matter how much time English or reading teachers spend teaching “21st century skills” . . . if the bulk of our population is reading at or below the fifth-grade level.

Accelerated Reader software quizzes students on their reading and awards points based on difficulty. The report doesn’t count books without a quiz. But AR now includes a very large number of books.

It’s not just that students choose easy books, Stotsky writes. According to the report, librarians are recommending books of interest to high school students that are written at the fourth- to fifth-grade level.

Readability formulas don’t tell us about the literary aspects of a literary text, but they do provide objective measures of vocabulary difficulty and sentence complexity. And why no serious historical nonfiction?

The list of most frequently read graphic novels shows many high school students are reading “classics” reweritten at a second-, third- or fourth-grade level, Stotsky writes. Examples are: Harriet Tubman and the Underground
Railroad, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time Machine, A Midsummer Night’s DreamJane EyreDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Letter and A Christmas Carol.

Only Romeo and Juliet is on the top 40 list for all high school students. “In a few years, struggling readers may be more familiar with the “classics” as rewritten than regular readers are with them as written,” Stotsky fears.

Common Core Standards writer David Coleman also sees a problem: “If you examine the top 40 lists of what students are reading today in sixth–twelfth grade, you will find much of it is not complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” The reports includes Common Core Standards’ “exemplars” of nonfiction and fiction books recommended at different grade levels.

Online enrollment soars

On Community College Spotlight: Online enrollment in college classes increased by 21 percent last year.

Romeo can hear but Juliet is deaf  in a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy at a Colorado community college. Actors use English and American Sign Language.