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?”

Shakespeare vs. progressive education

Shakespeare can’t survive the progressive, multiculturalist principles taught in teacher education, writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory English professor, on Minding the Campus.

English teacher Dana Dusbiber refuses to teach Shakespeare because he’s too old, white, male and European, she wrote in the Washington Post.

She’s not some oddball, writes Bauerlien. Dusbiber learned in education school that students need to see their race represented in what they read. She was taught that “the past is irrelevant or worse,” that contemporary literature is “more real” than the “authoritarian” classics.

Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

Progressive education can’t admit that “Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance,” concludes Bauerlein. “If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.”

Shakespeare in court

Why read Shakespeare? Familiarity with the Bard will help understand Supreme Court opinions, writes Sasha Volokh.

Justice Scalia writes in various places in his King v. Burwell dissent:

Understatement, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act! . . .

Impossible possibility, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act! . . .

Contrivance, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act!

Scalia’s dissent in Johnson v. Transportation Agency (1987) cites Henry IV:

GLENDOWER: I can call Spirits from the vasty Deep.

HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?

I discovered this exchange when I was a kid watching The Hollow Crown,  a BBC series of Shakespeare’s historical plays. I’ve always loved it. (The BBC has released a new version of The Hollow Crown.)

Scalia isn’t the only Shakespeare-quoting justice, notes Volokh. In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002), a child pornography case, Justice Kennedy cites the teen-age lovers in Romeo and Juliet.

Why teach Shakespeare — or any literature?

Is our common culture centered on The Walking Dead rather than Hamlet?

Do we need to teach Shakespeare in high school? asks Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. For that matter, why require students to read literature?

Recently, an English teacher argued against teaching Shakespeare (dead, white male) in the Washington Post and another teacher made the pro-Shakespeare case. Both “seem to think that reading literature is primarily about ‘understanding the human condition’,” notes McArdle.

But anyone who knows teenagers, or can recall having been one, knows that this is bosh. I read King Lear in high school and thrilled to its language and imagery, but it did not teach me what it is like to be an old man desperate for the love of his children, because 17-year-olds can’t really imagine their own mortality, much less the near-certainty that they will one day be old while still feeling that they are not quite done being 17.

. . . I read The Learning Tree in seventh or eighth grade, and it was certainly much more accessible than Richard III but did not noticeably increase the grasp that I or my white and privileged classmates had on the tragic history of race and poverty in America. Children are natural solipsists, and it is time, not literature, that shocks them out of it.

In the New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig makes the “progressive case” for teaching Shakespeare. “The alien distance of Shakespeare’s world is precisely why he deserves a permanent place in the literary canon, especially if one is interested in inculcating a broad social and political imagination into young adults,” she writes.

Understanding the past through literature is possible only for those who can read well, responds McArdle. “Most schoolchildren are not going to read Dickens fluently and with enjoyment, the way quite ordinary people did in the 19th century.” And reading Dickens is a lot easier than reading Shakespeare.

Students can’t understand modern literature fully unless they have some familiarity with Shakespeare, the Bible and other classic texts, McArdle believes. But many people don’t want to read literature.  “Only about half of all Americans read a book for pleasure last year, and most of them were not reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them: because it is worthwhile to force them to read things that are hard, so that they can learn to do things that are hard; because it will make them a more educated and refined sort of person (which is to say, because it has snob value); or because it gives everyone a common cultural language that they can speak together.

. . . I rather suspect that for many people, the chief effect is to inculcate a hatred of reading.

Snob value is worthless, she adds, and “what common culture we do share is more likely to be found in hip-hop songs and Walking Dead episodes than the monologues of Hamlet.”

McArdle was an English major.

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.

A tale told by an idiot

‘Serial’ replaces Shakespeare

Future victim Hae Min Lee and convicted killer Adnan Syden are in the center of the photo with school friends.

Serial, a wildly popular weekly podcast rehashing a 1999 murder case, has replaced Hamlet in one California classroom, reports Slate.

Common Core standards emphasize critical thinking skills and nonfiction, says teacher Michael Godsey.  Serial, a This American Life spinoff, has reinvigorated the class, he says.

(Is Serial host Sarah Koenig a reliable narrator? Is she reporting the story as it unfolds in a straightforward manner or instead dropping hints and red herrings the way a wily mystery novelist would?)

Fifteen years ago, Hae Min Lee, a high school senior in Baltimore County, was murdered. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and is still in prison. He says he didn’t do it.

In a way, Serial is about as Shakespearean as a story can get: You’ve got young lovers whose families don’t approve of their relationship. There’s a backstabbing friend. And it’s all built around the investigation of a mysterious death, though in this case it’s veteran reporter Sarah Koenig doing the poking around, not an increasingly unstable Prince Hamlet. Serial unspools its story in the same conversational language students use every day but still gives Godsey a chance to talk about the same things he can get at with Shakespeare: characters, reliable narrators, story structure, foreshadowing.

Students are “citing direct evidence that leads to explicit meaning” and “inferring conclusions based on previous evidence,” writes Godsey on his blog.

But they’re not reading Shakespeare. In fact, since it’s a podcast, they’re not reading anything.

Serial has been funded for a second season. 

As Shakespeare turns 450, humanities are dying

In honor of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Jay Greene mourns the death of the humanities in U.S. schools.

He cites Harold Bloom: “Shakespeare not only invented the English language, but also created human nature as we know it today.”

“Teaching children about what it means to be a human being” isn’t important to “some of the more prominent” reform movements, writes Greene. They see school as “a mechanism for improving students’ economic prospects.” That’s not the most important element of education.

We aren’t gorillas, for whom zoo-keepers seek to optimize food, shelter, and longevity.  Unlike gorillas we are inclined to reflect on what our existence means and try to give that existence purpose.  Education should help guide us in doing that, not just train us to optimize food, shelter, and longevity by becoming the best future workers we can be.  To reflect on what it means to be a human being we need to learn the humanities, including history, literature, and art.

Few will admit hostility to the humanities, but “it is the dominant thrust in the 21st Century Skills movement, which is backed by the same people who gave us Common Core, with its shift away from literature to ‘informational texts’.”

Here’s a graphic that represents the key elements of 21st century learning:


Greene wonders where the humanities fit. The core subjects have to start with an “r” or deal with the 21st century.

Shakespeare’s words

A professor explains why Shakespeare is great in a chapter of a novel on WitNit. It starts with a student’s question:

“Shakespeare represents the view of the classic white-male eurocentric patriarchy, one that’s hundreds of years old, in a dated vocabulary that’s hard to understand. What’s his relevance today? I mean, what could Shakespeare possibly have to say to me, a Black-Hispanic lesbian?”

The professor gets “Mzzzz Powers” to admit that it’s useful to be able to distinguish between a “chair” and a “stool.” It’s better to have a larger vocabulary than a smaller vocabulary.

Mzzz Powers, suppose you and I walked into a garden, and while I was a novice in gardening, you were an expert gardener who had a command of the technical language and knowledge of botany and gardening. Would our experience of a particular garden be any different?”

. . . “We would not be seeing the same garden at all. I would merely see pretty flowers, maybe some trees and grass. I may be able to tell the difference between a rose and a tulip, but that is all. I would see the mere surface of the garden. It’s mere appearance. But you, Mzzz Powers…You would see an entirely different garden. You would be able to penetrate its depths. You would be able to recognize not only the different flowers?the carnations and snap dragons and pansies and hyacinths and lilies?you would also recognize the relative health of each of those flowers. You would recognize any pests or diseased plants. You would be able to spot where each plant and flower was in its life cycle. By their arrangement and care, you would know their past. In some cases, whether or not they were recently planted. You would know how much the person who tends the garden knows about his or her occupation. You would also know the difference between annuals and perennials. And this knowledge would allow you to see not only the present garden, but the future of that garden.

. . .  a true and rich vocabulary opens one to higher levels of perceptual and conceptual awareness. A specific vocabulary rewards you with a greater awareness, and the possibility of a deep causal awareness. The ability to distinguish true causes and their array of effects. And, were you so inclined, you would naturally begin seeing the world in terms of the garden. You would begin constructing metaphors and similes, perhaps even analogies, connecting life to that garden through an array of subtle similarities.”

The average person has a vocabulary of 3,000 words, the professor says. The King James Bible uses 4,300 words. John Milton “was a genius who mastered and crafted meaning out of a vocabulary of almost eight thousand words, more than almost all living writers.”  Then there’s Shakespeare.

When a gardener reads Shakespeare, she says that Shakespeare must have been a gardener, because he not only displays the technical terminology of botany and gardening and herbology, he demonstrates the kind of knowledge that comes from working in or studying closely a sophisticated English garden. When a lawyer reads Shakespeare, she tells us that Shakespeare must have had a legal education because he not only displays an astonishing range and accuracy with his use of legal terms, be he also commands an understanding of the history and philosophy of law. And you can point to other professions: actor, soldier, physician, courtier, historian, politician.”

. . .  “In his plays, he explores the range and depth of human emotions and experience. He explores love, but not just the young romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. He explores love between siblings, and parent and child, and comrades in arms, young love, middle-aged love, old love. Love between the low and the low, the low and the high, the high and the high, false love, true love, jaded love, betrayed love, self-love, love of good and love of indulgence. Like turning a diamond in the light, he explores every facet of love and hate and envy and greed and lust and jealousy and innocence and sweetness and revenge, and a hundred subtle emotional and intellectual states . . .

Shakespeare uses a vocabulary of more than 22,000 words, says the professor.  “And you wonder why you find reading him challenging, and you dare to wonder if Shakespeare has anything to teach you?”