Shakespeare Safari

Two of the things I most like seeing in Washington, DC are Shakespeare performances at Harman Hall, the Folger Theater, and other venues, and the elephants at the  National Zoo.

I’m afraid, however, that the Bard and pachyderms have something else in common.

For years I’ve enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s plays in their original version before experiencing their live performance. Having first read the play, I much better comprehend what the actors are saying on stage and connect with the wonderful poetry, stories, and characters. I find pleasure in hearing the Early Modern English our ancestors spoke four centuries ago—it’s a form of time travel—and there’s an added bonus: reading Shakespeare is very good for the brain. 

However, I’ve begun noticing how theater companies seem to be “modernizing” or “translating” Shakespeare more and more. I recently tested that notion by reading Twelfth Night before seeing a Shakespeare Theater Company production.

As I read the Folger Library’s edition of Twelfth Night, I made a list of difficult words and phrases, such as “malapert,” “brabble,” and “passy-measures pavin.” My list numbered more than 100 such words and phrases, which I narrowed to 25. I took the list with me to the play and checked off the ones the actors spoke.

The results surprised me. Only about half of the words and phrases on my list made it into the performance, and there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason (as Shakespeare would say) as to which words were modernized, translated, or cut.

A word such as “crowner,” which is fairly close to its modern counterpart, “coroner,” would be translated, but the word “malapert,” which means “impudent,” remained unaltered. Cut was the phrase “cons state without a book” (which means “learns by heart the phrases of the great”), but the Latin phrase “cucullus non facit monachum” (proverbial for “the cowl doesn’t make a monk”) stayed in, albeit with vulgarized pronunciation (“facit” became “f*** it”).

Overall, the cuts and translations—along with added dialogue and songs with lyrics not written by Shakespeare—struck me as significant changes. It made me wonder whether performances in past decades varied from the original text to the same extent.

The movement to translate Shakespeare is gaining momentum: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for instance has hired 36 playwrights to “translate” 39 Shakespeare plays into “contemporary modern English” by the end of 2018. According to OSF’s website:

Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.

It seems to me that elephants and Shakespeare are each threatened with their own kind of extinction. For elephants, it’s extinction in the wild. For Shakespeare, it’s extinction of live performance of the plays in their original text. I have mixed feelings about “saving” both.

As sad as it is, one can view confining elephants in zoos and sanctuaries as an insurance policy that may save them from total extinction. On the other hand, are elephants in confinement—who at times exhibit unnatural behaviors such as pacing and swaying—really elephants anymore?

As for Shakespeare, modernizing or translating the plays to make them more accessible to audiences is a sensible, even laudable goal—otherwise live Shakespeare, at least in the United States, eventually could evaporate altogether. But over time, say several decades from now, what will live Shakespeare sound like? Confined to a prison of modernization, will Shakespeare still be Shakespeare?

Personally, I don’t think so. I can imagine a day when one will have to go on safari in England to find a live performance of untranslated Shakespeare.

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