The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is putting together a project to translate Shakespeare's plays into "contemporary modern English." The first problem with the New York Times article about the project: it doesn't explain that Shakespeare wrote in what linguists define as modern English, which is to say the language we currently speak. If we take the organizers of the Festival's word, that we are now at a point where we have to translate the "modern English" of Shakespeare, than we are now all but officially speaking a different language. Still, in the eighteenth century, poets started "translating" the Middle English of Chaucer. Although I and many college students enjoy parsing Chaucer's Middle English, I wouldn't even bother with an edition that didn't include both an original and a translation. So I'm not sure if I'm one hundred percent willing to reject the idea of translating Shakespeare.
I'm about ninety-five percent sure.
I can only write as a layman who took one wonderful undergraduate course on Shakespeare -- taught by James Shapiro, who ripped into the Festival's project last year -- and makes it to one or two Shakespeare performances a year. I'm an avid theater-goer in a town with a fantastic theater scene. Seattle has one Shakespeare troupe, whose productions have been hit-or-miss. I grew up in Washington, D.C. which had a well-respected Shakespeare company. Their best productions featured Derek Smith, who would go on to a long career playing Scar in the Broadway production of The Lion King. He was often one of the few people on stage who knew exactly which word would make a line funny. I don't know if he had a background in stand-up comedy, but I wouldn't have been surprised. I wonder if every production had not one but 25 Derek Smiths, we wouldn't feel the need to translate Shakespeare.
I also think of Shapiro's argument, that even audiences in Shakespeare's time found his work difficult. I was flipping through a collection of Marlowe's plays someone had left behind in the hallway the other night in my office, while I was procrastinating on a grant application. I have to say that I found him a lot easier to read. We make a mistake when we equate age with difficulty. To move the argument to prose, Daniel Defoe is a lot easier to read than Thomas Pynchon.
The young playwrights, many of them women and members of ethnic minorities, in this project, according to the Times article, complain of elitism in the criticism. They point to the undeniable fact that no one, even the smartest theater goers, know everything that goes on in a Shakespeare play. And they have a point. I will concede that I would get at least one key plot point wrong if I saw a Shakespeare production with 25 Derek Smiths.
But I suppose what bothers me most is not the closing of the gap between high and low culture, as much as an unwillingness to embrace difficulty, the unwillingness to accept the unexplainable, or to demand that audiences do work.
The truth is, we do make these demands in some of our contemporary work of mass or semi-mass culture. There's a lot of poetry and difficulty in the dialogue in The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Deadwood (2004-2006), and, as in King Lear, glaring plot holes and ambiguous character motivations. Several scenes deserve to be watched again. There's a lot of pleasure to be had in parsing the weirdness of David Milch's diction if you have the time to do so.
I think it's wrong to compare these translations of Shakespeare to the destruction of temples in the Middle East. The original of Shakespeare will always be available for the elite to study. When you destroy a temple, it isn't available to anyone. And the translations may come up with curious surprises, although I would rather we spend more time examining the surprises inherent in Shakespeare's own poetry. I would like to live in a world in which the elite, and the non-elite, well, everyone, appreciated difficulty and enjoyed the game of engaging with a work of art that doesn't provide ready answers.
Side note: Do you live in a town that regularly puts on productions of Ibsen, Strindberg, Marlowe, Shaw, O'Casey, Sheridan, Brecht? Because I don't. I would like to live in that town.