A Plan to Update Shakespeare to Modern English Causes Consternation

By Ross Brenneman — October 08, 2015 2 min read
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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival rocked the literary world at the end of September with a bold announcement: Festival organizers are commissioning the translation of 39 Shakespearean plays into modern English.


Leaking the announcement in the Wall Street Journal, Columbia University professor John H. McWhorter offered an egalitarian reason for creating a modern-language Shakespeare:

But are we satisfied with Shakespeare's being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of "culture" and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

As the OSF clarifies, the “translations” are not wholesale modernizations, but attempts to soften some of the antiquated language while preserving the meaning of each work; as the organization states: “First, do no harm.” And second, the focus on language is made paramount: “The playwright must consider the meter, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric, character action and theme of the original. These translations are not adaptations.” And notably, of the 36 playwrights tasked with the undertaking, more than half will be women, and more than half will be people of color.

But the project has received pushback, this being Shakespeare and all. In a written protest published Tuesday in The New York Times, James Shapiro, also a professor at Columbia, argued that translations often miss some of the subtleties that made Shakespeare great:

Shakespeare borrowed almost all his plots and wrote for a theater that required only a handful of props, no scenery and no artificial lighting. The only thing Shakespearean about his plays is the language. I'll never understand why, when you attend a Shakespeare production these days, you find listed in the program a fight director, a dramaturge, a choreographer and lighting, set and scenery designers—but rarely an expert steeped in Shakespeare's language and culture.

Not so fast, though. In an essay published Tuesday in The New Yorker, contributor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, yet another professor (but one who at least has the decency not to be from Columbia University—he’s from Linfield College, in Oregon), points out that the language used in Shakespeare’s plays has not always been rigidly guarded, having been a victim of clumsy preservation and artistic license up until the end of the Victorian era:

Even in a climate of reverence for Shakespeare, the authentic text of his plays remains elusive. No manuscripts for the plays survive, so contemporary editions and performance scripts cobble together the most plausible passages from early quartos and folios, modernizing the spelling and punctuation and relying on the history of editorial emendations to clarify obscure cruxes.

Maybe most interesting, though, Pollack-Pelzner explains how Shakespeare become a guaranteed household name and his plays near-sacred academic texts: His plays “entered the new [English] compulsory public education system in 1870; the national assessment standards required classes to recite Shakespeare passages for an examiner.” If you want children to know something, in other words, test them on it.

And that brings us around to why teachers might pay attention to this effort: The whole Oregon initiative started in order to present Shakespeare in a meaningful way to new generations. Might not the debate—not to mention the new translations—offer teachers an entry point for discussing with students how to approach Shakespeare?

And I’ll add another comment: Have you watched the Fox hit “Empire”? It’s ripped right out of “King Lear,” and it’s amazing. One of the two is likelier to be more accessible to students than the other. If the text of “Lear” needs to be touched up so students can understand how freakin’ awesome it is, maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe that can be done in a way that isn’t condescending to students or diminishes literary comprehension skills.

Or maybe teachers can just throw “Empire” into the curriculum, at least as a supplement. Shakespeare never made a character quite like Cookie Lyon.

Image: Cordelia in the Court of King Lear (1873), by Sir John-Gilber. Source: Bridgeman Art Library/Wikipedia

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.