American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission’s Response to the Shakespeare Translation Project

As most Shakespeare nerds know by now, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, America’s largest Shakespeare theatre, has undertaken an ambitious project they are calling “Play On!” in which 39 playwrights and 39 dramaturges will undertake to “translate” 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.  This announcement has provoked the predictable amount of consternation throughout the Shakespeare world, enough consternation that as the Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, whose mission is to recover the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity… through performance and education, I would like to share my thoughts on this project, both positive and negative, with our many friends.

Here’s what I like about the project:

(1) To begin with, I applaud the size, scope, and ambition of the project.

Ever since Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, arrived in Ashland in 2007, he has brought to the Festival the kind of expansive vision of a theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people.  That vision undergirded his first project, Cornerstone Theatre, in which Bill and his colleagues, fresh out of Harvard, would go into communities without theatres and create a production with the citizens.  That vision – so American in its principles and in its optimism – was also the foundation for his first big project at OSF, American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle, for which he has commissioned American playwrights to attempt to create a collection of plays that helps define America in the way that Shakespeare’s history plays helped to define England.  One offspring of that project, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about LBJ and the civil rights movement, has already won the Tony for Outstanding Play.

The “Play On!” project matches Bill Rauch’s other work, and in its intention to create Shakespeare scripts of the people, by the people, and for the people, it matches as well the giving and inclusiveness that informs OSF under his remarkable leadership.  To appreciate what he has accomplished, locate Ashland, Oregon, on a map, and you will see that it’s a small city (Staunton’s size) in the isolated southwest corner of Oregon, five hours from Portland.  Always devoted to first-class work, the Festival’s location trapped it more than most urban Shakespeare companies in the predominant Shakespeare audience base of affluent and aging white people – a place to get away from the world rather than a place to engage it.  I do not know how their new programming has changed their audience demographics, but the increased diversity of the actors and staff at OSF and the emphasis on musicals and new plays have certainly made the season’s offerings look less daunting to non-Shakespeare fans as well as more interesting to experienced theatre-goers who are looking for something new and would rather not see their tenth production of Macbeth.

(2) Some good that will come from the “Play On!” project.

Already it has prompted the kind of controversy that keeps the importance of Shakespeare in the public view.  It’s made people think about their experiences seeing and hearing Shakespeare. It’s giving employment to 39 playwrights and – even more rarely – a like number of dramaturges.  And that means, inevitably, that by the end of the project, 78 very smart people, who have wrestled with replacing Shakespeare’s words (as our actors do when they try to paraphrase their lines) will be in awe of his skill, and they will approach their crafts both with more humility and with more skill.

I hope that once the scripts are all in, OSF will plan a grand convocation of these men and women to talk about their experience of trying to retain, in the words of OSF’s Director of Literary Development Lue Douthit, “the rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme” of the original.  Lue, if you’re reading this, please invite me to that occasion.  I promise not to say a word, just soak in the inevitable awe these re-creators will feel faced with what Andrew Hartley, in the answering question “Why Shakespeare?” (The Shakespeare Dramaturg, p.70), calls the “unequaled…poignancy or precision” of Shakespeare’s words and phrases “unparalleled elsewhere.”   Our actors feel it every time they play a role; our students feel it every time they study a line.  Imagine what 36 playwrights and 36 dramaturges will feel after trying to put an entire play into their own words.

(3) Clearly this project does no harm to Shakespeare, even in Ashland.

OSF assures fans of Shakespeare that over the next ten years they will produce all of Shakespeare’s plays in the original and that “one or more of” the plays created “may be produced along with the original canon.”  These scripts will be food for readings and discussion around the country. Shakespeare’s works have always stood up to the “translation” – in a real sense, every production is a new “translation.”  Changing words, characters, scenes, plots – none of that is new. Whenever I direct a production, I’ll change a word or twenty.  In our current production of Midsummer Night’s Dream “on her withered dewlap” became “on her withered bosom”; and the fairies’ lullaby to Titania about “spotted snakes” became a soft shoe version of “By the Light of Silvery Moon.”  Am I ashamed?  Kind of.  Is Shakespeare rolling in his grave?  No seismic activity in Stratford-upon-Avon has been reported.

As our board member Kim West pointed out, this kind of “translation has been going on since Nahum Tate updated King Lear in 1681.”  Who knows how many Nahum Tates the project might produce?  In one way or another every play is only the first version of a work, changed with each production; and all of this reworking of Shakespeare in whatever language, in whatever medium, from musicals to film to comic books to TV sitcoms to Andy Griffith’s radio retelling of Romeo and Juliet, never lessened the value of his work – all of this has only given the originals more currency.

Here’s what I don’t like about the project:

(1) The OSF project assumes that Shakespeare’s language is not our language.

The rationale for the project is that Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand because his language is too far from our own and that audiences of a far wider range would enjoy the plays better if they were written in contemporary language.  I don’t like this rationale, because I think the assumption it makes about Shakespeare’s language is wrong and the assumption it makes about what audiences are capable of enjoying underestimates audiences, actors, and the nature of theatre.

Yes, we could all use larger vocabularies, but if you’re going to start simplifying language to reach those who don’t have a large enough vocabulary, then don’t pick on Shakespeare without picking on Shaw, Wilde, Coward, Williams, Churchill, Stoppard, and Sondheim.  For that matter go after Deadwood, West Wing, Justified, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek. Shoot, go after Sesame Street.

The Wall Street Journal’s John McWhorter approves wholeheartedly of the project and tells us that 10% of the words in Shakespeare are “incomprehensible.”  That number vastly exaggerates the number of archaic words in Shakespeare and ignores altogether the way context – the other words being spoken and the way the actor speaks them – helps us comprehend.  In fact, 98% of Shakespeare’s words are either in our dictionaries as current usage English or as a close cousin of the current English.

(2) The OSF project robs from rather than adds to the meaning of the plays.

It ignores the pleasure of the unconscious experience of comprehending expanded meaning.  For example, here’s a passage from Macbeth that McWhorter wants updated. It’s Macbeth considering whether he should kill the King, Duncan:

………………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

so clear in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his taking-off.

McWhorter prefers this “translation” by Conrad Spoke:

………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne authority so meek, hath been

so pure in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his knocking-off.

McWhorter would substitute “authority” for “faculties” because he says he doesn’t know what “bearing one’s faculties” means. He doesn’t? Today we use “faculties” to mean “abilities,” – the very first definition in Merriam Webster – and pretty precisely what Shakespeare meant.  In fact the substituted “authority” is not what Macbeth is talking about.  Nor is the substituted “pure in office” the same as the original “clear in his office.”  Jimmy Carter was “pure” in his office; Ronald Reagan was “clear.” Shakespeare’s “clear” could hardly be clearer.

Most alarmingly, McWhorter champions “knocking-off” for “taking-off.”  He would choose a current slang word for “murder” instead of Macbeth’s invented phrase “taking-off.”  But even children listening to Macbeth contemplate this murder would know what “taking-off” means, and they would also know – as would the actor playing the part – that it’s a feeble euphemism, that Macbeth can’t bring himself even to say “murder,” and that is the real story of this moment. The actor performing the “translated” line would lose this moment, and the audiences listening to that “translation” would lose this insight into the mind of a man for the first time considering the murder.  Shakespeare’s word – easy to comprehend in context – provides the full understanding, whereas in McWhorter’s term the substituted word gives us only a “half understanding.”

(3) The OSF project ignores the joy of acquiring language.

We go to Shakespeare better equipped with the language that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights left us than his own audiences, audiences who went to the theatre to hear that language invented for the first time.  The theatre is where people – literate and illiterate – went to learn new words by having them performed by actors who can show you their meanings.  In short they went in search of new words and of old words being stretched to new limits.

We do that too – with Stoppard and Pinter and Beckett plays; with comedians Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and Stephen Colbert; with television like Key and Peele and Wired, with lyricists from Sondheim to Notorious B.I.G.  Even when some of it flies by us, we enjoy the rush of new words in new arrangements.

(4) The OSF project endorses ShakesFear.

We go to Shakespeare unnecessarily afraid, worried about missing something, worried about vocabulary as though we were taking the SAT.  That irrational and unhelpful worry I call ShakesFear, and my main objection to the OSF project is that it endorses ShakesFear, and in doing so it misunderstands the nature of theatre and underestimates the genius of audiences.  It promotes the anxiety about Shakespeare that is a primary obstacle to its enjoyment.

(5) The OSF project takes actors and directors off the hook.

Play On!” shifts the responsibility for “comprehensible” Shakespeare to these 39 playwrights and away from actors and directors who themselves are uninterested in the way the language in the plays work.

Actors who don’t know precisely what the words are can’t make up the difference with an emotional wash, and directors whose aim is foremost the imposition of a concept can sometimes make comprehension harder.  As James Shapiro writes in The New York Times, “To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse.  They will search for them in vain in the translation.”

From the day Jim Warren and I started the company, the American Shakespeare Center has made the comprehension of Shakespeare’s language and an understanding of the way the meter and the syntax work the first business of rehearsal.  We are continually looking for the ways that staging can clarify meaning for his audiences.  We don’t always get it right in our fight against ShakesFear, but repeatedly we hear from audiences, “That was the first time I had no trouble understanding the play” or “I forgot it was Shakespeare” or – our favorite – “That was great. Who translated it into modern English?” And then we get to tell the patron that the words were Shakespeare’s and that he himself effortlessly did the “translation.”

The greatest gift of a good Shakespeare production is this kind of unconscious “translation” – an occasion when performance combines with the wellspring of our language to enlarge us.

(6) The OSF project condescends to certain audiences.

My final concern about the OSF project is the soft discrimination of its low expectations.  As I have said, the plan is meant to be a part of OSF’s admirable push to make Shakespeare of the people, by the people, and for the people.  But those people are less in need of help than OSF imagines.  Children are always swimming in a sea of new language; it’s how they learn.  For an adult, Much Ado about Nothing may be harder than The Important of Being Earnest, but for the eight-year-old, they present similar challenges – or, depending on your point of view, opportunities.  The OSF project would deprive the very audiences it’s concerned about of those opportunities by creating a kind of “separate but equal” Shakespeare.

OSF’s project, in worrying about making Shakespeare easier, endorses the wrong idea that Shakespeare is too hard. But it is just the right kind of hard. In the words of our Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, “Shakespeare is not easy; it is not neat, it is not without complications; it is not always understandable. Just like life. And just like life, it is miraculous.  And it is work.  And it is worth it.”

As I said at the start, the OSF project has done all of us a favor by raising the issue of how we deal with the rich gift of Shakespeare.  First thing we do, let’s not underrate it.

Ralph Alan Cohen

ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission

 

*This post was edited on 10/10 to correct the numbering in the second section and correct “quipped” to

“equipped.”

14 thoughts on “American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission’s Response to the Shakespeare Translation Project

  1. “That was the first time I had no trouble understanding the play” Doesn’t this phrase, which you report proudly is often used to describe your productions, give the lie to much of the rest of the essay? Specifically: “I don’t like this rationale, because I think the assumption it makes about Shakespeare’s language is wrong and the assumption it makes about what audiences are capable of enjoying underestimates audiences, actors, and the nature of theatre.” Doesn’t the compliment you embrace reveal that this assumption is in fact correct? Every interpreter of Shakespeare wants to believe they are the exception to this rule, but when the most common compliment they receive is the one above, don’t we all have to admit we’re not all exceptions and the vast majority of productions fail to overcome this obstacle?

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    • The only thing the phrase reveals is that audiences come to Shakespeare expecting to be confused, not that Shakespeare is, in fact, confusing. This belief could be crafted due to a bad high school production, an unimaginative teacher, or someone who told an audience member, “This is old English – it’s inaccessible” before they even read or heard the play.

      In some way, shouldn’t audiences should come to ALL theatre expecting to be a little confused, at least for the first ten or fifteen minutes? An audience learns the playwright’s language over the course of two hours – Annie Baker writes in tense, weighty silences; Sarah Ruhl writes in visual metaphor; JP Shanley writes in bombastic, gutteral poetry. They take a little getting used to, and not everyone likes all of those playwrights – nor should they be expected to. Shakespeare is no different. Just as our palates change and develop throughout our life, so, too, our ears and eyes and hearts evolve to understand characters, story, and language. Not everyone has to like Shakespeare, but they should make that decision by encountering his works directly.

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  2. This phrase does not give the lie to much of the rest of the essay. It seems clear to me that Professor Cohen may be tooting his own horn a bit, but that he is consistent in his insistence that any difficulty encountered in understanding the language of Shakespeare’s plays is not the result of the language, its archaisms, its syntax or grammar, but rather that difficulty may be attributed to failure on the part of the “interpreters” to present that language clearly.

    Perhaps you have not seen any productions at The American Shakespeare Center, but, rest assured, their rigorous approach to text-analysis (Disclosure: I acted in their 2011 production of Henry V) and linguistic fidelity (Cohen’s confessed peccadilloes against the text are trivial, perhaps unnecessary, compromises akin to OSF’s sin, but microscopic in proportion) does produce shows that, in comparison with the vast majority of productions of Shakespeare’s plays, are remarkably comprehensible. I have my complaints about the way Shakespeare is presented at the ASC, but they have nothing to do with being able to understand the words.

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  3. Thanks for approaching both sides of this so thoroughly, Ralph. On the instructional end, I am a firm believer, to quote Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, that rigor resides in our students, not in the texts we assign. This week, my AP Literature students are doing scene work on Othello. They’re cutting scripts and making choices about performance related to character status and motivation. I don’t give them anything other than the original text, not even (gasp!) the Folger translation. And they’re well able to navigate, speculate, and articulate their angles on the texts. Translation is not in service of our students. Let then translate with their bodies, break through the barriers of the language to discover multiple meanings for themselves. To quote Tina Packer, we need to “get Shakespeare into their bodies.” Will a translation be likely to have that physical impact? Only time will tell.

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  4. This is exactly how I feel about this. Working in professional theatre, I have been shocked by actors that did not approach the language with confidence and skill, and since audiences assumed that they’d only get 60-70% of what’s going on, it was acceptable that emotion replaced specificity. This is why many professional (and community theatre) productions reinforce the idea that Shakespeare’s language is “too hard” or too different to understand. I love your term “ShakesFear.”

    When you do the work, you get remarkable results. And when you break down the barriers of stereotype, culture and logistics, and bring Shakespeare to everyone (I participated in the Old Globe’s inaugural Globe For All, where we took a show to combat veterans, community centers, homeless shelters and prisons), they understand it, appreciate it, enjoy it, and own it. Shakespeare belongs to everyone. OSF’s project by itself poses no harm, and I love the diversity of writers it is employing, but it does reinforce the idea that Shakespeare isn’t for everyone. All that to say thank you for this wonderful summation of the costs and benefits of this high profile project.

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  5. It’s always terrifying when so-called “experts” start screwing around with somebody else’s language to “improve” it…I’m sure even Winston Smith in “1984” would see the irony here…

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  6. Pingback: ShakesFear | Or What You Will

  7. Your reasons for liking the project seem like flattery and political correctness compared to the compelling and convincing argument you make against this misallocation of $$$ and talent.

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  8. I keep seeing examples claiming the ‘translation’ is to going to be better than the original work. This example from Macbeth is not better. A good actor would make the original work.

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  9. Shakespeare is performed in languages other than English and is said to be the most performed dramatist in the world with new translations appearing regularly. Do all of the foreign language performances fail simply because they are translations? That is what Cohen and Shapiro imply. They seem to be deifying Shakespeare’s language and exaggerating how difficult it is to match its subtlety. Yet if Shakespeare works so well in foreign languages, then it is not the particular dialect of English that makes Shakespeare great. Most of his plays, after all, are not masterpieces, though they all employ the same dialect. All dialects of English are capable of subtle expression.

    Remember these plays were never polished, professionally edited documents. They were scripts used to put on a show and then tossed in a drawer. Some were sloppily published in Shakespeare’s day but no authoritative editions exist. And unlike the sonnets, which he meant for publication and polished up nicely, with his plays, he pretty much left us a mess that scholars have been sorting through for 400 years.

    Here is my verse translation of the above passage from Macbeth. I sensed the often glossed “taking off” as being euphemistic:

    ………….Besides, King Duncan
    Has been so humble in his use of power,
    So blameless in high office that his virtues
    Like angels, trumpet-tongued, will plead against
    The deep damnation of removing him.

    Keep in mind that these lines stream past the audience at 150 words or more minute.

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