The Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently launched a potentially game-changing and controversial new project with one aim: to make Shakespeare more contemporary. The plays’ structures and plots will remain unchanged, but the language will undergo a complete modernization in order to create stories that are deemed more accessible for the 21st century play-goer.
While the project is certainly ambitious and intriguing, I disagree with the notion that Shakespeare needs to be altered in order to make his work understandable. It’s true that many people find the dated language of Shakespeare’s plays a bit intimidating. However, we often forget that plays are intended to be heard and seen live at the theater instead of studied as literature.
Of course, there is value in studying Shakespeare on the page. Yet in terms of accessibility, most Shakespearean actors are able to communicate the meaning behind the potentially confusing lines through their performance. For instance, humorous moments are often conveyed more clearly when acted out on stage, making it easier for the audience to not only understand, but also enjoy those moments, even in the original old English.
Shakespearean language requires that the audience pay attention to the context of the words—perhaps more so than with contemporary plays. As such, we shouldn’t encourage audience laziness by modernizing the language. In fact, an active audience was an important aspect of the theatre tradition of Shakespeare’s time, with patrons of the theatre interacting directly with the actors during the play. Shakespearean language, despite its surface difficulty, demands audience attention in a way that contemporary English does not.
Thus, because the rewrite of Shakespeare is solely intended for the stage instead of for academic study – where meaning will not be lost on the audience – it is unnecessary to create some kind of warped Shakespeare play that loses the original poetic qualities of the writing. An integral part of Shakespeare’s plays is the heightened language, the intimate and strangely balanced rhyme scheme and wordplay.
These more sophisticated and eloquent elements of the plays can potentially be lost by modernizing the language, destroying the special, elevated sensations Shakespeare wrote into his original plays. In fact, I would even say that the playwright attempting the rewrite can be considered arrogant for thinking that he or she could possibly match the original.
Further, colloquial language simply does not convey the intent with which Shakespeare, or any playwright, wrote his or her plays. Much like works in translation, certain smaller elements of the story are altered between languages, which oftentimes detracts from the original meaning. However, the function of translating works is to make them accessible for people who do not speak the original language at all; this form of rewriting is a different situation entirely.
Shakespeare’s work is already in English, albeit an older version of English. Still, I contend that if you can understand English well enough to understand the contemporary version of Shakespeare, true, genuine Shakespeare performed on a stage is equally accessible.
I see the attempt by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as needless, pointless and damaging to the original works. Shakespeare’s canon is a treasure trove of fascinating language that, ultimately, should not be subverted in favor of something more contemporary simply because people are intimidated.
Katie Jeddeloh ’18 (email@example.com) is from Denver, Colo. She majors in English and political science.