“Translating” Shakespeare

When I was in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Pedagogy Module in my MA in Shakespeare and Education, one of the first exercises we had was to establish a philosophical premise for an active approach to teaching Shakespeare. One of the quotes that was used in the exercise was from Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey. I was appalled at the quote… here it is in its entirety, courtesy of The Guardian:

“When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearean scholarship, and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.

“I can do that because I had a very expensive education; I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that, and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.”


I will admit, I haven’t seen his Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t want to: I knew what it was going to be like. And from what I have read and heard, it was as bad as I expected. (Check out the Folger Shakespeare’s blog post Wherefore Art Thou Not Shakespeare on Fellowes’ adaptation)

Here’s the thing: I am not anti-adaptation. I have seen brilliant adaptations, ranging from versions that cut “extraneous” lines or that make minor changes to the text, and even a few that have changed parts entirely. While researching the 1983 Stratford Festival production of Love’s Labours Lost, I discovered that Michael Langham rewrote entire speeches of the text with a view to clarify some otherwise very confusing verse (and quite successfully, in my opinion). I have seen versions with cross-gender casting, with turning straight female characters into lesbians and implying gay relationships between men. I have also seen a version of Macbeth where the clans were somehow interpreted as wolf packs and the witches became belly-dancing temptresses. I respect interpretive license when it comes to creating art. Not all of it is good (most isn’t) but it’s all part of the creative dialogue.

What really bothers me is not Fellowes’ attitude – it’s not the first time I’ve heard this, nor will it be the last – but the larger problem it represents. As a former English teacher, I have had to contend with a variety of texts that “translate” Shakespeare into “easier” language. No Fear Shakespeare is one of the worst offenders. If you’re not familiar, No Fear Shakespeare is a series of texts produced by SparkNotes, the American company that has been dumbing down great literature since 1999. It is basically a successor to Cliff Notes, a study guide series dating back from the 1950s meant to help students better understand their school materials. The problem with SparkNotes and No Fear Shakespeare is that it doesn’t encourage any sort of study – it simply tells students what everything means in a pseudo-authoritative matter (if it’s published, it must be true, right?) and relieves them of any need to dig to understand or learn. But I digress.

Here is “To be or not to be” from Hamlet in SparkNote-ese:

The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all? Dying, sleeping—that’s all dying is—a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us—that’s an achievement to wish for. To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream. Ah, but there’s the catch: in death’s sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come, after we’ve put the noise and commotion of life behind us. That’s certainly something to worry about. That’s the consideration that makes us stretch out our sufferings so long.

Kill. Me. Now.

The problem here is that the act of “translating” Shakespeare into “modern” English, which is what No Fear Shakespeare purports to do, changes the text. Yes, Shakespeare is known to have adapted many (read: most) of his works from other sources, but what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is not the stories he told, but how he told them. The version above beats us over the head with an obvious, uninspiring question; Shakespeare’s is a beautiful contemplation of a man who is struggling with his very existence. And they are not the same thing. The former is not Shakespeare, the latter is.

We as educators and artists do Shakespeare a disservice when we believe that it’s too hard for most students. If it is, it’s because we’re not teaching it properly. It is our job as artists and educators to treat the Bard’s words with the respect they are due, and to teach students how to read Shakespeare. It is not our job to tell them it’s too hard for them and to give them a sub-standard substitute.

And yet, it continues: in a recent article in the Guardian, it was reported that Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl, is going to be one of many authors to “rethink Shakespeare’s stories for modern audiences.”

At least they’re calling it what it is: a “rethinking”. For as long as we tell people, at the outset, that what they are reading is an adaptation, or rethinking, or reimagining, or reinterpretation of Shakespeare, and that it is not Shakespeare’s work, people might be inspired to find out more about the original works. It certainly worked for me: after having seen The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), I actually went out to read Titus Andronicus so I would get the joke.

I have never been a fan of “dumbing down” anything, Shakespeare in particular. I think it cheapens the learning. I do a lot to ensure that my students have an understanding of what is happening in the play. The last time I taught Julius Caesar to a group of Grade 9 Applied students, I transformed my classroom into a huge “textbook” – visual cues, images, timelines, anything that would provide clues and reminders of what was happening. But what it came down to, for me, was that they were using the language of Shakespeare.

One of the activities we did on our last day at the Shakespeare Institute was a discussion of using graphic novels to teach Shakespeare. I grabbed a copy of Manga Hamlet before I went over, and read it on the train from London. I hated it. I admit, I don’t like Manga at all. I don’t get it. I find the imagery kind of ridiculous. Hamlet looked like a bad 1980s drag queen, off-the-shoulder blouse and all. Maybe I’m just old.

What the Manga did do was use original text. It certainly omitted a lot, but what was there was Shakespeare’s. And that is important. If we as educators and artists tell students and audiences that Shakespeare is difficult, then they will believe us – we are, after all, the “experts.” If we present Shakespeare’s language as rich and beautiful and his plays as exciting and intricate, and sell its value through our love for it, maybe then we can get over this whole need to make Shakespeare “accessible.” It already is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s