Reform It Altogether

I suppose I have to weigh in more substantially on the Jacobs-McWhorter dispute about whether one ought to “translate” or “update” Shakespeare into a more contemporary mode of language.


First, we do “translate” Shakespeare already – to update the spelling and to reconcile textual problems. And yes, these decision do make a difference. The most familiar example is from Hamlet’s first soliloquy, which begins:

Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt,
Thaw, and resolue it selfe into a Dew:

That’s in the Folio. But in the Second Quarto, we have:

O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolue it selfe into a dewe

Solid? Sallied? Or sallied as a variant (or misspelling) for sullied? Or is this a pun – solid and sullied – that only works if you pronounce the word with an Elizabethan era accent in which the vowels of “solid” would have been longer?

This is the kind of textual question that gets resolved to one extent or another before a particular edition of the play is set to type (you can deal with these sorts of questions in footnotes, but most people won’t read them). And, regardless of the text a director decides to use, all these sorts of questions must be resolved, one way or another, before the play is actually produced, because the actor playing Hamlet can only say one of these various words (almost certainly “solid”) and cannot “play” the pun without affecting an accent that, almost certainly, would create other problems for his perfomance.

So you can’t take a hard line on the question of how to treat the text for performance: productions of Shakespeare’s plays must grapple with textual problems and resolve them before presenting the plays, and that means that for every production of Shakespeare the director has shaped the text in a way that won’t generally be true for productions of, say, Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.

Obviously, wholesale modernization is another order of intervention in the text. My point is just that the question posed to a director is not whether to shape the text, but how, and in what spirit.

Second, even if one sets out to translate a text – say, a text where this cannot be avoided – a translator is never given the option of being both as literally faithful as possible and as true to the “spirit” of the text (as that translator conceives it) as possible. There are inevitable tradeoffs. When I was in college, we read the Iliad in the Lattimore translation, which is famous for being especially attentive to accurate translation and to metrical regularity. Other translations – such as the one by Robert Fagles – make somewhat different choices. These are the kinds of choices one faces when, for example, one sets out to translate Shakespeare into French, or Russian, or Japanese.

One of the big questions for translation of theatrical classics in particular is how modern the translated text should be – and McWhorter seems to assume that in the theatrical context it’s as simple as modern=good. Whether he’s right or not, it’s important to recognize that a translation can be perfectly intelligible to a modern reader even if it isn’t in a modern idiom – even if it deliberately sets out to sound archaic. (See, for example, Seamus Heany’s wonderful translation of Beowulf.)

As it happens, theatrical directors frequently do use modernized texts of classics because of the immediacy they provide in performance. I once saw an excellent production of Euripides’s Medea in the Randall Jarrell translation. Precisely because the translation had such a modern affect, the actors could play the text very naturally, and so the scenes between Medea and Jason, and between Medea and Creon, were exceptionally sharp. The flip side, though, was that the scene where Medea reveals her horrible crime didn’t work nearly so well – the scene demanded the kind of heightened language that is very hard to achieve in contemporary English. Similarly, I recently saw the New York production of Mary Stuart that has won so many rave reviews, and there were many things I liked about it, but while the modern translation made the two queens seem very much like real women, they seemed much less like real queens – particularly when speaking to each other.

If I think about the project of “translating” Shakespeare into modern idiom, that’s the most likely place where you will run into trouble. Shakepeare’s social world was stratified by birth and station, and the language appropriate for speech within one class was different from the language appropriate for speech within another – and speech between classes was different yet again, as well as speech between different orders within the same class. Shakespeare’s plays came under criticism precisely for mingling the orders, putting low characters into the same drama as the nobility and even royalty, but one of the many things Shakespeare did superlatively well was use those gradations of language effectively to communicate these social differences. Now, it’s not as if contemporary English is completely incapable of delineating these distinctions, but class works very differently in our world than it did in Shakespeare’s, and writers who try to “do” regal language, for example, in a modern idiom far too often wind up making their characters sound either affected (which Shakespeare’s royals never do unless that’s intended to be a character trait of a specific monarch, e.g. Richard II) or thuggish (ditto, e.g. Macbeth). That kind of failure can be absolutely fatal to a play where the language of authority has an enormous importance in the play itself (e.g., King Lear, Henry IV part 1).

Ultimately, I really think McWhorter has grasped the wrong end of the stick. I don’t think audiences in general – at least not audiences for theater – have any trouble at all making sense of Shakespeare’s language, not if the actors and the director do their jobs well. Shakespeare wrote plays that were, first and foremost, incredibly dramatic, full of business, with characters that fairly leap to life as soon as you open the book. When you’ve got all that going for you, you really have no excuse blaming exquisite poetry for getting in the way.

But Shakespeare is not always done well, and that’s because he’s not easy for contemporary actors and directors to do well. They are the ones who need special training, who need an extraordinary amount of education to be able to make sense of the text. For example, Shakespeare’s plays are full of sexual puns. It’s not that hard for a good actor to communicate the fact that he’s making a sexual pun, and if he does so the audience will get it even if they aren’t familiar with the puns – and, honestly, it’s never hard to figure out what the puns are once you know that they are there, and that they are there is what the actor is supposed to be communicating. But the actor can only communicate that fact if he knows he’s making a sexual joke, which he won’t without careful study of the text. Ditto for working with verse; without proper training in how to work naturally with the verse, the tendency will be either to “recite” the verse and abandon natural delivery, or strive for “casual” delivery and trip constantly over the verse.

You could “solve” these problems by working with modernized Shakespeare that would be easier for more actors and directors to work with, but if you phrase it that way it’s pretty clear that the “problem” is one of priorities, not capabilities.