Modernizing Shakespeare

Whenever I attend a play by William Shakespeare or just read it, I have to confess that I only understand about 60%. This does not prevent me from enjoying the performance or getting the gist but the lack of complete understanding does leave me with the sense that I am enjoying it less that I might. Of course, I could take the trouble to study up the play before I attend but that seems like too much work.

So I was interested in this report about an attempt by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to try and make Shakespeare more understandable to people like me by translating the entire canon into contemporary English while retaining the rhythm and flavor of the original.

Here’s an example, both written and spoken, from the play Timon of Athens. Here is the original.

Slaves and fools,

Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench

And minister in their steads. To general filths
Convert o’th’ instant, green virginity,

Do’t in your parents’ eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives

And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal:
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are

And pill by law.

Here’s the revised version.

Servants and clowns,
Kick the grizzled old senators out of their offices
And legislate in their place …
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now — why wait? —
And do it while your parents watch … Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand payment
Pick up a knife and cut their throats. Workers, steal
Your bosses are crooks
 in fine suits, bandits raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.

Naturally, a lot of people are outraged at any attempt to change Shakespeare’s language, seeing that as the essence of his plays.

I kind of like the revised version. But then, I am pretty lowbrow in my literary tastes.

Pearls before swine literature


  1. Nate Carr (Totes not an imposter D:) says

    Shakespeare wrote for the masses. The only reason his language comes off as high-brow is because of its age.

    I don’t see anything wrong with the revised version.

  2. Robert B. says

    Shakespeare wrote for the masses and was an excellent poet, so translating his works into modern English is a good idea in principle but would require more skill than I have sometimes seen in adaptations of things. The example you posted looks good, though.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    There is an activation barrier to getting through the 17th century English. Once you do, you realise that it was not written to be hoity toity, but was indeed written for the masses, and filled with puns and such. For example, “natural” = fool, and “thing” may be a sexual innuendo for the male reproductive anatomy. Likewise, “Nothing” or “No thing” may be a sexual innuendo for the female anatomy.

    And it’s all in iambic pentameter, the natural rhythm of speech.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Reginald Selkirk @3:

    Likewise, “Nothing” or “No thing” may be a sexual innuendo for the female anatomy.

    Ah, country matters.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    As the others here have said, changing Shakespeare’s words entails a high risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, IMHO. I prefer modernizing the setting to be more recognizable to modern audiences, but keeping the words intact. I think the Ian McKellen version of Richard III is an excellent example of this.

  6. newenlightenment says

    Agreed, it’s easy to pick up the plot of Shakespeare’s plays without understanding all the dialogue, messing about with it really destroys the beauty of the language. Using contemporary or near contemporary settings that relate to the audience can work, if done skillfully, for instance this superb Macbeth adaptation with Macbeth portrayed as Stalin, well worth a look:

  7. Chiroptera says

    moarscienceplz, #6: IMHO. I prefer modernizing the setting to be more recognizable to modern audiences, but keeping the words intact.

    That’s pretty much what I don’t like. I’ve always found it distracting when, for example, the military guys talk about fighting battles with swords and spears in a clearly non-metaphorical way when they are dressed as more modern soldier, often to the point of breaking suspension of disbelief. I also find it jarring when people in Victorian or modern garb are discussing social customs that are centuries outdated.

    If you’re going to keep the language, then I prefer the original settings are used.

    On the other hand, if the important thing to you is the relationships and specific interpersonal relations rather than the poetry of the original language (think of West Side story as compared to Romeo and Juliet), then it is okay to change the language and the setting so these don’t get lost to the modern audience.

    I read a lot of literature translated from languages I don’t know, and “updating” the language of Shakespeare doesn’t seem so outlandish to me even though I myself prefer the original in the case of Shakespeare (I also usually reread the plays just before I see them and that helps a lot). I recognize that other people can’t follow the dialogue as well as I can (especially people who aren’t native English speakers, although lots of native born Americans can’t either).

    That’s the way I feel about it, although I understand how other people will feel differently.

  8. Johnny Vector says

    I’ve been willing to give this translation effort the benefit of the doubt (unlike most of my performer friends, who are largely opposed), but if this example stands as typical then fie on the lot of them. Yes, it’s easier to understand on first listen, but it is utterly lacking in any style or poetry. And as others above have said, the confluence of low-brow content (stock Commedia characters, fart jokes, and sex, sex, sex) with a brilliant appreciation of the rhythms of language is what makes his work so enjoyable.

    Since we’re giving examples of modern settings, I have to recommend Joss Whedon’s Much Ado. No changes to the text other than cutting (and all Shakespeare’s plays were written to be heavily cut), but it yet makes sense in the modern format. If you imagine a sense of sinister playfulness when Benedick refers to his dagger while flashing a pistol, it works as a double sexual metaphor (gun as phallic substitute plus “the dagger is my penis”) rather than just sounding stupid.

    So back to the translation, I am still willing to check out modern translations, but the example given above is poo.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    Chiroptera #9

    I’ve always found it distracting when, for example, the military guys talk about fighting battles with swords and spears in a clearly non-metaphorical way when they are dressed as more modern soldier, often to the point of breaking suspension of disbelief.

    Your experiences are your own, and it’s not for me to gainsay them, but if anyone would have trouble suspending disbelief, I would think it would be while watching an authentic portrayal of a Shakespeare play. Stooped, gray old men playing the “young prince” Hamlet, the same moth-eaten robes used as Julias Caeser’s toga one week and MacBeth’s coronation garb the next, a bare stage with a minimal balcony as Prospero’s island one time and the palace of Cleopatra the next, etc.
    Compared to that, someone dressed in a Nazi-esque uniform talking about swords rather than rifles seems to me a rather small step to adjust to.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    The film Titus used backgrounds and costumes from many different periods, and I thought it worked amazingly well. Armour, spears, motorbikes and jazz! Didn’t hurt to have Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange.

  11. Dunc says

    I tend to feel that anything which broadens the appeal of literature is a good thing. It’s not like the more “authentic” productions are going to go away, if that’s your preference.

  12. 4ozofreason says

    Yeah, as much as I’m fine with it in theory, too much nuance is lost when it’s translated (which admittedly happens whenever you translate anything from one language to another). Part of the problem is that there’s just not as much word play in our everyday languange anymore, so a line that could have any one of four different meanings, or all four simultaneously, suddenly gets stripped down to one, maybe two if there’s entendre going on (and it’s Shakespear, there’s always entendre). This is why I’ve never liked the No Fear Shakespear editions. Not only does potential range of interpretation for the actors get reduced, but quite often the interpretations of the people updating the language are entirely off base.

  13. StevoR says

    Big Shakespeare fan typing -- and I see no problem with revising and updating the Bard language here at all.

    I also enjoy the old Shakespearian language and older more traditionalist versions too -- but doesn’t mean I can’t love to see them reforged anew as well.

    Shakespeare, as noted by #3 Reginald Selkirk and others above, was originally written for a mass audience, has always been evolving -- remember the girl & woman parts used to be played by boys frex? -- and has its own timelessness and humanness (& just great story-ness & character-ness!) when you peer beneath some of the veneer of pretentiousness that now sometimes adds the … what’s the word for the corroded but also intrinsically subjectively appealing coat that forms on weathered copper again? (Tarnish? Not quite the word?) That anyhow.

    And this. Is Good.

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