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Some feel interest is waning, so they update settings as if the language will be easier to understand if Hamlet gives his soliloquy in a Laundromat or Romeo knows kung fu. I think these modernized settings, while fun, underestimate our ability to see the universality of Shakespeare’s conflicted characters. People have always been fascinated by stories about kings and princesses, and the idea of royalty intrigues us. People love swords fights. It’s the language that is the barrier, not the stories. Besides, would Hamlet be as interesting if he were just a troubled kid and not a prince? If Lear was not king and hell was not about to break loose across the land because of his bad decisions, would it be any more than the story of a grumpy, vain old man? It’s the same for fantasy today. “Star Wars” was a celebration of fantasy in the Shakespeare tradition with its princess, emperor, and assorted rustics.
I think it is important to remember how difficult this material is. It is obvious that Shakespeare was trying to be challenging and it appears that people would attend his plays more than once. So even a translation will require close attention.
I was looking at a literature anthology the other day with a section titled “How to Read Shakespeare.” It acknowledged that Shakespearean poetry is terribly hard but suggests that comprehension is simply a matter of reading carefully. It gives advice like “poetry is meant to be read slowly.” Well, not this poetry. These plays were meant to be performed quickly, in two to three hours, not read slowly. My Shakespeare translations retain the challenging aspects of Shakespeare but lets modern audiences relate to the play as an Elizabethan did.
I suspect it was quite different. The audience and the writer were neighbors and shared the same language. The characters were not speaking some kind of Elizabethan doubletalk. I have heard that actors would pause mid speech to greet an aristocrat. Audiences in later centuries would demand an actor repeat an entire speech that they liked. And if they didn’t like what they were seeing, they would demand that someone bring on a sword fight. It wasn’t highbrowed. Today we sit in reverence hoping we’re not the only ones who don’t understand what is being said. I also suspect that that the audience left the theater after his comedies still laughing, like after an hilarious Broadway show in our time. Today we don't leave the theater laughing.
We also need to remember that every seat in the Globe Theater is a poor seat if one comes to see a play. But one thing we have learned from building facsimiles of the Globe is that the acoustics were very good. The people came to “hear” a play. So the notion that the actors’ visual expressiveness will make the meaning clear is a modern crutch, not an Elizabethan one.
We have no recordings of people born much before the Civil War. If I were to go back to that time, I’d like to hear what the language sounded like. I’d like to see how much of Shakespeare’s language was stagy. How much of it was real? Shakespeare’s characters, even the lowborn, did not show much dialect variation. When they did, were these stereotyped stage dialects or were they real? And, of course, I’d want to be Shakespeare’s biographer. It would be also be interesting to see how much of the plays were collaborations.
John McWhorter recalls Tracy Lord, a character in the Philadelphia Story, who said she didn’t want to be worshipped; she wanted to be loved. I want to see people love Shakespeare and not just sit there in reverential silence. There will always be scholars who love Shakespeare enough to study him all their lives. But I think he’s good enough to be appreciated by more people. He’s not so complicated that you have to go to college for 20 years to understand him.
My wife has likened my Shakespeare translations to the recent restoration of the Sistine Chapel. People may be surprised at how bright the colors are.