Shakespeare Translation and Adaptation History

Writers have been adapting Shakespeare's plays since at least the late 1600s. Two of the more well-known and frequently performed adaptations were Nahum Tate's version of King Lear, The History of King Lear (1681) and Colley Cibber's The Tragical History of King Richard III (1700/1718).  Both became the most widely performed versions of Shakespeare's play for about 150 years. Now the subject of almost universal derision, the two are no longer performed, with the last known performance of Tate's play being in 1967 in Berkeley. Olivier used three of Cibber's lines ("Off with his head!" " So much for Buckingham" and "Richard is himself again") in the film version (1955).

Tate's adaptation has been reprinted recently in Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology (Routledge, 2000), Edited by Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier. Cibber's play, along with some commentary and defense of it, can be downloaded from The Richard III Society Web Page

For at least 100 years, the purist's and traditionalist's denial of the difficulty of  Shakespeare's language has not gone unnoticed. Lawrence

“To ask a population to rise to the challenge of taking literature to heart in a language they do not speak is as unreasonable as it is futile. The challenge we must rise to is to shed our fear of language change and give Shakespeare his due—restoration to the English-speaking world.”—John McWhorter from Word On the Street.

Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Harvard University Press, 1988) devotes a long chapter to the Gilded Age highbrowing of Shakespeare, transforming an evening at the theater from something to be enjoyed into something to be endured. John McWhorter's Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English (Perseus, 2001) makes the case for Shakespeare translation in a chapter titled "In Centenary Honor of Mark H. Liddell: The Shakespearean Tragedy." In calling for careful, "richly considered" translations, McWhorter recounts Liddell's article "Botching Shakespeare" from the October, 1898 Atlantic Monthly, in which Liddell demonstrates how little we understand of Polonius's farewell to Laertes in Hamlet. 

In his article "Is it Time to Translate Shakespeare?" in English Journal (March, 1982), Richard Eastman makes a case for translation and sets some guidelines for carrying out such a project. 

And, of course, for several hundred years, Shakespeare's works have been successfully translated into many of the world's languages. And, of course, for several hundred years, Shakespeare's works have been successfully translated into many of the world's languages. Here is a piece of August Wilhelm von Schlegel's much performed translation of Hamlet


Sein oder Nichtsein; das ist hier die Frage:

Obs edler im Gemüt, die Pfeil und Schleudern

Des wütenden Geschicks erdulden oder,

Sich waffnend gegen eine See von Plagen,

Durch Widerstand sie enden?

List of Other Foreign Language Translations of Shakespeare