August 1, 2009
The Bard, Or What You Will
John McWhorter’s exhortation to perform Shakespeare in modern-language adaptations caught my eye a while back. His case is that Shakespeare’s language is more-or-less unrecognizable to us; we misunderstand most of what we pick up; and (I think this is probably uncontroversial) full-length 100% faithful readings of the longest versions of the texts are chorish.
Original Shakespeare should occupy the place original Chaucer does today: engaged by scholars and hard-core aficionados. However, to require intensive and largely unfeasible decoding in full three-hour live performances is to condemn us to ignorance of something that makes life worth living. As Liddell put it, for a people to genuinely possess, rather than merely genuflect, to a literature, its words “must convey expression not to one man only, but to thousands.”
Maybe I’m an outlier, but I think I’m so conditioned by my professional position and highly personal Shakespeare fetish that it’s almost unimaginable to me to go to a Shakespeare play and try to comprehend the action and language as if I’m hearing it for the first time. Do people actually do this? Should they?
When I see Shakespeare, it’s more like going to a Bloomsday reading. I’m quite consciously seeing an adaptation/interpretation of texts that I have read and (usually) know quite well. My attitude is generally, “let’s see how they do this.” Again, maybe I’m in the minority on this. But I’m also probably squarely in the middle of the target audience for live Shakespeare.
I actually DON’T think that there’s much of a market for middle-of-the-road contemporary-language Shakespeare. When people want the Bard, they want the real stuff, and feel cheated if they think they’re getting anything less. Even if they don’t understand the language. ESPECIALLY when they don’t understand it.
But I think you could generate more interest from everyone if you avoided intelligibility for intelligibility’s sake and offered a more stylized take on Shakespeare’s language. McWhorter’s counterexample to Shakespeare is August Wilson, and Wilson’s language is NOT plain-language. It’s often not even contemporary. If you wanted an August Wilson take on Shakespeare, you’d really be looking for something completely different.
My own preference for clever updates of Shakespeare - again, I’m a history freak - would be for lots and lots of adaptations that don’t just port his text into the present, but into lots of different periods, including mishmashes of multiple times and places. (This is actually what Shakespeare does.) Do Julius Caesar during the American Civil War; give us a Prohibition-era Twelfth Night (I actually saw an adaptation like this in London). Put Shakespeare in masks, just any mask but our own.