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August 1, 2009

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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.

Posted August 1, 2009 at 3:11 | Comments (25) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language


Seems to me there is a fairly close analogy here with opera, which is typically performed in the composer's native language and is, therefore, largely unintelligible to most American audiences.

Opera flourished in that ignorance, but became more pleasurable for most when supratitles were perfected to display an unobtrusive translation.

Only rarely (in the case of the English National Opera, exclusively) do companies perform in translation.

I've almost never heard Czech spoken, but hearing it sung in Rusalka was one of the most beautiful language experiences of my life.

Short summary: I'm with Tim.

Tim says: "I actually DON'T think that there's much of a market for middle-of-the-road contemporary-language Shakespeare."

Maybe Tim will say this doesn't count as "middle-of-the-road" but $33 million in box office receipts for _She's the Man_ (a surprisingly fun _Twelfth Night_ adaptation---I liked that there was a character with the name "Duke") argue differently.

Posted by: Dan on August 1, 2009 at 06:47 PM

No, no! Honest-to-goodness adaptations are great! I teach a class on adaptations of tragedy. They're my bread-and-butter! And people love 'em.

But that's NOT what McWhorter is talking about. He's talking about something more like a plain-language Shakespeare - where the plots and characters and everything else is largely the same (perhaps abridged). Take "Twelfth Night" and make it shorter and clean up the dialogue, so that it means (in our language) something closer to what it meant in Shakespeare's. I think that's a much more radical notion.

Yeah: If you're going to update it... UPDATE it. I really liked Ethan Hawke's media-saturated Hamlet, for instance. Where the play-within-a-play was a short film!

But -- I'm curious to hear others' thoughts here -- to me, the plots of Shakespeare's play aren't really the main attraction. They're not bad, but I actually think we've gotten a lot better at plotting over the centuries. The unique thing -- still SO unique, so unmatched -- is the language. (That's not to say I want to sit through three hours of Shakespeare-speak, either. I just recognize the world-historic heights it sometimes achieves.)

So if you're just looking to snag the plot, I say: Why bother?-- except that you might want the reflected glow -- the totem to shake around and say, "Aha! You see, this might LOOK like a movie about telepathic aliens crash-landed on Alpha Zebulon, but it's really an update of The Tempest!" -- which is actually a totally fine rationale, but it's less about the quality of the plot and more about its place in history -- its enduring marketing potential.

I think McWhorter thinks that Shakespeare's language is what matters too, otherwise I think he'd just promote a different kind of adaptation. It's just that he really thinks that Shakespeare's signifieds matter more than their signifiers. It's not what Shakespeare says, or what his characters do - it's what Shakespeare MEANS. What McWhorter wants to do is to give a transliteration of the texts that gives up fidelity to the written signs in favor of a closer fidelity to what those signs may have meant.

Effectively this means that Renaissance English is not actually modern English; it's something closer to Chaucer's Middle English. We can parse it, sure, and thrill to its materiality, but we don't really get it, at least the way that Ben Jonson or some other contemporary could get it, unless we're willing to spend some serious time with it. Most people are not willing to spend that time; ergo, we should give up Shakespeare in the original.

Also, I alluded to this in the main post, but we totally already adapt and translate Shakespeare for modern reading. We selectively edit the texts, modernize the spelling and punctuation, and generally clean up what would otherwise LOOK like a much messier affair.

In discussions like these, I find it particularly hard to agree with anything so concretely that I disagree with its counterpoints. On the one hand, I agree perfectly that Shakespeare's language still feels timeless, so powerful at times it's synesthetic. Contra McWhorter, the only times I've seen audiences smiling politely after Shakespeare performances were when the productions were pretty awful. Well-played, Shakespeare's as much of a crowd-pleaser as any Broadway musical.

Also, McWhorter's essay is pointless. Badly argued and meandering, and doesn't actually give you any idea what he's really calling for. After reading it, Tim, I'm not so sure he doesn't have She's-the-Man/10-Things-I-Hate-About-You-like adaptations in mind. And I'm all for more adaptations. The one Shakespeare role I've ever played was Tybalt in a trippy reworking of R&J that I still think had some great ideas and a killer soundtrack (sample tracks: "Hey Man, Nice Shot" by Filter - which accompanied Romeo's murder of yours truly, "No Alarms, No Surprises" by Radiohead, "Breathe" by Prodigy). And I'm still waiting for someone to do a thinly veiled Bush-era takeoff of Coriolanus with Dick Cheney as Caius Martius himself.

But I wouldn't foreclose on the possibility that a savant out there somewhere could produce a line-by-line update of King Lear that would just absolutely get it, capturing the poetry of the original in a brand new voice. And the one solid idea I took away from McWhorter's piece was that I'd love to read a little of Victor Hugo's translation of Shakespeare one day when my French is more solid.

Lastly, I want to stick up for Shakespeare as a master of plot. Midsummer especially is still a marvelous story. You could see a young Charlie Kaufman reading it and saying, "Man, I want to do stuff like this!"

Yeah, I think Shakespeare's plots - wait, it's almost the wrong word, because it suggests something more like a novel - his construction of scenes - are marvelous.

I want to add, since Matt talked about translations and movies, that the best adaptations of Shakespeare I know of are Akira Kurosawa's, especially Throne of Blood (Ran is also great). Set Shakespeare's plays in Warring States' Japan!

I made an argument at a conference that there ought to be more genre-driven adaptations of classic plays, wishing that Kurosawa had done a samurai Antigone. My contention was that Unforgiven gave us an idea of what Antigone would look like as a Western. Now, though, I actually think it's closer to the Bacchae.

"thrill to its materiality, but we don't really get it, at least the way that Ben Jonson or some other contemporary could get it, unless we're willing to spend some serious time with it."

I feel like this is the point of a snob. "You cannot understand this is in the wonderful way that I undertand it, so why bother? Let us give you the dumbed down stuff."

Chaucer's English is legitimately a special case--it's an edge case (the beginning edge), it predates printing and mass literacy, and it has not been routinely performed and quoted continuously since then. It has not been directly infused into modern popular culture. We may not consciously get the many layers of Ren. English, but it is our language. Hence the apocrpyphal tale of the woman who finally saw Hamlet and dismissed it as one long string of famous sayings. (I actually felt that way about Casablanca.)
In general I have a hard time relating to these sorts of discussions, because my education was saturated in Shakespeare in a way that managed to captivate large swathes of the student body. Fellow alumni and I have often discussed how odd it is to go into the world and find that other people don't like Shakespeare. (Today's students definitely don't feel the same way though.) Our aesthetic was largely informed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. I think their philosophy was that excellent acting and directing illuminates the language and makes it clear with enough precision. I recall so many of the plays I watched them perform raw--i.e. having never read them myself--with such utter delight. My dance teacher's daughter, a well-known OSF Shakespearan actress herself, once told me,(paraphrasing) "he always takes care of his actors if you read it carefully enough. It's all right there." I mean, yes, maybe we should retire Timon of Athens. But generally I scoff at people who want to impose their blanket retirement schemes upon actively consumed bodies of art.

It could be the point of view of a snob. But it isn't necessarily so. The Shakespearean snob could say, "you will never understand Shakespeare like I understand Shakespeare" the same way that Joycean snob could say "you will never understand Joyce like I understand Joyce." But Joyce's English, for all of its self-conscious twists and turns, is not historically as far from us as Shakespeare's.

But McWhorter is making a linguistic argument that at least deserves to be addressed on its face. Chaucer seems to us like an edge case, but there isn't anything essential about it - if you modernized the spelling of the Canterbury Tales the way that Shakespeare's plays have their spelling modernized, I would say that Chaucer would be almost as readable. In any event, the two of them have more in common than Shakespeare's English to that of the present.

Generally we have assumed that printed English is modern English, that print helped standardize word spellings and meanings and usher in greatly expanded literacy, etc. Except... none of these things are really true for Shakespeare. Again, most of us live in a world of pre-digested Shakespeare; the editing's taken care of that for us. Continuity of print is not enough.

I will subscribe ahead of time to see a Samurai _Antigone_, or a Western _Antigone_. That would be so great.

It cries out to be done, just like how Polyneices' body cried out for a ritual burial.

Just sayin.

Posted by: Dan on August 2, 2009 at 04:44 PM

Well samurai Macbeth and samurai Lear are already pretty awesome. So is Unforgiven, which (like Do the Right Thing) isn't quite Antigone, but just about as close as Jean Anouilh.

I also think a screwball comedy Antigone would be pretty sweet. Rosalind Russell? Oh, man.

I have a question: Are there any Shakespeare plays that are out-of-order chronologically? I know some have time-gaps, often big ones, between acts, but do any literally go future-to-past, or skip around?

My guess is the answer is 'no,' but I did not study Shakespeare in-depth in high school like Saheli, nor did I *read every Shakespeare play in college* like Dan. :-)

Even if no: Which of them is the most chronologically weird/inventive?

There are a lot of flashbacks, but they're all narrative - one character explains to the other what happened a while ago. Some of the things done with the Chorus in the Henriad are pretty interesting, laying in tidbits of things already known to the audience.

But mostly the "experimental" effect of time in Shakespeare boils down to a temporal slowdown or arrest - everything in The Tempest, or Hamlet, not to mention the comedies, seems to take place in a kind of dilated time. It all.... slows.... down.

I might be missing something though!

Here's another question, suggested by Tim in one of his comments, "perhaps abridged."

I wonder if audiences nowadays can sustain lengthy, substantial drama. I know that's a big debate in opera and I admit that I find myself editing in my head when I sit through some. George Lucas and Industrial LIght & Magic were originally scheduled to help with stagecraft at the LA Opera's Ring cycle. which enthusiasts hoped would convince patrons to attend 17 hours of opera.

Is attention span an issue along with language?

I don't know. Angels in America ran in two parts, over three hours each; it's a given that each Harry Potter movie (and most other big-ticket blockbusters) are going to scrape three hours; people regularly talk about watching whole seasons of serial dramas like Mad Men or The Wire in one or two sittings...

To go back "editing in your head"... People seem to be willing to spend the time when they think it's time well-spent.

Robin: it's, er..., been a while. I can't think of any Shakespeare does _Momento_ type stuff though---off the top of my head.

On another note, I was thinking about this thread walking home today and decided that the New Liberal Arts university (would it have a building? or just a social networking site?) should offer a two-part course in Shakespeare studies.

Semester 1: Shakespeare Analytics. This would feel pretty familiar. Lots of reading plays, picking through passages, and making arguments.

Semester 2: Shakespeare Mimetics. Here is where all that studying from semester 1 gets translated into Shakespeare translating. Write your own Shakespeare play, combining the subtlety and love of a Shakespeare scholar with the creative drive of the young writer. It would be great fun.

Posted by: Dan on August 3, 2009 at 08:51 PM

In my theatre-going experience, there are three Shakespeare plays that I saw in performance before reading: Cymbeline (at the Globe); Pericles (at the Globe); and Timon of Athens (Cincy Shakes). Each of these productions made the action of the play totally clear. Cymbeline even had some crazy double casting (the doubling also made the Act V wrap up pretty amazing to watch, fixing the problem of what can be the longest denouement ever).

This is the thing about Shakespeare: if there's clarity in acting and direction, the audience will get the text. As long as you can make a less experienced audience forget that it's supposed to be "hard," everything should go smoothly.

As a side note, with those texts, I've used up my three shots to see Shakespeare that I've never read; now I'm down to texts that I know less well...which can also be exciting to see.

Andrew, I love the idea of cherishing unread Shakespeare plays! I haven't read /most/ of them, and you just completely reversed my feelings about it. Now they're all special, unique opportunities -- not signs of my miseducation.

Re: Length and Attention Span

Attention span is a problem in contemporary audiences. At NJ Shakes, a great effort is made to get shows at or near the 2 hour mark when on the outdoor stage, and not much longer than 2 1/2 (including intermission) on the main stage. There are exceptions of course, but that's a general rule.

There's a reason that new plays are gravitating more towards 90 minutes with no intermission. Older audiences don't want to drive home late. Younger audiences want to have time for a drink or a club after the show.

For some reason, I don't see the same willingness to sit through a 3 1/2 hour play as a 3 1/2 hour movie in much of the public. Maybe because seeing a play is harder work: there's a stronger active listening requirement. If a play is 3 1/2 hours, it will be because that's how much text (or music) there is. If a movie is 3 1/2 hours, that may include a half an hour of sweeping vistas, a giant boat sinking, or explosions of some kind wherein the only dialog is stuff like "go, go!"

As my thesis project in Grad school, we did the full 3 hours of Brecht's Life of Galileo. The director pointedly refused to cut the text, in part to try to do some small thing to re-introduce long form theatre to audiences... and to give a long play back to audience members who might have been missing it. A noble effort, but a one weekend run can only do so much.

As a side note, many operas these days tend to run no more than 3 hours because of orchestra contracts: if you go past the 3 hour mark, you're into serious overtime. (I worked on a Don Giovanni at the Cincy Opera some years ago that had *crazy* tempi to beat the deadline. And there were several dress rehearsals that season that were finished with piano 'cause the Orchestra was done.)

And bringing it back to Shakespeare: there's so much in each of the texts that new cuts can provide sometimes revelatory insight in what they choose to include. And for classical companies that will perform the same shows every few years, varying cuts certainly helps mix things up.

Bringing different versions of the text to the stage may well be in keeping with how The Chamberlain's/King's Men performed the works in their Elizabethan/Jacobean runs.

One more set of comments for the night:

@Robin If I design a Shakespeare in the Bay Area, I will make sure you get tickets.

Re: Time

The Tempest, for one, can be seen as happening almost in real time: the action of the play starts at 2pm, ends at 6pm.

Act 1.2
What is the time o'th' day?

Past the mid season.

At least two glasses. The time twixt six and now
Must by us both be spent most preciously.


Of course there is all the magic which can make it feel as though the time is dilated somehow, as Tim points out.

w/r/t Hamlet, a lot of directors like to make sure that the play really MOVES. It is, after all, both a murder mystery and a multi-scene adventure play.

And once you get any these works on stage for a modern audience, they all need some serious momentum, otherwise you will start losing people.

For a great look at the structure of Hamlet from a technical perspective, with broader insight into how well constructed plays should work, see David Ball's "Backwards & Forwards."


And finally, prohibition era seems to be a continually popular setting for Twelfth Night. I think in large part it's so that one can put Sir Andrew in goofy tennis clothes and a straw boater.

"I worked on a Don Giovanni at the Cincy Opera some years ago that had *crazy* tempi to beat the deadline."

This just blew my mind.

"Pick up the pace, maestro, or payroll will be hell!"

Well, here I am late to the party again...

Generally I agree that good direction and acting will get the plot across, but I think its definitely fair to worry that misunderstandings of specific wording still abound, and that the specific wording is potentially a great part of the experience.

I do think the idea of trying to rewrite Shakespeare in modern English while staying as true as possible to his way of saying things is worthwhile. But it would be incredibly difficult, and who has the chutzpah to stack him/herself up against Shakespeare so directly, plus the skill to do it right, plus the peculiar personality to want to constrain themselves so much?

Christopher Logue arguably did something similar with his Iliad, not in the sense of keeping true to the linguistics (at all), but in the sense of trying to modernize the work in a novel and non-trivial way. It took him (almost) his whole life-to-date to (almost) finish it.

I also think, as y'all have said, that all manner of other adaptations can be worthwhile in the right hands. What's clear is that for any of these to be good, they will always be major projects, reflecting the artistry of both Shakespeare and his modern interpreter(s) to a major degree; they are works in and of themselves, not substitutes for the original. I think we all agree there's no way to crib Shakespeare wholesale into modern English algorithmically and have it be tolerable.

So McWhorter has suggested something interesting for someone(s) to work on, but it's gonna take a real heroic effort for anything to get done on it, and it's ridiculous to suggest that the result could displace wholesale the multitude of other interpretations. If you want to write a new Shakespeare, either to McWhorter's model or any of the other models held up here, I believe it can be really good, but it's not going to be easy.

Maybe Logue's Iliad is a good example again; if someone started putting out some work on this serialized scene-by-scene (doing them in haphazard order is probably fine), I'd definitely keep an eye on it.

@Opera: some of it is clearly too long, but "too long" is not the same length for every work.

Verdi is, IMO, the most guilty of writing extra Acts into his operas (or in the case of his Shakespeare adaptations, not cutting enough). Rossini also has a lot of extraneous material. Other cases are not so obvious.

Of course, Wagner is long, but not eminently cuttable. My take on Wagner is that you couldn't cut it in a way that would make anyone happy, so best to stick with the tried and true method of letting the audience steal cat naps or read the program notes in the middle whenever they need to.

Figaro is long and desultory, but requires no cuts. Gounod Faust with the entire ballet in the middle of its 5 Acts is really long, but doesn't need to be cut. Verdi's Forza del Destino, in contrast, has some great music but is at least 75 minutes and 2 Acts too long.

If Snarkmarket were Facebook, I would "like" Peter's take on this Shakespeare discussion: the best spirit in which to read McWhorter is to take it as a call to arms for some poor creative soul.

Posted by: Dan on August 4, 2009 at 12:25 PM
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