Wherefore Art Thou Shakespeare?

It took me a long time to accept that most people don't understand Shakespeare's language well enough to care about his stories. I decided a few years ago that something needed to be done. But what?

Repeat after me: A text is not a play. 

Want proof? A play can be Hamlet without using every word of the text. Most of us, if we have seen Hamlet, have seen an edited version of it. And if we've seen a version that clocked in under three hours, then there's about an hour’s worth of action that was in the text, but never made it into the production we saw. If we’ve seen an edited version of the text can we say that we’ve still seen the play Hamlet? Of course we can.

Now: ask yourself if a play can be Hamlet without these characters: A Priest, Two Clowns, A Captain, The English Ambassador, Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, Messengers, and Attendants, all of which are called for in the text. And if we can get by without them, then what about these guys: Osric, Voltimand, Cornelius, Marcellus, Bernardo, Francisco, and Reynaldo, who all have speaking roles? Can we still say we've seen Hamlet if we didn’t see each of these characters? Of course we can. If you’ve ever seen an uncut version of the play do you even remember any of those characters? And if we can remove these characters then what about more central characters? If I cut Voltimand and give a line or two of his to Guildenstern (who in my imaginary version has been spared the cutting room floor) is this still Hamlet? I would say yes. 

Why? Because what makes Hamlet “Hamlet” is not the supporting cast or the exact order of the lines as they appear in the text. The play Hamlet is first an foremost a presentation of the “Hamlet Story”, and that story is what makes it recognizable. The Hamlet Story about a dangerously clever and depressed person who fakes insanity and struggles to force himself into the action of killing his uncle for murdering his father and marrying his mother. If we see a play or read a story with this same general plot, featuring a central character whose behavior is similar to that of the Danish Prince, then we can say we have seen a version of “The Hamlet Story”. (The Danish folk tale of "Amleth" which provided the original source material for Shakespeare's play is one such story, and Disney's The Lion King is another.) If we include major characters and specific plot points in much the same way as Shakespeare did, then we might say we are seeing a version of "Shakespeare’s Hamlet Story". And if we go even farther by trying to capture as much of the style, sentiment, dialogue, and tone of Shakespeare’s work but avoid a direct recitation, then we could be said to be "retelling", "interpreting", or "translating" Shakespeare’s Hamlet Story. Is it exactly Shakespeare’s Hamlet? No it is not. But is it Hamlet none the less? Yes, it certainly is.

While many Shakespeareans might be persuaded to change a line or two, to cut some references and jokes that only Shakespeare’s contemporaries would get, and so on, most English speaking artists would stop short of transcribing the text itself. My question is: Why? Language is not fixed. Words change their meanings over time. Why are we so stubborn about this fact when it comes to Shakespeare? We carefully translate our holy texts in order to better understand them; as well as the great works of other languages, and we count ourselves lucky to have access to these. Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into more than eighty modern languages and no one would begrudge those translators for wanting to share his plays with their communities. So why should English speaking people be kept from experiencing the fullness of these stories just because the English they were written in is very different from the English we speak today? English speaking audiences no only have to contend against the words and phrases they don't know (fardles, leets, sperrs, twiggens, etc) but they encounter the added difficulty of miss translating words and phrases they think they understand, causing them to misconstrue the action on stage. The classic example of this is Juliet's line, "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" Ask a class of high school freshmen working through the text what this line means, and most of them will likely answer, "She's wondering where Romeo is." They miss translate, and so not only is the meaning of the line lost, but the context for the following line is also confused, and soon the action on stage stops making sense.

We should bear in mind that because language evolves, someday, inevitably, Shakespeare (like Beowulf or the works of Chaucer) will have to be translated completely for anyone other than academics to understand and enjoy. Why should we wait until that point before we decide it is okay to interpret and translate the text itself? Why shouldn't we carefully revisit the text of these plays so that they can be understood and enjoyed by everyone - not yesterday or tomorrow - but today?

It is here that most Shakespeareans are preparing to turn tail and run. You can suggest cutting the script. You can suggest translating it into Japanese. You can even suggest setting Othello in New Orleans after Katrina or staging Antony and Cleopatra as a high school football rivalry in order to "make it more relateable". But, we must never (so many Shakespeareans say) commit the cardinal sin of “Corrupting The Verse.” I say, "Why not?" It is universally accepted (and I believe true) that Shakespeare was a genius, and his skill with words is nearly unequaled in the history of the English language. And just in case anyone ever forgets how great he was (or wants to read the original scripts), there are entire libraries full of essays and criticisms on his work to remind us of his unquestionable mastery. It is undeniable that there is both great beauty and insight within the poetry of his plays. But, no matter how beautiful his plays may be to listen to (assuming you can understand more than a few sentences here and there) his words are not magical incantations whose powers lie in exact recitation. 

Shakespeare was simply an incredibly talented playwright. Nothing more. He did not write his plays in a style that was ancient, foreign, and confusing to his audience. If he had, he wouldn't be regarded as a great playwright. Why? Because the beauty of a phrase in a play should never outweigh its clarity. A play is not its text, as I said before. When we are reading a text we can read slowly, we can go back, we can stop to admire and consider the multifaceted meanings of a particular turn of phrase. But on stage we must find a different balance. An audience watching a play can not stop the action to make sure they understand what is happening, and they have just over two hours to become invested enough about what is happening on stage that they will break out in tears or roar with approval at the climactic scene. For this reason it does not matter how brilliant, insightful, or eloquent a passage may be. If the audience can not understand what is being said or does not know why they should care because they are unable to follow the action, then the piece has failed as drama.

Think of it another way: speech itself is a physical action. We intake breath, our muscles work and we create speech. If we speak on stage we are committing to a physical action. In practicing drama, we should no more commit to speaking confusing and unclear words than we would commit to making confusing or unclear actions on stage, regardless of how beautiful they are. A collection of abstract actions can be breathtaking in dance, and a collection of abstract sound (music) is incredibly powerful in a concert. But neither of these things is drama. In drama, plot and character are what we are after, these two things above all else are what people come to see drama for. If beauty were the most important thing, then instead of speaking the lines we might as well just have music and beautiful lights playing over the actions on stage. (Actually, it seems that this is what many contemporary 'big budget' stagings are after: sound and furry signifying Shakespeare.) But, music and light can not really communicate plot, character, or motivation. For those things, the audience only needs one thing: dialogue they can understand. 

I would argue that when most people go to see Shakespeare, the emotional effect they have, if any, is a kind of “tonal emotion”, rather than a strong specific emotional investment in the characters or story. (The phrase "tonal emotion" and many other concepts in this essay are taken from Paul Woodruff's incredibly insightful and important book, The Necessity of Theatre. Do yourself a huge favor and Buy It Here.) By tonal emotion I mean that a contemporary audience watching Shakespeare is roughly as emotionally interested as they might be if they were listening to an argument between two people in another language. The listeners might be able to discern the overall tone of each person's feelings, but it would be hard to understand their reasons for those feelings, and even more difficult to care about those reasons. Yet, in the drama, reasons for actions are the most important thing we can communicate to an audience. Reasons are the stuff of character, and characters are the drivers of plot. And, again, the single most effective tool we have ever developed for communicating a character's reasons in the drama is clearly articulated dialogue. 

I should stop here and say that I am not suggesting a word for word “plain English” translation of the text. That would be nothing more than instructional and boring. It would lack all of the flavor of the heightened speech, the musicality and power of the verse, and the eloquence of the prose. The best word I can think of to describe what I am suggesting is a renovation of the text. My dad used to renovate old houses and turn them into homes that people could live in, and I find that image serves well.

This is Blickling Hall, near Aylsham, Norfolk. It is (I am told) an excellent example of Jacobean architecture, being constructed about the same time as Shakespeare was writing his later tragedies.

This building is (I would say) very beautiful. You might go on a tour there and be taken aback by the lovely gardens, or by how ornate the architecture or the furnishings are. And you might say, “This is a wonderful house! I’m so glad it has been so well preserved for four hundred years!” But, what if you waited a few hours until the sun went down, and until your stomach started to growl, or nature started to call? Then you would likely be very glad that someone took the time to carefully renovate this house into a home full of 21’st century accommodations. Sure, you might eventually be able to learn how to make due without those things, but much your energy during your time there would be consumed trying to acclimate yourself instead of enjoying the beauty of it. Of course a Jacobean commoner would have enjoyed Blickling Hall pre-electricity and running water just as much as if you or I were staying at the Hilton today. The difference lies in what we are accustomed to. Is Blickling Hall any less beautiful to us because someone has renovated it into something we are able to relax in and enjoy today? No. 

So, the process I propose when I talk about renovating Shakespeare, is similar to the process that the craftsmen took in renovating Blickling Hall. They strove as much as possible to preserve the sense of the place, the form, aesthetic, proportions, color and so on. What they modified over the years, as discreetly and carefully as possible, were those features that gave it greater accessibility. And in doing so they ensured that it remained a home useful to real living breathing people today instead of becoming a historical monument, in effect: a relic of a past culture. 

As theatre artists, we should want Shakespeare's plays to remain useful to real living breathing people too. We should preserve the style, essence, poetry, and themes of Shakespeare while making a few renovations to give it greater meaning and value for contemporary audiences. Does that mean that every line will retain every nuance of the language in a renovation? No, and it is not necessary for our audiences. They don't care. Will every passage of a renovated text  express precisely the same sentiment as the scholars expect from the original? No. Is that important? Surely only to scholars. For the rest of us, for artists, and more importantly for our audiences who are under no obligation to enjoy Shakespeare just because we promise them he's a genius, all we need to do is clarify the language that his characters use to communicate their motives, then step out of the way and let old Will do all the heavy lifting. 

Want to see what such a text might look like? You can read a PDF of my 2014 renovation of Shakespeare's Lear titled The Mad King Lear here. Also, you can see what some of the Nashville critics said about that production: ArtsNashThe TennesseanOutright Geekery.

- JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, an essayist, poet, and huge nerd.