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In defence of Shakespeare’s difficult bits

6 January 2016

From The Guardian:

One of the most obliging things about the glorious dead is that you can always rely on their support. Emma Rice, the new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, offered a nice example of the principle when she was interviewed on Tuesday on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about her inaugural season.

“Shakespeare would be cheering me if he heard me speak,” she assured a doubtful John Humphrys, after he had asked a question about the propriety of rewording “the difficult bits” of the original Shakespeare texts so that modern audiences aren’t inconvenienced by incomprehension. “I think that’s pretty general practice these days,” Rice explained, before hauling Shakespeare himself in as backup. Presumably he’d take a break from writing HBO mini-series to put in a word for her – since others as confident about his postmortem attitudes as Rice often seem to suggest that’s what he would be doing now.

Let’s be fair here. The only fair test of Rice’s tenure in the job will be the productions she puts on, not an early- morning phoner with Humphrys. She had, in any case, been awkwardly skewered between a question that proposed Shakespeare’s language as an insurmountable hurdle to audience pleasure and then (as soon as she’d politely acknowledged that premise) another that implied only a vandal would touch it. No wonder she ended up sounding a little spatchcocked.

. . . .

If Shakespeare was just “the most epic, extraordinary storyteller” – the quality Rice kept emphasising in her interview – the smoothing out of linguistic difficulty would matter less. But that characterisation of him points in the wrong direction. He borrowed virtually all of the stories he tells. And then reframed them in language that defied obsolescence.

The plays will survive cutting, gender-blind casting and the wildest directorial conceit – even flourish sometimes. But they won’t survive rewriting into a pasteurised modernity. If Rice doesn’t recognise that, she’ll find herself hoist with her own petard.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Bridget for the tip.

As it happens, Mrs. PG and PG recently discussed our respective first exposures to Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice in both cases. Each of us experienced the language coming wondrously to life when we first saw the play performed. As Mrs. PG described it, “After ten minutes, I could understand everything.”

PG is reminded that Shakespeare wrote about the dangers of pride on several occasions.

He that is proud eats up himself: pride is
his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle.

Troilus and Cressida

Books in General

24 Comments to “In defence of Shakespeare’s difficult bits”

  1. Shakespeare came alive for me one day in a college class. The prof was friends with many in the RSC, and on this day two of them visited, and were prompted by the prof to recreate a scene from their recent triumph in Julius Caesar. Magic. One of the actors was a fellow named Patrick Stewart.

  2. No wonder she ended up sounding a little spatchcocked.

    I do not think it means what you think it means.

    (Her comment may be spatchcocked — inserted inappropriately — but as used it means Ms Rice was split open, had her backbone and organs removed, and her carcass flattened to prepare it for grilling. I wonder what that sounds like.)

    • I thought he meant that she was splayed out between the two questions, having been grabbed in both directions and then smashed.

  3. And I was so looking forward to using the term spatchcocked today! But I’m not prepared to do violence for the privilege.

    My best Shakespeare experience to date (and I’ve had a number) was standing as one of the “groundlings” at a sparsely attended afternoon performance at the new Globe — I wasn’t around for the original Globe Theatre — that happened to feature an all-female cast from Australia presenting “Much Ado About Nothing.” After five minutes, I not only could understand everything, I forgot that they were all one gender. Very Shakespearean, when you think about it. A grand production!

    • … I forgot that they were all one gender.

      Thanks for solving a mystery for me. I had read that way back in the day they cast men to play all the parts, and I always wondered how it would work. I assumed it would be jarring. Now I know that if the story is good and the acting is good the casting wouldn’t be the problem I’d assumed it would be.

  4. I’ll admit it: I don’t “get” Shakespeare. Never have, never will.

    • “Never will” seems unnecessarily pessimistic. Have you tried watching anything? Some of the adaptations are fantastic. Tennant or Branagh as Hamlet? Fassbender as Macbeth?

      As has been borne out above, far better to watch than to read — especially when presented by talented actors and a talented director who can all match the talent of the author.

      • Pessimistic? Nah. Realistic.

        Yes, I’ve watched Shakespeare on the stage and in films. Took a Shakespeare class in college. Didn’t like any of it. Not even a little bit.

        • Oh, I see. You don’t like Shakespeare. I always think of that as different from not getting something. Maybe that’s just me. I always think of artists whose work I don’t particularly enjoy but whose talent and craftsmanship I can’t otherwise deny. I could see Shakespeare falling into that category for many people.

          • Right. By not getting it, I meant I don’t understand the enduring popularity. I don’t connect with his work. I once blew up an on-line discussion by saying I didn’t care for Shakespeare. The responses were downright vicious. People took it so *personally*…

            • You can get the same response with sports — just try saying that you don’t follow it and that you don’t care if their favorite team wins or loses!

              Some people can really get into things that others will just shake their heads at — if not totally dislike/hate.

  5. I’m not against altering Shakespeare’s words, but I’d prefer if that were done in the interest of bettering them, rather than making them more accessible. Provided, I’m also not sure one can better them, but it seems a higher pursuit than what sounds like making them try to appeal to a generation of readers more likely to respond “tl;dr.”

  6. Oh what a loaded cultural bomb Shakespeare has become. After 15 years in the theater and countless productions of the bulk of the canon, my patience with the preciousness people have towards the plays is gone.

    These plays have been performed every which way from sunday. Throughout history rewriting was common, including extreme rewrites where the endings of the tragedies were given happy endings. (Romeo and Juliet live!) They have been reset in every location imaginable, roles played by every gender available.

    Rewrite them, rearrange, reset, adapted, altered … DO IT. It’s not precious. There is nothing holy about this stuff. It’s culture and its only use is the joy and inspiration it brings to people. You don’t have to like the poetry to love the stories, and vice versa. If you don’t like the approach a specific production is taking, I recommend you find one of the other countless productions that does what you prefer, and stop wasting your energy. I guarantee you somewhere else there is a production that is doing far worse, so the pearl clutching is useless.

    The one thing we can safely say about Shakespeare is that he was not at all precious. He lived in a time where copy write didn’t exist, where he had to suck up to patrons, please a crowd and run a business. He wrote countless poop jokes, sexual innuendo, stole popular stories and rewrote them shamelessly to meet his audiences taste, and cranked out new plays at the request of wealthy people. In it all he slipped in serious thoughts, themes and ideas and yes wrote beautiful poetry. But he was writing popular entertainment and far too many people forget that. If he WERE alive today, it is very likely he would be innovating on YouTube, or yes, a show runner for a major TV series, not holed up in a precious “cultural institution” doing “important work”. The man liked having his work seen by everyone. He was no court player.

    • Yes! Thank you. I long ago saw a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented as a 1950’s high school musical. Loved it.

    • Yeah, I don’t get why it would be such a horrible thing to update the plays with modern language. These plays were written, what? 400+ years ago? That’s a lot of linguistic drift to deal with, people.

      I’m one of those people who totally don’t “get” Shakespeare, and I’m someone who reads a fair amount of classic literature. Because of the language, I can manage to follow maybe 30% of what’s going on in the story, no matter what adaptation I see. About the only one I’ve had any success in enjoying is Taming of the Shrew.

      Update the language. Let ordinary people enjoy the stories. If you want the poetry, read the original.

  7. My younger son studied Shakespeare in sixth grade, thanks to his very ambitious teacher. He saw a production of Hamlet and acted a part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He understood it just fine on a basic level and enjoyed delving deeper into many “difficult bits”. He particularly liked learning about Shakespeare’s creative insults.

    And the sword fights. Oh, the sword fights. 🙂

    The kicker is that my son is not a very good student. He doesn’t focus well and finds most classes boring. Not Shakespeare. He was fascinated, as were the other kids. His teacher told me she sees the same thing with her classes every year.

    Anyway, I find the ida of removing the “difficult bits” more condescending to the audience than anything else.

  8. I remember my father saying once that he’d been confused by this old theology book he was reading until he realized that “divers” was a misspelling of “diverse”—and started scoffing because “diverse” didn’t make sense in a context where he’d seen “divers”.

    I, who was a bookworm with much experience reading early modern literature, pointed out that it wasn’t misspelled—standardized spelling hadn’t existed then—and that “divers” actually could mean “several”, then.

    My father was most displeased. He argued with me and started ridiculing my pronunciation, insisting it couldn’t possibly be right. And then got even more upset when I sought the dictionary to resolve the matter.

    I was about 16 at the time.

    I can’t help but wonder but if those folks who insist that Shakespeare needs to be made accessible are practicing psychological projection to hide or justify their own difficulty understanding the language and imagery.

    She’s appealing to the authority and emotion of Shakespeare to support her point! That’s logically fallacious propaganda, not evidence!

    Shakespeare wrote plays for the people of his day, not instructions how to bake a cake for a modern woman who’s never walked into a kitchen, before. Is there a niche market for translations of the “tough bits”? Yes. That’s why there are publishers who release the original text and a modernized translation in single volume.

    But that’s what it is: a niche.

    If you’re going to update the plays for your own market, go ahead. Just don’t get all self-righteous and self-justifying about it. That just tells those of us who can understand Shakespeare to expect your translation to be inaccurate.

    • I will split the difference with you and Lumen2222. I grew up with the King James Bible — “divers tongues and interpretations” — so I picked up the Bard easily enough. I like the language. I borrowed Elizabethan for a fantasy I wrote because I needed a quick and easy way to show that a character in a fantasy-counterpart Persia was “using an older more liturgical form of the language” during a confrontation. Ye olde “thee, thine, thou” got that across quite well 🙂

      I want the language preserved, but I think adaptations ensure that the original endures. I can’t have been the only one who read Jane Austen’s “Emma” because of the movie “Clueless.” In school they showed us the “Moonlighting” version of “Taming of the Shrew,” so I saw the story as portrayed by Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd.

      I think the adaptations help people grok the original stories in a way they might not if they were initially intimidated by the language. This widens the pool of people who appreciate the originals and keep them around.

      I’ve seen often enough how interested fans can be in the source material of something they like. Even bastardized versions of a story can make themselves useful to that end. So I embrace the adaptations, I embrace mining. If Shakespeare can adapt “Pyramus and Thisbe” into “Romeo and Juliet” I think it would be fair to adapt Macbeth for a space opera (does that exist? I’ll read it).

      So long as no one suppresses the original versions, there’s no real harm done.

  9. We don’t even know for sure who Shakespeare was, or that he was one person or a writing team. We don’t have original copies of his plays. Shakespeare himself is a cultural construct, a mythical character, a best guess by generations of historians; so making claims about his personality, opinions, or personal characteristics is doubly ludicrous. I have two friends who are both Fans of the Bard no longer on speaking terms with each other because they believe different Shakespeare Myths. If people want to defend the current state of the Authorized Set Of Elizibethan Texts Currently Presented Under The Shakespeare Brand, they are free to do so; but let us not do history a disservice by continuing to pretend mythology as history.

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