The New Yorker brings us this discussion of the history of editing Shakespeare’s text, stimulated by the news that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned new translations of Shakespeare’s plays. We live in an age which values the “genuine”, the real, the ancient almost above content. If you can’t understand Chaucer, just get a dictionary and work harder, the purists would say. To them it is obvious that Shakespeare must be experienced exactly as Shakespeare intended, though of course there’s a long-running academic debate as to what that might actually mean. In the same vein, if you can’t follow an opera sung in Italian, a purist probably thinks you don’t deserve to be there. But Verdi wouldn’t have arranged for there to be words in his operas if he thought it unimportant that the audience should understand them. Shakespeare would (presumably) be aghast at the idea that the audience might miss half the text because the vocabulary was no longer understood. You purists! Language exists to communicate; language evolves; words’ meanings change over time while others words disappear. You can’t insist that everyone going to a Shakespeare play or a Wagner opera memorize and translate the text before turning up. Dare I remind you that you demonstrate your hypocrisy by happily attending translated (and quietly adapted) versions of Euripides et alia.

The New York Times takes a de haut en bas attitude to the whole thing and points out to the Oregonian rubes that they are after solving the wrong problem. “However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow. The problem is not the often knotty language; it’s that even the best directors and actors — British as well as American — too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.” Does this imply that if you say “quantum mechanics” to me with authority, knowing in yourself what it is, I will instantly appreciate the implications of superposition? Some words are just opaque however loudly you say them. The Times probably thinks if you shout slowly at foreigners they’ll understand your English.

The New Yorker is broadly in favor of the translation plan. As they say “Until the late Victorian era, stage performances usually observed the setting and period implied in the play, but they transformed the language. Shakespeare’s script was the first problem that a production had to remedy.” We now knee-jerkily tend to do the opposite. Publishing Perspectives votes against the idea. They quote with approval James Shapiro who says “Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language. It’s like the beer I drink. I drink 8.2 percent IPA, and by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light. Bud Light’s acceptable, but it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of that language.” I dare say it’s possible Professor Shapiro is embarrassed when he reads what he is said to have said.

Here is part of Timon’s speech from Timon of Athens Act IV, Scene 1:

                                          Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general filths
Convert o’th’ instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents’ eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal:
Large—handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law. 

And here’s Kenneth Cavander’s translation for the Oregon project:

And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place …
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now – why wait? –
And do it while your parents watch … Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal – your bosses are crooks
In fine suits, gangsters raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.

Well, of course it’s not Shakespeare’s 8.2% text, but it’s certainly not Bud Light. If someone stood before you and spoke Mr Cavender’s words, you would immediately understand what they were saying, whereas the original takes a bit of working out. Time for that just isn’t available in the theatre where the next lines will be rushing at you on the instant. I find it hard to see what’s wrong with letting your audience understand the words. If they really want to read the original they can do so at home, just as classicists can read their Euripides and try to imagine how a Greek audience might have received the hallowed words. I do wonder, way at the back of my mind, whether Shakespeare’s original was really instantly understandable when first performed, or whether it was slightly obscure in its day. If Shakespeare intended us to be a bit fazed by his text, maybe the attempt to make it clear actually is an error.


Advertisement for 1819 edition of The Family Shakespeare. From Wikipedia

The Bowdlers who gave rise to their own addition to our vocabulary with their bowdlerized “Family Shakespeare”, set out to “remove from the writings of Shakspeare, some defects which diminish their value”. Their interventions were more doctrinaire than the likes of Rowe, Steevens, Malone and the long line of academics who have followed since the late seventeenth century, all vying with one another to produce a genuine Shakespeare text, a floating target because of the lack of any authoritative original like say a manuscript. Collating differences in the Folio and Quarto editions can be a lifetime’s occupation, and I think it remains impossible to say exactly what Shakespeare wrote. Still what we have works pretty well, so what matters the exact form the text takes?

The Lambs, Charles and Mary, did their Tales from Shakespeare in 1807 and it’s still in print. E. Nesbit published Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare 100 years later. An abbreviated version, The Best of Shakespeare: Retellings of 10 Classic Plays is still available from Oxford University Press. NYRB have just published Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories, originally published in Britain in two volumes, the first in 1985, the second in 1994. As Meghan Cox Gurdon says in The Wall Street Journal children’s books round up on 20 November, “In these lively and evocative pages a child will hear Shakespeare’s poetry set in prose that will lay the groundwork for many a future enchanted evening at the theater.” These are all perfectly good, readable “stories”, directed primarily at a juvenile audience. And there is nothing wrong with doing this: indeed much good may come of it. Maybe eggheads and purists are scornful of the thousands who must have read these low-alcohol versions, but read them they have.

We have, have we not, reached a point where almost everything written prior to the eighteenth century is verging on the incomprehensible. Language evolves, and the outburst of digital media has probably meant that language is now evolving faster than ever before. Even eighteenth century texts, while probably altogether understandable word by word, are off-putting to most modern readers, and are thus as good as incomprehensible. If you’re not going to read Paradise Lost because of the syntax, it might as well be written in Greek for all the good it’s doing you.

Inevitably the Internet provides a translated Paradise Lost, and this one by Joseph Lanzara is also available as a paperback. Not that I’d want to read his version: Milton is still well this side of the linguistic dividing line, surely, and it’s the way he put things which is the whole point. I find this other translation a bit more adventurous (maybe a bit too adventurous): its unconsciously ambiguous opening is “Hey there Muse, can you tell me about Man’s first Sin? It had something to do with that fruit, right?” Still, one day soon a translation will be needed. Maybe some poet, looking for a project, might take this up. For the time being Shakespeare seems to be in good hands in Oregon.