Reading Shakespeare is often one of the most reviled parts of high school English for the average student while beyond the walls of the classroom there is still a large theatre community that is built around keeping Shakespeare’s plays alive. William Shakespeare died in 1616 so his plays are far from recent which raises questions about the place they should have in contemporary culture both as a piece of history and as works still relevant to people’s lives. By considering the many versions of Shakespeare that have appeared in modern times that debate can be seen and the implications of changing the great playwright’s work can be considered.
No Fear Shakespeare and it many competitors are targeted at the apparently suffering high school students who are being forcible pulled through a study of one play or another. They attempt to make the experience of reading Shakespeare less taxing by moving the original Elizabethan English into more modern language. However, this often goes beyond just defining a word or two that has fallen out of common usage, instead there is an entire modern version of the text that is created. These versions usually lack the beautiful iambic pentameter of the original and many of Shakespeare’s hilarious and surprisingly juvenile jokes are also lost. For some students this might be the only way they are going to make it through a Shakespeare play, in which cased No Fear Shakespeare can be a fantastic tool for academic success, but the prevalence of full translations creates a general negative attitude about Shakespeare. There is an increasing feeling that Shakespeare is impossible to read in its original form and many students no longer bother to try since it is so easy to access modern translations.
The theater world is also very much aware of the challenge that modern audiences have with understanding and enjoying Shakespeare. However, they have moved in a slightly different direction with stage adaptations that take place in modern, or at least slightly more recent, times. For example in the 2018 summer season at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario, Robert Lepage staged a modernized version of Coriolanus that included an iPhone texting scene that always drew many laughs from the audience. In versions like this the language of the play is largely if not entirely unchanged, but the setting and costuming is shifted forward in time. This can draw attention to particular themes or make the story seem more accessible since the modern context is so different from the one Shakespeare wrote in. Despite the many advantages of modernization there can also be real challenges associated with a Shakespeare play that has been taken out of its original framing. In the case of Lepage’s Coriolanus the modernization actually made several elements of the play more difficult to understand. Coriolanus is one of the Roman plays and features the rather unique political structure of Republican Rome, many of the positions that are central to the text haven’t existed in over a thousand years so the late 20th century setting that Lepage chose couldn’t account for these figures. Watching the play without a clear understanding of Shakespeare’s original would have been extremely challenging as the relationships between various characters is not at all clear in the modern adaptation. Modernizing Shakespeare on the stage revolves around a similar concern for accessibility that leads to translations while presenting a different set of problems.
There is a third option that exists somewhat outside of the dichotomy presented by translation or adaptation which is simply to write an entirely new creation that comments on the original. This is what Aime Cesaire undertook when he wrote Une Tempete which rather than just being a version of Shakespeare’s original that was staged in such a way that it emphasizes the discussion of colonialism is a completely new text that shows the story from another perspective. Rather than playing second fiddle to Prospero’s revenge quest, Ariel and Caliban are at the center of Une Tempete using discussions of race and colonization that are explicit rather than implied. It isn’t just the text of the play that is changed, Cesaire’s suggested staging as shown through additional scenes at the beginning and end of the play incorporate the culture of the African Diaspora through traditional masks, drawing attention to the vibrant cultures that Shakespeare’s work and colonialism in general are painting over. Even though the plot follows that of Shakespeare’s Tempest in many ways it is hard to read this play as simply a version or adaptation of the original as it has its own unique tone, meaning and emotion.
There are academics who spend their careers researching Shakespeare, his plays, and their place in society but that research is most often quite distance from the average person as they encounter Shakespeare. Whether in a high school classroom, on a stage or in more hidden forms that defy easy categorization – like Hamlet in the Lion King – these encounters are a point of contact between Shakespeare’s past and our present. Translations and modernizations attempt to force a connection between the audience and the text with some argument of relevance, while works like Cesaire’s show the gaps or failings of the original. However, if there is some relevance to be had perhaps there should be more faith placed in the audience to find it, or in new creators to come up and build their own work on the base that Shakespeare built.