Translated Into Relevance: An Under-Researched Opinion on Modern Shakespeare

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.

This Close to History: An Examination of Guy Gavriel Kay

An element of the past is often central to fantasy texts, they are set in worlds where characters fight with swords rather than guns and cell phones are more impossible than magic, but the degree of history that slips in shifts a great deal with the author. Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay is praised for his fantasy novels and one of the unique elements of these books are the degree to which they are steeped in the history of our world. This is a world building choice that gives Kay’s novels a distinctly different feel to the more traditional fantasy works of Lewis, Tolkien, or Martin. This difference sets Kay’s work apart from much of the contemporary fantasy scene but it is an incredibly effective way to address history in a way that is appealing and accessible to a different kind of reader.

Despite being categorized as a fantasy book, those who are familiar with European history will immediately recognize the setting of Kay’s most recent work – A Brightness Long Ago – as being set in Renaissance Italy. Perhaps most obvious is Seressa whose canal’s and business economy match almost exactly with the vision of Venice that most readers would come to the text with. Even the major event which the book revolves around, the fall of Sarantium, is clearly the Kay’s parallel to the fall of Constantinople. Kay isn’t trying to hide the historical basis for what he is writing about, he leans into the style that he has been using since the publication of A Song for Arbonne in 1992 and even includes what amounts to a works cited at the end of the book. A Brightness Long Ago, like the novels that proceeded it, draw in a reader who already loves history with the joys of trying to match figures and families in the book to their historical equivalents while Kay’s fantasy setting creates the kind of immersive veneer that makes the history compelling in a way that no textbook ever could.

Kay never claims to be writing an accurate history and it allows him to write characters who are entirely a part of their world rather than having the kind of distance that historical writing requires. Books that seek to be factual and educational are written with a kind of distance, they describe the beliefs of the Ancient Greeks without really believing in the Greek pantheon and come with the implication of misplaced faith that comes with describing what is now a long dead religion. Even historical fiction novels are written with a kind of awareness of the reader, the characters do really believe in the world their story takes place in, but the books often feel like the are turned towards a voyeuristic reader who wants to look back on history. By setting his novels in a fantasy world Kay removes that pressure, he writes about Christianity or Islam without really writing about those faiths and it makes the character’s faith feel more real because they simply run in parallel with the religion’s the reader knows. History is close enough to Kay’s fantasy that it is recognizable but not so close that it entirely breaks the immersion of the world, rather it makes the world feel deeper and more complex with what the reader brings to the story.

The immersive fantasy experience actually brings the reader closer to what they are reading than a pure history would. There are many people who would never pick up a book about the minor conflicts of city states in the Italian Renaissance but will find the Folco vs Monticola conflict in A Brightness Long Ago compelling. Kay’s fantasy captures the best aspects of history, the intrigues and the power and the devastating power of a single event like the fall of Constantinople without getting caught up in the details of dates, geographies and armies that people often find off putting about history. However, it is a not a patronizing oversimplification that simply assumes people are too stupid to understand history, Kay’s world is masterfully constructed around the historical fact so that history buffs are also caught up in the push towards the climatic fall of Sarantium that their history knowledge told them was inevitable from the beginning of the novel. It is hard for a modern reader to feel the shock waves that the fall of Constantinople sent through Europe but A Brightness Long Ago places them in a world that hasn’t felt that shock wave yet and then lets them feel it happen. This is a kind of closeness that isn’t possible with history but seems inescapable when reading Kay’s work.

A Brightness Long Ago is the most recent of Kay’s novel’s and is perhaps the ideal book to use for this analysis because it is set in a fantasy of Europe with its own version of Christianity, but Kay’s other works carry the same historical weight. The (unfortunately) less recognizable histories of the Near and Far East are present in his earlier novels and immerse the reader in a kind of history they may not be nearly as familiar with. The historical parallels are just as close in these books, but it is certainly a different kind of immersive atmosphere is certainly different and might offer an even more valuable experience than reading the easily identifiable history of Europe. A Brightness Long Ago is a gateway into history, but it will hopefully also be a gateway into Kay’s previous books for new readers to expand their historical horizons beyond what a single story can contain.