The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for audiences today so it is commissioning 36 playwrights to translate his 36 plays into modern English.
Absurd. The Shakespeare festival in Ashland, a great booster of Shakespeare since 1935, is selling out.
Modern versions are an outrage. You get this kind of abomination: the New English Bible translates the King James Version, Mary, ‘’being great with child,” into the shuddering: “Mary, now in the later stages of her pregnancy.”
James Shapiro, English professor at Columbia, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that carried a headline satirizing a modern translation of “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” into “Romeo, why are you Romeo?”
\Shakespeare borrowed all his plots. He wrote for a theater that required only a handful of props, no scenery and no artificial lighting. But Shapiro adds significantly: “The only thing Shakespearean about his plays is the language.”
Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published a collection of his plays in the First Folio of 1623. In the preface, Ben Jonson, no mean playwright himself, extolled Shakespeare as the “Soul of the age!”…“the wonder of our stage”…and “not for an age but for all time.”
Selecting the choicest plays, characters and moments from the vast Shakespeare canon is a matter of personal preference. In my view, the Bard’s greatest play is “Hamlet.” Indeed, it’s the best play ever written.
Perhaps the saddest Shakespeare drama is Lear in which the cruelly blinded Gloucester is told “to smell his way to Dover.” At the end of the play Lear laments the death of Cordelia, the only one of his three daughters who truly loved him. He wails that he will see her “no more, never, never, never, never, never!”
It’s disputable, but in my judgment the greatest poetry of Shakespeare’s plays is in “Macbeth.” Here is beginning of one wonderful passage from it:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
Few will quarrel that Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation.
“Banish plump Jack and banish all the world.” (“King Henry IV,” part one.) In part two Falstaff reminisces: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” Shallow agrees: “Jesus, the days that we have seen!”
Shakespeare is full of insights. King Henry V, prowling the Agincourt battlefield in disguise the night before the battle, hears anti-war sentiments from some soldiers. When the king says it would be a glorious thing to die fighting for the crown, a soldier answers: “That’s more than we know.”
Shakespeare lived in a time of ghettoes and violent anti-Semitism, and yet in “The Merchant of Venice” he gives Shylock a magnificent plea for tolerance: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions…If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?”
Marlowe’s “mighty line” became even mightier under the incomparable pen of Shakespeare. No one has ever written more gloriously, profoundly and wisely.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)