Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose, but When Is Shakespeare Fakespeare?

Like many of my fellow Shakespeare professors -- like all of them, in fact -- I have students who like books or movies whose plots are based on Shakespeare. "It's The Taming of the Shrew in an American high school," they say, or, "It's Hamlet, but with animals."

It's not.

When I tell them so, I take care not to criticize the book, movie, play, Youtube short, or TV commercial in question. Each might be good, bad, mediocre, or excellent in its own right. I like the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate and the film 10 Things I Hate About You and Disney's The Lion King. Having myself written two Shakespeare-based novels, to roll my eyes at such adaptations would be hypocritical. In fact, I can add some celebrated titles to the conversation: Huxley's Brave New World, Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. There are hundreds of adaptations out
there, and more are being churned out all the time. But I try to make plain that none of those works are Shakespeare in modern garb.

This is because Shakespeare used plots as frames on which to drape his language. Shakespeare is his dialogue. Further, he substantially borrowed most of his plots from other sources, however ingeniously he later tweaked and altered them. The legend of Hamlet comes from a twelfth-century collection of Danish tales. The story of Macbeth is found in the Holinshed Chronicles, which Shakespeare also raided for his English history plays. Julius Caesar's and Coriolanus's biographies derive from Plutarch. The basic outline of Romeo and Juliet's story he found in a long -- and somewhat dull -- sixteenth-century narrative poem. And so on. To use "found" plots was not even remotely considered plagiarism during the English Renaissance. It was a mark of your education. Your originality was looked for not in the story you cooked up, but in the poetry or prose with which -- and in which -- you renewed old stories. You were what you wrote.

What this means is that "Why must you be named Romeo? A rose is a rose, whatever it's called" is not a modern version of "Wherefore art thou Romeo? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." It's a completely different statement. Robert Louis Stevenson went as far as to claim that "Shakespeare-ese" was its own language. Jorge Luis Borges agreed, saying not only was it impossible to translate Shakespeare into Spanish, it was impossible to translate Shakespeare into English. As an example, Borges quoted Hamlet's question to the Ghost: "What may this mean, / That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel / Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon?" "Perhaps the words can be translated," Borges said, in a speech to the Shakespeare Association of America in 1976. But, "Think of the phrase 'glimpses of the moon.' I don't think it can be translated. 'The glimpses of the moon' means exactly 'the glimpses of the moon.' It has a value of its own, it is a word of its own."

Shakespeare's rich, strange language is the reason so many directors, actors, teachers, and scholars have devoted their professional lives to him. And those who simply read (aloud or silently) or hear Shakespeare for pleasure understand this as well. Yet the study of Shakespeare is now being encroached on by the para-discipline of "Adapted Shakespeare," courses in which are increasingly being substituted for actual Shakespeare courses at college and universities. "Adapted Shakespeare" is not Shakespeare in the movies, or a novel Shakespeare production (Star Wars Hamlet; Macbeth as mafioso). Those sorts of works are Shakespeare, because, however strange their mode, their actors are speaking Shakespeare. "Adapted Shakespeare," in contrast, has jettisoned Shakespeare's language and simply maintained some version of his (mostly borrowed) plots. Lots of adapted Shakespeare is good literature. Lots of it is good drama or film. But it's not Shakespeare.

Supporting the movement away from Shakespeare is the popular high-school-student-targeted series No Fear Shakespeare, in which, for each page of authentic Shakespearean dialogue, a facing page boils down the language into a monotonous, unvarying twenty-first century English. On that page, every character speaks exactly the same way -- and that way isn't Shakespeare's. Shakespeare, with all his marvelous accommodations of language to character, is lost, on these pages which students will certainly read instead of the ones on the right, because they're easier to understand. Gone is Macbeth's grim, desperate humor: "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die on my own sword? / Whilst I see lives, the gashes do better on them!" Gone is Falstaff's mock-Puritan-preacher oratory, and the brilliant string of food-based insults he hurls at Prince Hal: "You starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stockfish -- O for breath to utter what is like thee!" Gone are the glimpses of the moon.

One would think that celebrated Shakespeare Festivals, in contrast to textbook companies, would be committed to keeping Shakespeare's own lively language on the stage. That's why Shakespeare lovers reacted with surprise and skepticism to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's relatively recent announcement that they had hired contemporary playwrights to "translate" Shakespeare's plays for their audiences. According to the OSF website, "Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content."


I listened to a sample from a Tempest translation-in-process. The playwright has assayed a modification of act 2, scene 1, when Prospero's wicked  brother Antonio is trying to persuade his crony Sebastian to kill Sebastian's sleeping brother, the King of Naples. Here's Shakespeare:

. . . . . . . . . . .  O that you bore
The mind that I do! what a sleep were this
For your advancement! Do you understand me?

 Methinks I do.

Here's the translation:

I wish you saw what I see. What a sleep this would be for your advancement! Do you understand me?

I think I do.

I haven't attempted to cast the translation in verse, because the translator didn't. Either he doesn't know what iambic pentameter is, or he didn't care about it. He gives us prose. So much for meter and rhythm. As for emotional content, most would agree that "O that you bore the mind that I do!" far outstrips "I wish you saw what I see." A hands-raised-to-the-sky exclamation has become a simple statement of fact (and adding an exclamation point wouldn't fix it). Changing "were this" to "this would be" destroys the meter, but, again, that was gone already. And finally, why "Methinks I do" needed to be changed to "I think I do" I can't imagine. Who wouldn't prefer "Methinks"? 

I think the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is wasting their money on this project. I formally suggest that they opt for full-out contemporary plays -- or else change their name! Myself, I love adaptations when they're well done, as I love all good literature. I aspire to it myself (see my April 1, 2013 post on this site). But let's call it what it is: Fakespeare. (Except on April Fool's Day.)

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