Written By James Swift - James Swift is an Atlanta-based writer and reporter whose work has been published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Youth Today, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. His multimedia project Rural America: After the Recession received acclaim from both the Community Action Partnership and the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families. In 2013, he wrote the foreword for Jan Banning’s Down and Out in the South. At the 2013 Atlanta Press Club Awards of Excellence, he was the recipient of the Rising Star Award, an honor for “outstanding talent from any medium, under 30 years of age.”
Over the years, there has been an emerging trend among Shakespearean festivals to get rid of all of the archaic, King’s English prose in classics like Macbeth and The Tempest. Troupes in Oregon, Alabama and Florida, among many others, have all made the conscious effort to retool the Bard’s iconic works for the same reason - modern audiences simply have no idea what the hell the actors are saying.
Of course, academics and theater snobs (you can tell they are snobs because they always pretentiously spell it “theatre”) and English teachers all over America are none too happy with the decommissioning of Shakespeare’s most noteworthy plays, with some criticizing the “plain English” iterations as yet another symptom of the general “dumbing down” of American culture. But me? I see it a little bit differently. Not only do I consider rewriting Shakespeare to accommodate the common man A-OK, I think it’s something that should have happened decades ago.
In high school, I hated Shakespeare. I thought his works were verbose and overly bombastic and at least 80 percent indecipherable. But my teachers just kept going on and on about how “great” stuff like Henry VIII and The Taming of the Shrew were, even though no one in class had any clue what the guy was talking about. Hell, I’m not even sure our teachers knew for sure what Billy Shakespeare was trying to get at, but since it’s been beat into our skulls that he’s the absolute greatest poet ever, we just have to bite our tongues and carry on the charade of understanding.
Just what makes Shakespeare’s works so great, anyway? What makes As You Like It and Hamlet so much better than all of the other stuff being pumped out in the 1500s and 1600s by guys like Christopher Marlowe and John Fletcher and Ben Johnson? Who even decided that Shakespeare’s work was “great” to begin with, and what are we to make of the unabashed racism and anti-semitism coursing through works like Othello and The Merchant of Venice? Why is there such an emphasis on English writers from the 14th and 15th centuries, anyway? I don’t recall reading any kind of literature penned by any Frenchmen, Italians, Germans or Russians in my world literature classes prior to the 19th century. You mean to tell me nobody in Asia or Africa wrote anything worth a damn during the heyday of Shakespeare?
Of course, nobody had the answers to any of those questions. Shakespeare was simply great and worthy of studying because a long time ago, a whole bunch of old white guys got together and said “you know, we like the cut of this guy’s jib, so let’s declare him the poet par excellence.” I sort of feel that’s the same rationale behind why so many people are convinced Alfred Hitchcock and The Beatles were so great, to the point they get belligerent the moment one dares question the arbitrariness of their decidedly unscientific classification of “the best of all time.” But … back to Shakespeare.
Why, please tell me, is it a bad thing for culture at large to refuse to accept the inherent “greatness” of something they themselves do not comprehend? If anything, modern audiences rejecting Shakespearean plays for being too hard to follow or understand represents something of a mini-triumph of rationality. Rather than simply swallow the cultural Tao without once asking what’s being shoved down their throats, the newly enlightened masses are refusing to praise, celebrate and vaunt that which they do not firmly, concretely understand.
What sort of shame is there, anyway, in not understanding the vernacular of people who died 600 years before any of us were ever born? Isn’t language itself a constantly-evolving societal construct designed to change over time? Does it really speak poorly on our collective, cognitive abilities when we encounter outdated prose like “you scullion, you rampallian, you fustilarian, I’ll tickle your catastrophe” and have no clue how to interpret the gibberish before us?
There are some out there who believe that the works of Shakespeare are nigh untouchable and shouldn’t be monkeyed with in the slightest. I’ve never understood this weird protectionist mentality. How many great non-English movies have come down the pipes over the last century? The works of Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman were all easily adapted to English-speaking audiences, without the context, subtext or basic artistry of the works being compromised. So why can’t we similarly update Shakespeare’s works so people at least halfway understand what the actors are carrying on about?
I hardly consider replacing the “thees” and “thous” in Cymbeline with “yous” and “yours” as a sociocultural crime on par with burning down the Library of Alexandria. Indeed, such is the only way to keep the art of all of those archaic English penmen alive. So why are so many educators and historians and stage traditionalists so damn opposed to the only measure that would keep the object of their adulation relevant for future generations?
This isn’t some newfound, anti-intellectual phenomenon. If you think high school kids in the 1950s actually knew what Billy S. meant when he wrote “now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York,” you’re fooling yourselves. I have a hard time believing that most high school literature teachers even know what Shakespeare’s hinting at most of the time; so, instead of dare questioning the material at hand, everybody just plows through it, memorizes it and regurgitates it out on command without ever grasping a deeper context to the words. Yeah, some learning experience, all right.
What this symbolizes, perhaps, is a great global shift in the rudimentary purpose of language. Language, of course, is something tied to culture; to understand words, one has to understand the greater nuances of the social system - its slang, its double entendres, its puns, its swear words. Anyone who has attempted to learn a new language knows this: in fact, I’m still trying to wrap my head around why Spanish-speakers think pencils are feminine while pens are masculine.
If you take a look at college entrance exam data, over the last couple of decades math and science scores, by and large, have gone up. Conversely, reading and writing scores have dropped precipitously. As to why this is the case, naturally, is in the eye of the beholder (some blame technology, some blame immigration from non-English speaking countries and some blame too much government oversight of public school curriculum). What we do know, however, is that as of late S.A.T. reading and writing scores have gotten so bad that the College Board redesigned the test to to eliminate “obscure vocabulary words” and take out the essay portion entirely. So, rather than encourage our high school kids to expand their grasp of the English language - as well as their ability to express themselves artistically - we’re telling them it doesn’t mean shit.
Indeed, that’s the great casualty of today’s globalized, STEM-obsessed academic landscape. Rather than explore the culturally-locked, idiosyncratic nature of localized language, we’re forcing our kids to adopt a less wordy, more straight-forward tongue centered around the dual dialect of technology and commerce. Forget about English being the lingua franca of the planet; HTML is virtually Esperanto triumphant.
And in a world where English is being condensed verbally and eliminated symbolically (who among us hasn’t used emojis as replacements for actual conversations?), of course nobody can understand All’s Well That Ends Well. And frankly? I’d much rather live in that world where people just come and say they don’t get what’s happening than one in which people clap robotically and pretend to grasp the uninterpretable before them.
So no offense, sweet swan of Avon; we think all that iambic pentameter stuff was cool and all, but being honest? We just don’t, well, get it. And no, we are not going to spend our precious free time learning the subtleties of a half-dead language from half a millennium ago just so we can gleam maybe one or two extra sex jokes from your plays.
I am reminded of that time South African prime minister P.W. Botha told his parliament to “adapt or die.” Aye, Mr. Shakespeare’s ghost, methinks thou ought to consider the same; for words, not unlike the living vessels tasked with carrying them from one generation to the next, have but only those two options.