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Is the controversy surrounding Play On! all Much Ado About Nothing?

Reflections of a teenage Shakespeare fanatic on translating the Bard.

by Sophie Friedenwald-Fishman

If I was asked to share the most defining moment of my life, I would have to answer that it was on a starry summer night when I sat in an outdoor theater and first saw the magic of Shakespeare. I was five years old and, ever since, Shakespeare has been my passion, an insightful guide, and a provocateur of action. I was seven when I was given my own Complete Works of Shakespeare, 14 when I had a dramaturgy internship in a professional production of Twelfth Night at Portland Shakespeare Project, and 15 when I stage-managed the national live broadcast of “The Wonder of Will” at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I am now interning as assistant to the executive director for Play On!, which commissioned 36 playwrights to translate Shakespeare’s works into modern English while preserving their rigor and poetry. So it is safe to say that I am a Shakespeare fanatic, and that my introduction to the Bard is quite different than that of most high schoolers.

“His plays are universal.” This sentence is said in almost every freshman English class as a room full of 14 year olds open a scribbled on copy of Romeo and Juliet and are first introduced to Shakespeare. For all of its universality, many students struggle through the play, trudging through the unfamiliar sentence structure and words with little appreciation for the Bard. Shakespeare plays, for all of their beauty, have become difficult to interpret in the 400 years since they were written. This understanding gap has unfortunately lead to generations for whom Shakespeare is only a tedious few months in high school where No Fear Shakespeare is one’s best friend. It is an unfortunate disconnect that many people’s experience of Shakespeare is reduced to online summaries that contain none of the passion or elegance of his brilliant writing. It was a desire to change this, to create a relevant and poetic translation of Shakespeare’s words, that lead to the experiment know as Play On!

Play On! headed by Lue Douthit who recently was the director of dramaturgy and literary manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Each playwright working on the project (the majority of whom are women or playwrights of color) chose one play, and through consistent revision and close work with a dramaturg as well as meetings with Douthit, translated Shakespeare’s works into contemporary modern English.

There has been much uproar surrounding this project. While some see it as a boon to understanding Shakespeare and approaching interpretation through the lens of artists, others condemn it as the “end of Western Civilization.” Those who object to the project see Shakespeare as a staple of art and culture who is read across the globe. Although their arguments come from a deep appreciation of Shakespeare, they often fail to look beyond their gut reactions. Shakespeare is one of the most translated authors of all time, having been translated into over 100 languages. When reading Shakespeare in French or Chinese or Swahili the words are translated not into the 16th century version of those languages, but into modern French, Chinese, and Swahili. The point of translating Shakespeare into other languages is to make his works accessible to people all over the world, so why should English be the only language in which you can only experience Shakespeare in the 16th century vocabulary of the reader or viewer?

Furthermore, when critics are calling out the bastardization of the “original” text, they should clarify which text they are referring to. The texts we have today are mixes of different versions published during Shakespeare’s lifetime as well as after his death. Hamlet from a Quarto will be slightly different from the Hamlet of the First Folio, yet both texts are considered valid and “original” Shakespeare. When any of us read or perform Shakespeare the published text we use (Folger, Oxford, Riverside, etc.) have been selected from various sources by editors and scholars.

Another benefit of Play On! is how it makes more of Shakespeare relevant and appreciated for the humor, drama, tragedy and intrigue that readers and audiences can now understand. Instead of audiences getting the gist of a monologue or merely the plotline, they can appreciate the entire thought process and context that a character provides. Recently, I played Beatrice in my high school’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. As a cast, we worked together to understand Shakespeare’s language so we could make sure the audience understood what was happening through staging, expression, gesture and many other acting tools. Even so, there were still moments that were difficult to get across. In one scene where Beatrice is defending her un-ladylike behavior, she makes a joke about how she will never be sent a husband because she is too “curst” and refers to cows with short horns or no horns. This means nothing to modern audiences, but made complete sense in Shakespeare’s as audiences would equate horns to infidelity. Curst means sarcastic and ill-tempered, and, in the context of the line, Beatrice comparing women to cows is making a fantastic double entendre, but that was always somewhat lost to the audience during the performance. In the translated of Much Ado by Ranjit Bolt, the word “curst” is changed to angry. Beatrice calling herself an “angry cow” connects to modern audiences with more ease and efficiency, as well as providing a joke that is actually quite contemporary.

I got a firsthand look at the translation process when I talked with Aditi Kapil (the playwright commissioned to translate Measure for Measure) as well as the two dramaturgs working with her, Liz Engelman and Andrew Carlson. When discussing their approach, the team talked about how it was a group effort of the three of them, the actors they workshoped it with, and of course the Bard himself.

The team started doing a reading with a group of trusted actors at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and scheduled two days of workshopping to get through the play. Ample time to get through a two and a half hour play, right? Not quite. They found themselves going so in depth with the text that they weren’t able to finish and had to hold a separate workshop later to finish the play. Kapil explains how this process clarified her mission:

I felt responsible for making words makes sense. It felt important to be intimate with the play and what it does. With how it works in the mouths of actors and how the overarching poetics function in the play. It was about excavating and understanding not what I was doing as an artist, but what Shakespeare was doing as an artist.

Following the workshop, Kapil would write an act, Engelman and Carlson would leave notes on it, and they would continue from there. Translation meant a balance of increasing modern understanding while retaining classic jokes, inherent themes, beauty in the language, and of course the iambic pentameter (which is very prevalent in Measure for Measure as 62% of the play is in verse).

In their first draft, they were very respectful of Shakespeare, preserving as much language as possible only barely adjusting for contextual understanding. Kapil mentioned that they immediately ran into trouble with the opening speech of the show, where the Duke of Vienna gives advice on ruling to one of his advisors. The speech is very convoluted, Kapil commenting that there are “14 lines of description to land one idea.” This provided a baseline as they felt that they needed to get this monologue right in order to translate the rest of the play. Kapil found a rhythm, attacking chunks of about 4 lines at a time and moving through the monologue until she felt that she had sufficiently mastered the process and indeed produced an understandable, but still Shakespearean, monologue.

Completing the first draft was quite an achievement, but at the next reading they held, the actors commented on how the language was more modern, but the comedy had been lost. The team realized that if they wanted to be true to Shakespeare and continue to entertain audiences as he has been doing for hundreds of years they needed to translate the experience, not just the words and the content. With this new knowledge they took a more aggressive approach, tackling larger portions of the show at a time and revising with more abandon.

The most revised moment in the play is in Act 4, when the clown character Pompey talks directly to the audience about all of the miscreants who are imprisoned and jokes about their many transgressions. Kapil translated this monologue, changing all the references to hooligans of Shakespeare’s times to ones that we see in the scandals of today. A portion of it reads:

And there’s Master LoveGood killing in the name of life, while Master HateGood guards his yard with his 45! And Master Troll the Internet bully, and Master ‘Is this a roofie in my pocket or am I just happy to see you’, and fancy Master Elite the absentee liberal, and Master All-Lives-Matter tilting at windmills while his house burns, and I think I see forty more, all great doers in our trade, now crying in vain for the Lord’s aid!

It is an amazing feat that preserves language and rhythm but connects to sexism, gun control, and racism in a way that a modern audience can easily grasp. Yes, Shakespeare’s words are beautiful, but what makes them brilliant are their humor, wittiness, and relevance that can now be fully realized and understood.

Despite some highly publicized pushback that this project has received, Play On! has had a positive response from many directors, scholars, actors and dedicated Shakespeare fans. The team talked about how educators reached out to them, eager for some content to be incorporated into their curriculum. Actors in workshops discussed how approaching the language still requires them to utilize their training as it is still a complex piece of theater. In general, there has been an appreciation of the role this project plays in deepening understanding of Shakespeare, and for how it helps artists, readers and audiences continue to learn and grow from the powerful art he created. As Carlson put it, “Shakespeare has been a part of American culture from the beginning, and each generation constructs Shakespeare according to what makes sense to them at that time.”

From a personal perspective, as a Shakespeare fangirl, I have always seen these plays as works of art and beauty, humor and drama – both a revelation of truth and an escape from it. Translation isn’t a step back, but a leap forward to make Shakespeare more accessible and more understandable. This project does not threaten or “replace” Shakespeare, but provides a valuable resource from the perspective of artists. Above all, Play On! connects people to Shakespeare’s plays and their meaning the way these stories have been doing for centuries.

Headshot Image for Sophie Friedenwald-Fishman

Sophie Friedenwald-Fishman

Sophie Friedenwald-Fishman is an actor, an...

Sophie Friedenwald-Fishman is an actor, an aspiring dramaturg, and a devoted student and fan of Shakespeare. She is interning this summer as assistant to the director for the Play On! Festival (Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Classic Stage), has been a dramaturgy intern for Twelfth Night and directing intern for Doll’s House (Artists Repertory Theater) and was the stage manager for the Wonder of Will Live: the Shakespeare 400th Broadcast (Folger Shakespeare Library). She has acted in 10 productions and recently played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (Cleveland High School Company of Warriors). Sophie will be attending Bryn Mawr College in the Fall.

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