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Wherefore art thou, Romeo?

“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Guest Post by Gregory Nissen

Every generation of young people for whom “Romeo and Juliet” is a first-time experience will believe that Juliet is asking Romeo where he is, no matter how poetically the actress gesticulates, and no matter how well directed she is.

        In the cultivated ritual of watching a Shakespeare play, most audiences have become accustomed to a state of chronic bewilderment. Entire sentences whiz by in charming Elizabethan obscurity. Charming, that is, or maddening.  You can expend a lot of mental energy in the struggle just to comprehend what’s being said, and someone who hasn’t brushed up their Shakespeare may end up feeling beneath the task.

Among those of us in the theatrical profession, the temptation to modernize this language is ever-present. But if the goal is to allow audiences to comprehend fully what’s being said, a great majority of these dramatists are simply not willing to part with all that delectable, ear-pleasing poetry. Plenty of directors  would sooner cut entire scenes out of Shakespeare plays, than touch the language. 

     Well, I too enjoy the music of the  language…when I can understand it!  Think of grandma whispering in the row ahead of you:  “What was that he said? Barnacle? Barn uncle?”

        Duke Vincentio’s lines in Measure For Measure are a complete mess for modern ears:  “Of government the properties to unfold would seem in me  t’affect speech and discourse; since I am put to know that your own science exceeds, in that, the lists all advice my strength can give you.”

       A translation of this passage by Shakespeare scholar Dr. Louis B. Wright, reads:  “For me to describe the characteristics of government would be mere oratory, since I am aware that your knowledge of the subject surpasses my ability to advise you.”

       Actors, as well as directors, frequently say that good diction and gesturing  can make obscure words clear.  Certainly there are words that body language, and to some extent props, can elucidate.  To project to the audience these meanings, and hundreds more like them, you’ll sometimes see, in inept productions, a lot of mugging and histrionics. But even with “good” acting, audiences will largely be left in the dark about various details. I maintain that there are thousands of Elizabethan phrases which no amount of gesturing, emphasis or staging will get an audience to understand.
        In Much Ado About Nothing, Ursula asks Hero “When are you married?” (already ambiguous and unclear to modern ears.)  She responds, “Why, every day, tomorrow!”  ”Every day” actually means “forever” —  a usage lost to the passage of time.   We all know what “buxom” means, right?  Well, 400 years ago it meant “obedient”. Try that on for size. How about a “younker”? That means a  “beginner.” “Facinorous”? It means “wicked”. At one point in Much Ado, Don Pedro calls Hero a “contaminated stale.” Sounds like a slice of bad bread to me. But it meant a prostitute. (Also known in those times as a ronvon.)

        If Shakespeare were to attend a show 415 years into his future, which is to say, today, he would miss hundreds of references within just one play. I quote modern English:  

       “Did you catch that? Some dude just tore down the freeway in his Mazerati. He had to a’ been doin’ about 80”.      

   We understand every word. So why should we be expected to be able to understand a playwright of 415 years ago?  Nor would Shakespeare, in his own time,  have been able to understand very much of make a play written in 1189 AD.  And I quote: “Biss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum forrbi batt Orrm itt wrohhte.”

         The proposal to “update” the language of Shakespeare is incredibly controversial. As a dramatist and a fan of great art, I have had to wrestle with this controversy.  Before you think that I am a proletariat agitator in overalls – let me say that I do realize that there is a beautiful linguistic “music” to Shakespeare that characterizes all of his work, and which, if modernized, will be disrupted. It’s a strong argument.  For any given production, I respect the defense of  Shakespeare’s words just as he wrote them, but I respectfully disagree, at least when it’s applied dogmatically, and to any and every production.  

       One of the repeated arguments  in favor of leaving the text alone is that it’s a matter of “learning.” This doesn’t say much for the ordinary theatergoer. It  implies that we, of the 21st Century, in order to reap the rewards of the Bard and his English, really ought to take a couple of evening college courses before we walk into the theater.  Only with Shakespeare are audiences expected to hold to such a high level of comprehensibility. Directors won’t raise hackles by updating Jonson or Marlowe or More or Dryden. They’re not icons.

       I believe that this extraordinary reverence for  Shakespeare is a form of hero worship. When taken literally —  as in, you should not change a single word – it can become a kind of elitism. The canon is like sacred scripture; if you touch it, you’ll ruin it. Maybe some feel that because he is a genius, WE could not possibly match his eloquence.   When the curtain opens, the result of all this holiness — for the general public, not for the intelligentsia — is a significantly less tragic Macbeth, a less comic Measure, a  less dramatic Tempest than Shakespeare intended.     

                 That’s the point, isn’t it? Who was Shakespeare writing for… the well-educated??  It’s a pity that the modern Joe Normal never totally understands what’s  happening on stage.  Wouldn’t Shakespeare himself have wanted the general public to know exactly what’s going on?  I propose: portions of his plays could be better understood with extensive, judicious updating.  In this new iconoclastic method of dramaturgy, the diligent writer would  find modern  phrases that retain the flow and meter of the passage, and the  rhyme, whenever possible. 

       The “music” of Shakespeare is one of the crowning achievements of literature. In every play, he bound together philosophy, dramatic action and poetry, with melody, rhyme  and rhythm. To recast his intended meanings into modern English — and to make that passage resonant, beautiful, and dramatic — would not be easy. But it is not impossible. Any playwright attempting it had better have a very musical ear, a huge vocabulary, a profound wit, and a scholarly understanding of Shakespearean language.  A really radical experiment would be to update every single sentence, making it seem like the action of the play is taking place today. Updating Shakespearean costume and set design is even more common today than presenting it in his own period. So why not update the language? Afterwards, in the lobby, people might be heard to say, “I understood that play for the first time!”


Addendum:  I commend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the bold initiative they’ve undertaken to present all the Shakespeare plays with various levels of modernization. The Festival will surely receive its share of slings and arrows from critics and audiences. As of this writing, the company is half-way through their presentations. It’s my hope that among the 39 contributing writers, there will be a handful, or even just one, who will have achieved that perfect update: one that uses modern words and phrases without losing that ineffable Shakespearean music. 


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Gregory Nissen