Alongside Shakespeare, there is a long and proud tradition of adaptations of Shakespeare. Some of the most famous and successful of these adaptations include “The Lion King” (Hamlet), “West Side Story” (Romeo and Juliet), and “10 Things I Hate About You” (Taming of the Shrew). However, more recently, this tradition of adaptations has changed to become a tradition of flat out translating Shakespeare, or attempting to replace Shakespeare with adaptation permanently.
In my opinion, this is a bad move, for a few reasons. The first reason is that Shakespeare’s use of language is far better than his plots. Most of Shakespeare’s plots are not original. Where he shines is his poetry, his characters, and his witty dialogue. Because Shakespeare is written in a different dialect of English, he can convey certain ideas that our modern dialect of English does not have the same capacity to communicate. Additionally, very few translations of Shakespeare maintain anything resembling poetry, which means his plays lose the very thing that makes them magical to begin with.
There are two main arguments in favor of translating Shakespeare that I will address in this article. The first is the claim that Shakespeare’s language just isn’t accessible. The most pervasive example of this is the Play On! project, the pet project of tech entrepreneur David Hitz, who struggled to understand Shakespearean productions and commissioned (re: paid a huge amount of money for) modern translations of the plays from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I have seen Play On! productions, and they occupy a bizarre valley of the uncanny between Shakespeare and an average contemporary play. They certainly do not succeed in elevating the text, and instead feel like a pale copy of a once great play.
What the creators of Play On! fail to recognize is that all you need to make Shakespeare understandable is great actors who understand what they are saying. I was able to watch and enjoy Shakespeare plays at the age of 10, and I have met plenty of people who can say the same. Play On! actively makes Shakespeare’s plays worse, all at the whims of a millionaire who threw a fit. There are huge amounts of accessible Shakespeare—on college campuses, in free outdoor productions, in community theater, and on television. There are free summaries online, which are incredibly helpful. The only thing that straight translation of Shakespeare achieves is removing Shakespeare’s beautiful language while maintaining his more mediocre plots.
The other argument I have heard in favor of translating Shakespeare is that it makes his work more relevant to the lives of marginalized people. Currently, Actors’ Shakespeare Project here in Boston is putting on a Play On! production of Coriolanus, which it claims “centers the voices of women, BIPOC, and queer people.” Putting aside the fact that the original mission of Play On! had nothing to do with centering marginalized voices, Shakespeare is for everyone, and has always been. Expecting Shakespeare to understand the issues of our modern day 400 years in advance is naive. But his plays still speak to these issues—without needing alteration. That is why his plays have had such longevity.
As a queer Jewish woman of color in the Shakespeare world, I constantly run up against the message that Shakespeare isn’t “for” me. It is a message that elites have pushed for centuries, ever since Shakespeare was rebranded from popular entertainment to high art for rich white men. What breaks my heart is that today, it is mostly not right-wing elitists I hear making this argument that Shakespeare should be reserved for white men (though their voices are certainly present). I hear this message most from progressive people of color who I generally look up to. Somehow, progressive theater-makers are doing the work of conservatives for them, and self-gatekeeping Shakespeare’s work from our own communities.
I am mixed-race. There are very few roles in the modern theatrical cannon made for people who look like me. The power of Shakespeare and classical theater is that (with a few exceptions) anyone can play any role. Shakespeare’s plays speak to me in a way that feels more personal than most contemporary work. I like to say that Shakespeare wrote for everyone, even though he didn’t know who “everyone” would include centuries in the future.
Translating Shakespeare because it makes his works better “for marginalized people” implies that Shakespeare is not something that marginalized people are able to enjoy without alteration. Personally, I find the idea that the only way I and other marginalized people can enjoy Shakespeare is with dumbed-down, translated language to be patronizing, infantilizing, and insulting. It plays into the hands of wealthy white male scholars who have wrongly tried to gatekeep Shakespeare for centuries. And I hate to see progressive theater-makers falling into this trap.
Adapting Shakespeare is a wonderful thing. Some absolutely classic movies, books, and TV shows have come out of the tradition of adapting Shakespeare. However, direct translation does not great art make, nor is adaptation a replacement for the real plays. Translating Shakespeare weakens the overall strength of his plays, removes his gorgeous poetry, and sends a damaging message to marginalized people in the Shakespeare world.
In my opinion, we ought to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare—brilliant, relevant, and available for everyone. We can certainly use his works as a jumping off point to tell our own unique stories. But we cannot have the arrogance to think that we can directly improve upon Shakespeare to the point of replacing his work with translation, nor should we be so demeaning as to suggest that certain groups of people cannot enjoy Shakespeare in its purest form—through the voices of great actors speaking his text with conviction.