You might think that, as an editor, I would endorse a plan to rewrite Shakespeare in modern English. After all, as the advocates of this undertaking argue, Shakespeare’s language cannot be understood by contemporary audiences, and our profession is all about understanding.
However, this has little to do with editing. If Shakespeare’s writing comes across as obscure, most of the blame lies with his present-day patrons and their educators; a small fragment can be ascribed to his artistic method.
A lot of great literature, especially poetry, can be murky and reading it forces us to think. Shakespeare did not set out to bewilder anyone.
So what’s happening? The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided to address a perceived defect by commissioning 36 playwrights to rewrite all of his plays in modern English. Columbia English professor James Shapiro, who in a New York Times article alerted the world to this impending literary carnage, has seen a prototype translation of Timon of Athens. He describes it as “a hodgepodge, neither Elizabethan nor contemporary,” making for “dismal reading.”
I have not seen this and I don’t want to. I imagine it would be somewhat like replacing the Group of Seven’s paintings with snapshots, although I realize there are many excellent landscape photographers. Besides, I think I’ve had a preview with modern translations of the Bible.
While I am not a man of faith, I find pleasure in reading the King James Version of the Bible, written between 1604 and 1611 — Shakespeare’s latter years. As Adam Nicolson fittingly remarks in God’s Secretaries:
It is impossible now to experience in an English church the enveloping amalgam of tradition, intelligence, beauty, clarity of purpose, intensity of conviction and plangent, heart-gripping godliness which is the experience of page after page of the King James Bible. Nothing in our culture can match its breadth, depth and universality, unless, curiously enough, it is something that was written at exactly the same time and in almost exactly the same place: the great tragedies of Shakespeare.
Modern translations simply don’t cut it, and they dominate the 900 or so English versions of the Bible. I have only a few of these renditions on my shelves, but there they stay while I read the KJV. I know my original Shakespeare will get the same preference.
Previous “Wasted Words” post: Considering the Case for Verbosity.
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