Posted on 10/02/2015 at 12:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival made literary waves recently with its “Play On!” project, which will translate all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English.
As explained in the release, “translation” is a bit of a overstatement. The playwright and dramaturg assigned to each play may only change lines that could be clearer to a contemporary audience; they won’t be removing scenes or adding material.
They also must keep the same pressure on the language — including meter, rhyme, and rhythm — that Shakespeare used.
Still, online readers have not embraced the news, to put it mildly. The phrase “dumbing down” seems to appear in every other comment.
So what I’m about to write is probably the most controversial thing I’ve put into cyberspace ... I think this idea has great potential.
My understanding of the project’s vision is similar to an example that Columbia University linguistics professor John H. McWhorter cited in The Wall Street Journal. (Link is live now, but may go behind a paywall.)
In a 32-word excerpt from “Macbeth,” the only suggested changes were using “authority” and “knocking-off” rather than “faculties” and “taking-off,” because we no longer use the latter words in the same way Shakespeare did.
The syntax remained the same — more poetry than prose, and certainly not from any recent era. We’re not reducing canonical plays to a children’s book.
In sum, if this is representative of what OSF will do, this is not “dumbing down” Shakespeare. This is expanding accessibility to more readers, not just to scholars and Elizabethan era aficionados.
What does this have to do with modern literature (besides my hope that other bookworms might back me up)?
Well, we’re all here because we support indie publishing — something that opens doors for all authors, not just a select and incredibly lucky few — and reject the notion that the old way of publishing is the only way.
And we embrace e-readers, a device that literally puts entire libraries and bookstores at your fingertips, wherever you are.
So it seems contrary to that spirit of inclusiveness to discourage a move meant to share literature with a broader audience.
Whether it’s choosing the indie route or replacing a word whose meaning has changed over time, the intent is still the same: to share stories, to stir emotion, to entertain. We’ve just adapted the delivery to suit modern consumption.