I found myself in a conversation about Shakespeare a few nights ago, and I was left pondering why after all these years I have yet to read a version with modern language.
I studied Shakespeare during Secondary Education, so between the ages of 11-16.
Sitting in a stuffy class room, at the top of an old Convent building, the sun shining through the window, all made it very hard for an 11 year old to concentrate on the words of the beloved Bard.
That memory of the classroom, of attempting to make sense of why someone would want a pound of someones flesh, has stuck with me to this day.
I say we ‘studied’ Shakespeare. We read it through the text, some teachers got you to read parts, other teachers simply changed readers every 10 pages or so. I’m sure we were asked questions about the text, I’m sure there was homework asking for our response to the text, but none of that really sticks in my mind.
I think it is outrageous that we expect 11 year olds to be able to read, understand and respond to Shakespeare’s words.
My school had an infatuation with Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan. Every year the school play and school musical/opera would be one of the two. And to this day I still cannot get my head around why.
Despite this introduction, as an adult I’ve come to love and appreciate Shakespeare productions. I know the stories, the characters, I understand the overarching plots…but I also know that at least a third of what goes on is lost on me. I’m fortunate that my school experience didn’t tarnish my love of literature to the extent that I believed Shakespeare just wasn’t for me, but so many people do.
What is it about Shakespeares plays that we feel is so important for children to learn?
In my heart I want to believe it is about being introduced to a master story teller. Yes, some of his lines, his scenes are impeccable; even with the language barrier the essence of what he is trying to portray still connects with our hearts. But surely, it’s the stories. I mean, there are countless ways of retelling his plays using the same characters and plot yet with a modern spin.
My favourite is 10 Things I Hate About You. It will probably always be a favourite of mine in general, but when you think about it’s roots being in Turn of the Shrew, it puts it in a whole other light, which just makes me appreciate it and Shakespeare even more.
However, the insistence of learning Shakespeare in the original language, which is sort of laughable when you consider the texts history, stops so many children from falling in love with his plays.
The originals manuscripts we do have, are made from fragments, which have been poured over for hundreds of years by scholars attempting to make it as close to the original as possible. An original which no one alive has seen. Until the mid 1800s people were quite happy to retell, reword, reedit, redesign his plays, modernising them with the times. During the Victorian age it became very important to preserve the originals, to create a society based on these enshrined texts. Since then any reworking of Shakespeare is met with roars of disapproval.
People seem to look to other way when any other element of the plays are changed, but language, oh no. The language cannot be changed. Many have tried, some have even turned his plays into slightly more modern novels, but it keeps coming back to the originals. Reading the ‘originals’ is apparently the only way to know Shakespeare.
I think this is totally wrong.
There are countless articles, dozens of scholars having ongoing arguments about the Shakespearean language, and how not using it would be ‘dumbing down’ the texts which isn’t what children need. Apparently children need to be challenged, in a way that only Shakespearean language can do.
You know what would have been really useful? Learning about the story, the plot, the characters before reading it, would have significantly improved that initial read. Mostly because I’d have actually have some clue as to what was going on!
I’m prepared to take that a step further and say, ‘translations’ of the text into modern languages should be encouraged as companions to the original texts.
Nuance, subtlety, historic phrasing, sure we might lose some in the translations, but have you ever noticed how much easier it is to learn a topic if you have a base level understanding? Giving children modern alternatives to the original Shakespeare should be mandatory. They can read it like any other play, get to know the characters, the plot, the ideas which are being conveyed. This means when they then study the originals, they stand a chance of being able to follow the whose who in the cast, understand directional plot points for what they are rather than wondering why Hamlet is suddenly dancing on the table (I do adore Benedict Cumberbatch).
There is a wealth of human emotion from greed, revenge, lust, love, contempt, sorrow and joy. Some plots build character in the cruelest ways possible, others take you into a fantasy world of the old forests, these are wonderful tales which should be opened up not closed down.
We wouldn’t present children with copies of Latin text and expect them to understand. Scholars dedicate their lives to understanding Shakespeare, old Languages, translating texts from old and middle English. Why do we thrust this on young children and expect them to appreciate it?
So, I say to all the scholars, and advocates, of only the original texts being taught in schools, that you are putting Shakespeare in grave danger of becoming irrelevant.
In no other subject taught in school are you expected to start at the end. You don’t go into Physics in first year and be expected to explain the cosmos, so why do we think 11 year olds can understand and enjoy all the wonderful passages you are clinging to? Honestly, they are lost on them anyway.
To read the original Merchant of Venice at 11 years old was daunting, boring, and somewhat pointless. I may have answered questions on it, I may have been able to summarise it in parts, but in no true way did I appreciate or understand it.
This idea of Dumbing Down Shakespeare is nonsense! If anything, it could be said that Shakespeare tailored many of his works to reflect the audiences at the time, their humour, their intellect, their political knowledge. Therefore in the essence of The Bard himself, make it as accessible as possible and people will surprise you.