Should Shakespeare’s Language Be Updated?

Mark O’Connor suggests Shakespeare fans (and the more casually interested) don’t understand as much as they may think of the great bard’s language. He thinks a modern translation would help.

Here, for instance is Thersites in “Troilus and Cressida” berating another character: “Let thy blood be thy direction till thy death! then if she that lays thee out says thou art a fair corse, I’ll be sworn and sworn upon’t she never shrouded any but lazars.”

A modern English version might run: “May the itch in your blood be your guide through life! Then if the old woman who lays you out thinks you make a pretty corpse, I’ll be sure she’s only done lepers.”

O’Connor isn’t advocating a wholesale rewrite of these classics, but a measured translation that attempts to capture all the spirit of the text as well as its meaning. Will you think so?

“I think our fellows are asleep.” (via Prufrock News)

4 thoughts on “Should Shakespeare’s Language Be Updated?”

  1. I have worried about this, now and then, all my life. I suspect we may have to adopt two tracks eventually — a “translation” for use in schools, and a pure version for scholars.

  2. Maybe. The Shakespeare performance group in which my daughters participate edits the plays a good bit, but none of the words are changed. I doubt many of the actors understand what they’re saying, which is the point. We just don’t understand the words and idioms anymore.

  3. I would recommend, for undergraduate students, the following:

    1.a standard Complete Shakespeare, preferably not a really recent one (so that you can avoid the lit theory stuff; say G. B. Harrison’s edition from around 1970 — but a recent one will do, though the editorial essays may well be skipped);

    2.Marchette Chute’s Stories from Shakespeare, so that you can get a handle on the story before reading the play;

    3.something to introduce you to the traditional world-view, such as core passages from C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.

    Honestly, I think that will usually be all someone needs.

    I fear that “edited” versions of the plays will become more and more common in performance, getting in the way of people’s experience of Shakespeare, and diminishing the value of reading Shakespeare as a way out of our typical ways of thinking.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts, Dale.

    Shortening some of the plays is fine with me. When I saw a full length version of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” a few years ago, I laughed so much I was tired of laughing and the play seemed to last forever. So I left the theater wanting the play to be a little shorter.

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