When I first heard about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s project to translate Shakespeare into modern English, I was properly skeptical. This article from The Federalist confirms many of the things I was thinking, and adds lots more excellent reasons why this is truly a terrible idea.
For nearly half a millennia English speakers have enjoyed, or at least consumed, Shakespeare’s work in its original language. Often the plays are shortened, sometimes variants from different folios are chosen, but Shakespeare’s words have never been changed wholesale to accommodate the intellectual laziness of a generation of artists and audiences. Why now, when more people graduate college than at any time in our history, do we need Hamlet for Dummies? Is Shakespeare’s language difficult at times? Yes. Does it require effort to understand? Sure. But has anything happened to the English language or its speakers that make the works inaccessible? Absolutely not. Telling students and audiences they aren’t smart enough to get Shakespeare, that some appointed “experts” need to simplify it for them, turns appreciation of his work from an accomplishment into a literary participation trophy. Read “Are We Too Dumb for Shakespeare?” at The Federalist.
For years, I have read and memorized Shakespeare with my students. For the most part, we simply read the plays after briefly introducing the storyline. I have yet to come across a student who could not understand most of the play with a small bit of guidance. I have seen first-hand how Shakespeare’s exquisite language and patterns of expression become part of the eloquent expression of my own students. And we have gained much in the way of delight and in the joy of shared memories.
Beyond all other considerations, if we reduce the richness of Shakespeare to a dreary modernized “relevant” adaptation, the Bard’s place in the Great Conversation will be at stake. How can we ever hope that our students will recognize his participation? For that matter, how can they even understand the Great Conversation, since he is such a prominent participant? What poverty we are consigning our students to if we fail to introduce them to Shakespeare in his own words!
Shakespeare Practices At Home
In my own family, beginning in our kids’ elementary years, we gathered weekly with a like-minded family for Shakespeare readings—along with picture and nature study. Nothing fancy, we just divided up the parts and read the play. For the youngest kids, one of us moms would whisper the lines, and the little guy would repeat them. Those were precious days! Sometimes we acted it out; who can resist the stabbing scene in Julius Caesar?
Shakespeare Practices For A Co-Op
Here’s a quick sketch of what we do now at Providence Prep. First, we promote familiarity with the Bard’s storylines in our younger students, by having the Primer students (K-3) read Nesbit’s Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare, and Grammar students (4-6) read those same stories in Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Both of these classic retellings keep much of the beauty of Shakespeare’s language, sometimes word for word. We also encourage families to read the plays aloud as a family with these younger ones at home as you’ll see in a minute.
In Jr. High and High School, we have students read two plays per year. We prepare first by asking them to reread Lamb’s or some other good plot summary so they can focus more on the rich language without having to work so hard to figure out what is going on. They read roughly an act per week, and we recommend that they either read it aloud as a family—once more, involving those younger siblings! If that is not possible, we instruct them to listen to it read aloud on a quality recording with books open and following along.
After this preparation, we celebrate Shakespeare Day two times per year. We have a mix of fun (think Shakespeare Insult contests) and more serious activities. And everyone’s favorite – we read dramatically as much of the play as we are able. In the past, we’ve done Shakespeare evenings where all we do is read an entire play. Our students love this, and have asked us to reinstate it along with our Shakespeare Days.
Shakespeare at Cottage Press
Shakespeare selections are an important part of our Language Arts line-up at Cottage Press. Visit us today!