They’re everywhere: No Fear Shakespeare, Simply Shakespeare, Translated Shakespeare. There are teachers who truly believe that their students can’t understand Shakespeare’s 400 year-old words, and turn to updated adaptations which give students the gist of the story, but none of the original poetry.
I used to be ok with it. I thought that as long as a side-by-side translation still printed the original text, students were still going to read and see and maybe even learn Shakespeare’s words. Then I flipped through one and discovered all of the poetry, all of the power, all of the original intent of the words gone. One of the awesome things about Shakespeare’s deliberate word choices is that certain words can mean so many things.
“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”
“Being King is worthless to me,unless I can feel safe and secure as King”
“To be king is nothing, unless I am safely king”
Part of the fun, at least for me, is in interpreting the many ways Shakespeare could have meant the word nothing. Not to mention enjoying the poetry of the repetition of to be… thus and feel that flow within the words. When you translate Shakespeare’s word choices into a definitive interpretation, you are saying that that is the only meaning for that line, and cutting off any discussion about what it could mean to individuals.
This comes up today because of a recent article in which a teacher in NY uses his own updated adaptations of Shakespeare’s text to teach his special education students. He asks them which version they prefer, his own or Shakespeare’s, and they all say his own.
It is my opinion, and I want to stress that it is my own – and Folger Education staff will chime in with their own, that if you offer students an “easier” option, you are telling them that they are not going to understand Shakespeare. You are putting that barrier there and telling them that Shakespeare is a distant and unreadable icon of an outdated language, and that it is no longer useful to study his original texts.
I am the biggest advocate of adaptation in this office – novels, movies, plays and musicals, modern-dress, silent - anything that takes inspiration from Shakespeare I want to know about and explore. But to teach an adaptation as if it were Shakespeare is not how adaptation should be used. It should be used to explore the ideas presented in the originals and discuss them in fresh ways – not to replace the originals in the classroom.
We have seen ESL/ELL students, elementary students, special education students, students of all ages and disciplines perform, understand, and enjoy Shakespeare’s original words on our very own stage for decades. Where does this idea come from that the language cannot be understood or taught? Please share your opinions in the comments.