The French get to hear Hamlet as translated by Victor Hugo Jr. Germans get to hear it as translated by Karl Kraus. Ie. their Shakespeare is very close to modern times. John McWhorter laments that we’re unlucky not to have the plays translated into modern English. I half-agree. I do wish we allowed ourselves to be as free with the language of the plays as we are with the settings. A director can set Macbeth on the moon and have Lady MacBeth be his gay lover without eliciting a blink from his audience. But he or she would never dare have Macbeth become Thane of Moonbase Alpha. Baz Luhrman found a typically wonderful way around this paradox by making “Sword” a brand name for gun in Romeo + Juliet.
It would be great to watch a great poet take the liberties with the text that imaginative directors have taken to great effect with setting. It would be a start if characters were actually allowed to ask for their guns when a gun is blatantly what they want.
Here’s why I half disagree with McWhorter —
1. He underestimates how much actors’ actions make up for difficulties with words.
2. He underestimates to what extent Shakespeare’s characters are indistinguishable from their words. It’s literally impossible for me to imagine Hamlet not saying orisons.
3. The only poets willing to take on such a challenge would be morons. Self-aware writers would surely freeze when it comes to re-doing Shakespeare… the equivalent of all the men who would apparently disappoint Marilyn Monroe by, on the point of realizing they were actually about to do it with a demi-goddess in five seconds, having an irriversible bout of cock-crinkling performance anxiety. George Bernard Shaw dealt with this theatrical-performance anxiety in Shakes versus Shav.
4. He seems to think plot is the main thing the characters are conveying. If so, then he can watch West Side Story and get roughly the same thing that he would from Romeo and Juliet. Ditto Forbidden Planet for the Tempest, She’s the Man for Twelfth Night, O for Othello and so on.
5. There are modern translations of Shakespeare for lazy high-school students on bookshelves now. They’re quite fun to read — but they are dull, dull, dull. “Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all.” Note: that’s not a parody.
6. Is it too much to expect people to read the plays before going to see them? Apparently McWhorter thinks it is. I’m not so sure.
7. We have a lot of modern-language renderings of Shakespeare around the edges of the plays: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Mariana, Gertrude and Claudius and The Sea and the Mirror. I think these works show the best way to accomodate McWhorter’s frustrations with respect for Shakespeare’s work — basically by doing the equivalent of prequels, sequels and parallel narratives. I shudder at the thought of a modern-language Macbeth, but I’d pay to see a modern-language MacDuff.