Frequent readers of this blog will likely find the following statement to be no surprise: I love Shakespeare.
Even four hundred years later, Shakespeare’s work remains as readable, relevant and insightful as it did in his own time. Not so, say you? Well, consider this.
Beautiful, elegant, full of meaning. Too hard to understand, you say? If so, you’re not alone. Shakespeare is not so easily accessible if one is not introduced to it properly. And many aren’t. Thrown into Romeo and Juliet (usually) at about age 14 (usually), they find the language impossible to understand. That early frustration often translates to distaste for the Bard and his many works of brilliance. But if introduced properly, the language reveals itself as not that different from modern works—of poetry. Because that’s what Shakespeare was writing. It was conventional at the time to write plays in verse. So, the structure of the language needs to be considered in the proper framework. But the language itself? Not so different. Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English, which is very similar to the English of our current day. In fact, understanding Early Modern English is no more difficult than trying to understand modern-day rap, which also based in verse. Yes, yes, I know. I just made a whole host of people spin in their graves by comparing Shakespeare to rap, but think about it. The arguments about the difficulty in understanding the language are similar.
The play’s the thing:
Once you get through the language, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the play. There’s a reason his work still resonates today. It’s extremely entertaining. People put on pure performances, adaptations, modernizations, parodies and more (And you’ll hear more from me on some of those forms later in this blog.) Like it or not, Shakespeare is every bit a part of our modern culture as it was four hundred years ago. Probably more so.
Shakespeare used his poetry and plays to delve into the deep, dark prejudices of his day. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would be a leading Equal Rights advocate. And sadly, the messages contained within his plays are also as relevant today as they were then. Addressing such topics as racism, sexism, avarice and more, Shakespeare (when looked at through the proper historical context) used his plays to promote social awareness in the same way many writers today do. In my college senior thesis, I posited that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s way of demonstrating that male-dominated societies are doomed to failure. My argument, in simplest form, was that there are no female voices in The Tempest. A female character, yes, who played chess and behaved in other ways no woman of the time could get away with (and thus, a decidedly male voice). My male professor, who could stand a lesson on that topic, grudgingly gave me an A, even though he said he wholeheartedly disagreed with my perspective. But he couldn’t refute my argument. And that, too, is the beauty of Shakespeare. It can mean vastly different things to each reader.
As you might be able to surmise, I recommend reading a Shakespeare play three times to really gain a grasp of it and find your own meaning in his works. First, to get a sense of the language. Second, to get a sense of the play itself and the play for play’s sake. And third, to explore the deep social messages underpinning all of the Bard’s works.
But before I exit stage left, I promised more on the idea of adaptations, modernizations and parodies. Those who know me on a day-to-day level will know that I am not shy about expressing my opinions of certain forms of Shakespeare’s work. Adaptations: Those that use a fresh take, like West Side Story, The Lion King, 10 Things I Hate About You, I’m okay with. Clever parodies that are clearly that, good on ya. Heck, our own authors sometimes tackle the Bard, but only in a way that respects the original work. (See what I mean in our fifth volume of Fiction River, Hex in the City, where Kristine Kathryn Rusch adds her own twist to the witches in MacBeth. The volume comes out in December.)
But those that attempt to “modernize” Shakespeare, no way. You don’t need to jazz up the language with ’90s music, replace swords with guns and turn members of the ruling class into capitalists to “get it.” We also don’t need to turn them into graphic novels, for example, to make them easier to read and to capitalize on and reinforce (for gain) the public’s misperception that Shakespeare is, indeed, inaccessible.
I’m sorry, but dumbing down Shakespeare only makes us dumber. And I’m sure Shakespeare would have had a lot to say about that.
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.