This fall I’m preparing a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the high school where I teach. In Act I a nobleman named Le Beau secretly tries to persuade Orlando, the romantic lead, to get out of Dodge. The usurper, Duke Frederick, didn’t much care for Orlando’s father, and Le Beau is worried that the Duke is going to take out his animosity on Orlando.
At one point in his speech Le Beau describes Duke Frederick as “humorous.” He doesn’t mean he is a cut-up. He means that Frederick is moody, “as a result of an imbalance of the “humors,” or fluids, of which the body was thought to be composed” (As You Like It, The Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Frances E. Dolan).
If the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has its way, this kind of word, or line, will be rewritten into contemporary English. (See below the link to the Studio360 podcast on this story.)
This is a monstrously presumptuous proposal. What would prompt such vandalism of Shakespeare’s text? That we’re all too ignorant to know the etymological roots of words such as “humorous”?
Well of course we’re ignorant. The English language is an old asparagus-bed of roots, denotations, connotations, and extended meanings. And that’s the beauty of the thing. It was a teaching moment in my class when the student actor playing Le Beau first stumbled onto the word “humorous.” I drew his attention to the editor’s note and he learned a little something about the richness of his native tongue, not to mention the history of psychology and the theory of the “humors.” Substitute the word “moody” for “humorous” and all of that would be lost. Part of our cultural identity would be lost.
This isn’t like translating the Beowulf poet’s Old English into contemporary English, because Old English is for the most part unintelligible to modern readers. But this simply isn’t the case with Shakespeare. Besides high school drama students I also teach freshmen English students who read two Shakespeare plays each spring. My experience with both these groups is that, with a modicum of guidance, they understand Shakespeare just fine. Sure, I sometimes see them using a crib like No Fear Shakespeare with its silly modern transliterations, but I don’t allow them to substitute it for the original. I work hard to create the opportunity for them to encounter Shakespeare’s text directly; and, when they do, the result is a magnificent awakening to the beauty of the English language in the hands of a master poet.
Why would anyone want to take that experience away? The very thought of it makes one humorous.
Now, what are your thoughts on “translating” Shakespeare into contemporary English?
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it will translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. Good idea or a tragedy?