Op-Ed: Shakespeare’s work has thrived for 400 years. Here’s how to improve it

(Illustration by Phil Foster / For The Times)

William Shakespeare is 400 years dead as of April 23, but his heritage seems in excellent shape. His plays are loved, admired and endlessly produced; our greatest actors regularly turn down bags of Hollywood cash to “do Shakespeare” on stage.

The continued success of Shakespeare’s plays would have amazed one of his earliest admirers, the poet John Dryden. In his “Essay of Dramatic Poesie,” published in 1667 just 51 years after Shakespeare’s death, Dryden noted that the playwright’s popularity had already begun to fade because his language was now “a little obsolete.” English was changing fast; and Shakespeare’s style, even in his own day somewhat gnomic and knotted, was becoming more alien with each generation.

Three centuries of critics and scholars have resisted Dryden’s implied prophecy; and their heroic labors ensure that we can now decipher far more of Shakespeare’s language than Dryden’s contemporaries could — even if we sometimes read him in editions with more notes on the text than actual text.



Shakespeare: An April 24 op-ed about translating Shakespeare into modern English referred to linguist James McWhorter. His name is John McWhorter. —

Yet there are limits to this method of keeping Shakespeare alive. Because marginalia are no use on stage, theaters have begun to take very large liberties with Shakespeare’s plays. Today, a director commonly begins by downloading the text of a play and penciling out as much as a third of it, including many of the more difficult lines.

The cut-down script can then be played more slowly to help the modern audience follow it. Play-goers and film-goers who have found Shakespeare daunting on the page, yet enthuse about how much easier he becomes “when well staged,” may not realize how much of Shakespeare they’re not getting.

The modernizing of Shakespeare doesn’t end there. Seeking a wider demographic, directors veer ever nearer to patronizing their audiences, as they invent astute (or simply cute) ways to make these old plays with their old language excite theater-goers today.

I recall one famous director’s version of “King Lear” in which the wicked sisters Goneril and Regan were given vampire make-up and had bat-squeaks dubbed over their speeches, while Lear’s unruly knights wore pig masks and fought with giant phalluses. And then there was the science-fiction “Macbeth,” whose characters stood in peaked plastic capes on a bridge somewhere in hyperspace and intoned “Light thickens, and the crow makes wing / Toward the rooky wood.”

Play-goers and film-goers ... may not realize how much of Shakespeare they’re not getting.

Although some anachronisms succeed, and can truly revitalize a play, many productions exist today on a knife-edge of absurdity. Might it not be better to translate the plays accurately and well into today’s English, and then play them uncut with less-aggressive directorial tricks? After all, the rest of the world gets its Shakespeare in translation, and still seems to find him well worthwhile.


The linguist James McWhorter is one who thinks so. He argues that it is time to stop pretending that we can easily absorb 16th century English — “We cannot understand what the man is saying”— and that we should use contemporary English translations.

Few support McWhorter in public, but more do in private. The specialist Shakespearean director John Bell told me 10 years ago, “It is obvious the long-term future of Shakespeare on stage must be in modern-English translations.”

“For years I’ve believed that the vast Shakespeare industry could afford to accommodate a minimally updated version of the plays,” says Neil Hornick, London actor and former literary agent.

Resistance to reform should come as no surprise. Actors and directors, many of whom live and breathe Shakespeare seven days a week, know the deep satisfactions to be found in enacting works of such rich and ambiguous depth. Understandably, they bristle when “philistines” suggest these works are now incomprehensible.

Ken Healey, when director of script studies at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, remarked that the taboo against translation into contemporary English was held in place by a still-common belief among Shakespearean directors and actors that their interpretive skills, plus the innate magic of the text, can make “almost any passage intelligible to any audience worth interacting with.”

Healey added: “They’ll be impressed once someone discovers a much larger audience is possible for Shakespeare in translation, and for a production whose standards reviewers praise, but not till it happens.”


That may happen sooner rather than later: In October 2015, Lue Douthit, director of literary development and dramaturgy at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, announced that the festival will be funding 36 separate translators to translate all Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare fans may wonder: What would his plays sound like in modern English translation? Rather similar perhaps, but clearer.

Here, for instance is Thersites in “Troilus and Cressida” berating another character: “Let thy blood be thy direction till thy death! then if she that lays thee out says thou art a fair corse, I’ll be sworn and sworn upon’t she never shrouded any but lazars.”

A modern English version might run: “May the itch in your blood be your guide through life! Then if the old woman who lays you out thinks you make a pretty corpse, I’ll be sure she’s only done lepers.”

Much the same meaning — but vastly more chance of the audience getting it.

As ever, much will depend on the skill and scholarship of the translator. Yet in modern English, just as in French or German or Hindi, good translators and perhaps even great translators will in time emerge.

Even the purple passages may work surprisingly well in translation.

Here for instance is Olivia in “Twelfth Night” nervously confessing her love for Cesario:

What might you think?


Have you not set mine honor at the stake,

And baited it with all th’unmuzzled thoughts

That tyrannous heart can think? To one of your receiving

Enough is shown; a cypress, not a bosom,

Hideth my heart: so, let me hear you speak.

Translated, this might become:

What might you think?


Have you not tied my honor to the stake

Like some poor shambling bear, and baited it

With all the un-muzzled hounds of blabbing thought

A tyrant could invent? Enough’s been shown

For one of your quick uptake to perceive.

A lace veil, not a breast-bone, hides my heart. So,


Now, sir, may I hear you speak?

The tradition of performing Shakespeare’s plays in their original texts has lasted a remarkable four centuries and will never entirely vanish. Yet theater companies, looking to the future and determined to sell tickets, may finally come around to the idea that translation is a viable alternative.

Mark O’Connor is a professional poet and translator who recently received a doctorate for a thesis on translating Shakespeare. He blogs at

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