William Shakespeare. Some people hate him, some people love him, some people go on and on about how he was actually more than one person. Regardless of what they think, almost everyone has heard of him. The dude was alive in the Elizabethan era, but people are still quoting him on a daily basis in 2017. As a writer, thinking about that is pretty crazy. I often wonder what people from the past would say if they saw our world now. Like, if Shakespeare saw an adaptation of one of his plays that modernized it, or read a “No Fear Shakespeare” book, what would he say. Do you think he would be all picky about it, or open to our brave new world of theatre? (See what I did there…). Anyway, he’s just the slightest bit dead, so I’m gonna have to leave that to your imagination. Maybe someone will write Shakespeare fanfiction where he magically time travels to 2017 and stars in The Tempest, which he hasn’t written yet, and he doesn’t know it’s by him, and nobody knows who he is and…. okay I’m going too far with this. Back to the topic at hand.
I recently finished working as an assistant at the Shakespeare with Heart Camp. As explained on the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre website, it is “…a collaboration between UCP of Central Florida, the Exceptional Education Department of UCF, and the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in which students with and without special needs work together over a two-week period to produce a Shakespeare play.” The kids are very talented, and the fact that we manage to put together a successful Shakespearean play in the span of two weeks blows me away. This year we did Romeo and Juliet, which I will admit is not exactly my favorite Shakespeare, but it was set in modern day Washington DC (using Shakespeare’s original language), the Montagues and Capulets being to families who ran into each other during their respective family reunions. I think the actors and the unique take were what made the play. But, this is not a theatrical review. I already know they were awesome, and if you happened to see it then so do you. The reason I bring up Shakespeare with Heart is as an example of a modernized take on Shakespeare. I think you can learn a lot about Shakespeare by reading it in our language, or seeing it done in a modern setting. Paraphrasing Shakespeare is one of my favorite things. It’s a lot of fun to see how, what looks like such elegant language, can turn into something I would say in my daily life. Take the following speech from Miranda at the beginning of The Tempest:
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her.
First I would do a line by line paraphrase, making sure that I understood each individual piece of what Miranda was saying, with the help of context. I would probably end up thinking of it as something like this though:
“Dad, if you used your magic to wreck that ship, please stop! There are probably innocent people in it! Poor people, if only I had powers, I would have saved them.”
It’s not what is being said word for, word, but it’s basically the idea of what Miranda means, and it is simpler to think of, to take the emotions you would feel while saying that and inject them into the Shakespearean language. The Tempest is one of my favorite plays, but maybe the magic of Prospero’s island is not relatable enough for you. So, let’s try one that everyone knows:
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Juliet (I really don’t think I have to tell you that this is her speech) is basically just saying:
“Oh Romeo, why* do you have to be a Montague, just change your name! Or if you don’t want to then promise you love me and I will!”
This might be a more relatable sentiment. The lover’s lament. The “Oh god, I love you so much, but [insert obstacle here] is standing in my way!”. This is a very real emotion. And, even Shakespeare’s more fanciful plays have a core of real human emotion. Helena’s unrequited love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth’s all-consuming greed, Ophelia’s depression.
People think Shakespeare is something for intellectuals and very British actors, something far out of reach, but it’s not. It’s something that appeals to the human spirit, something that we can all connect to on some level if we try. How else do you think it’s survived for so long?
* Remember everybody, wherefore means “why”, not “where”!