To adapt or not adapt William Shakespeare

As Sian Elvin was preparing to finish her English Literature degree at the University of Warwick, one of the final modules she completed was on the work of Shakespeare. She decided to do an experiment – could Othello, the personal tragedy that was first performed in the early 17th century, work on a platform like Twitter?

Elvin wanted to look at three things – whether a platform like Twitter could increase Shakespeare’s popularity, whether the social network could provide new context for the work of the Bard, and the performance factor of social media in a theatrical context.

“I wanted to trial a different way of performing Shakespeare, by putting it in a different context,” Elvin said in an email interview.

Therefore, on the morning of 25 March, Elvin began typing, featuring the characters Desdemona, Cassio, Roderigo, Iago and Othello himself. Incorporating some of the original language of the play, over the course of her four hour experiment, users interacted with the characters tweet by tweet, sending along messages of support, concern or anguish, with the help of songs by artists like George Michael and Ellie Goulding.

The language difference

Yet, Elvin’s experiment came with some criticism, particularly on the performance of Desdemona.

“A lot of the audience commented that Desdemona was ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ on Twitter,” Elvin said. “Yet this doesn’t come across as much in the actual play because the original language communicates a much more complex character, and Twitter almost dumbs down this character. I received a lot of engagement, but in light of these comments I don’t think it was because of the simplified language – I think it was because the play was given a much more modern and accessible platform, which is relevant to our lives in modern society.”

Indeed, as Elvin’s experiment took place, a solution was being developed in the US state of Oregon, at that state’s Shakespeare Festival to help solve the ultimate debate on the work of the Bard in 2015. At the centre was all the intricacies of the English language of the time, and the question was whether to adapt it, or preserve it for all to see.

Those plans would become a project known as Play On, where 36 playwrights would translate 36 of Shakespeare’s plays over 3 years, announced late last month.  

“We began this project with a ‘What if?” Lue Morgan Douthit, the Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, said in a statement announcing the project. “There are differences between the early modern English of Shakespeare and contemporary English. What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work? Would that help us understand them in a different way?”

The Festival noted however it would continue to produce Shakespeare’s plays in their original form.

The Shakespearean element

James Shapiro, a board member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and professor of English at Columbia University in New York, writing in The New York Times, said this was well intentioned, but the issue was ultimately its context.

“The problem is not the often knotty language; it’s that even the best directors and actors — British as well as American — too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean,” Shapiro wrote, who noted that the only Shakespearean element of his plays were his language, as he borrowed almost all his plots and performed in venues that required little props.

Shapiro said the money should be invested on experts on the culture of Shakespeare, something that had been missing from most productions.

“I’ll never understand why, when you attend a Shakespeare production these days, you find listed in the program a fight director, a dramaturge, a choreographer and lighting, set and scenery designers — but rarely an expert steeped in Shakespeare’s language and culture,” Shapiro wrote.

Elvin agrees that context does remain a problem, but such adaptations would lose the Shakespearean value Shapiro alluded to.

“I see what they’re trying to do, but it’ll take the plays too far away from the original, and the meaning would be lost in translation,” Elvin said.

Ultimately, Elvin says, it’s not the question of adapting it for modern performance. Instead, it’s about setting the right context for it.

“Good performances of Shakespeare are those which can make the context relevant,” Elvin said. “As soon as you put a play in reference to something the audience can relate to: Love’s Labour’s Lost into a war context, for example, or Macbeth in a gang scenario, it makes much more sense to the average person. And that’s why Shakespeare is so amazing, because it is timeless and its topics are still very relevant to now, even though it was written hundreds of years ago.”

What do you think? Is adapting Shakespeare’s work to new audiences a good idea? Have your say in the comments section below.