Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Much Ado About Reworked Shakespeare

So the other day I get an email from the author of Shakespeare Reworked, Roger Tudor, asking me to check it out.  He's offering, in his words, a "modernised, completely understandable, fully hyperlinked, illustrated e-text version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ that keeps all of Shakespeare’s original rhythm and rhyme scheme."  It's a for sale e-book.  I'm intrigued.  (As a matter of fact Roger and I have been engaged in spirited debate ever since over the supposed religious sacrilege of even attempting such a feat.)

Since he was good enough to send me a copy of the PDF, I put it on my PDA and have been reading.  You know what?  I like it.  I really do.  This is not some sort of borderline novelization where he just went off and retold the story his own way.  Nor is it one of those thesaurus-driven translations where he went through the text and swapped out all the hard words for easy ones.  (Have I mentioned how much I hate those?)  Instead he's endeavored (over 10 years, he tells me) to match rhythm and rhyme as well.  What he ends up with is indeed something that feels very much like a Shakespeare play, only you realize while reading it that it's easier to understand than you remembered.



Beat.  Alas! he gets nothing by that. In our last
conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now
is the whole man governed with one: so that if
he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him
bear it for a difference between himself and his
horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left,
to be known a reasonable creature. Who is his
companion now? He hath every month a new sworn brother.


Beat.  Ah yes, but he gets nothing out of those!  During our last
conflict most of his wits limped away, and now the whole
man is managed by a scrap of wit - so that if he has
enough wits about him to keep himself warm, let him
regard it as the single difference between himself and his
horse;  since it is his only sign of superiority, to be
regarded as a reasoning creature.  Who is his closest
comrade now?  Every month he has a new brother-in-

That's a quick and easy sample, partly because I'm not intimately familiar with "the good bits" of Much Ado, but also because I'm at work and don't have time to pore over both texts looking for a better one.  I was going to hunt down Dogberry and the whole "I am an ass" bit, but didn't have time.

The book itself is also heavily hyperlinked ,and sprinkled with illustrations and music references.  Personally, for me, I don't need that.  If I'm going to read it I'm doing so for pleasure, on my PDA.  Not for research, and not sitting in front of a browser.  But I'm sure I'm not his regular audience.

Go check it out, if you're not grossly offended by the thought of reworked Shakespeare :).  For that matter, I'll leave with the question that I'm debating with the author: 

What's your position on the subject?  Are the "original" words sacred text that should forever be studied and performed as is, even if the modern audience drifts away and Shakespeare is left entirely in the hands of the ivory tower academics to examine, analyze and debate?  Or Shakespeare merely engaging in what modern authors should as well, namely to take the words and ideas of his predecessors, incorporate his own and keep them in front of a changing audience?

My position is best summed up as this : If it is true that the potential audience for Shakespeare's work has dwindled over the years, it is a failing not of Shakespeare's work but of our(*) ability to get it out there in front of people.  And by "our" I mean "people that *get* Shakespeare".  People that know how good it is, and the sort of impact it can have on your life.  I don't know about anybody else, but I want to share that.  It's not my profession.  It's not even something for which I've got a great deal of evidence or experience.  I read books by Garber and Bloom and Greenblatt and think, "Good books, but these people have made careers out of studying Shakespeare.  Do they still connect with an audience that ...well, doesn't?"

When I find people who claim to not understand Shakespeare, or worse who claim to hate it, that makes me sad.  Where possible, then, I work to better educate people's understanding of the topic.  I'm pretty sure that I will never point to a reworked Shakespeare and tell somebody "Here, read this instead, it's the same general idea."  That very sentence makes me flinch, actually.  If I knew I could hand something something and say "Read this, not only will it make you want to experience Romeo and Juliet for yourself, but you'll discover that maybe it's not as alien as you might have thought," I think that'd be my ultimate desire.  If somebody asked me what kind of Shakespeare book I think I'll ultimately write, I think I just described it.

Anybody else?



Lis Riba said...

I think I remember this comment from Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare, but you realize that it's only English-speakers who have to experience Shakespeare in 400-year-old language.

People of other nationalities read him in translation, and those translations are generally into the current vernacular.

And thinking of other works that *we* read in translation, Homer or Beowulf or Cervantes or the Bible... a good translation can make a tremendous difference.
So, no, I have no problem with modernizing the language to make it more accessible, so long as it's done well...

Duane said...

I think my worry is that of quality versus quantity. Whether we call it "original" or not, there's a very small set of works that we can point to and say "That's Shakespeare." Just like you can point to a handful of versions of the Bible. There can be some level of agreement and mutual understanding - "Oh, ok, you're quoting the New International? That's fine..."

I worry that if we open the door and say that we're free to reinvent, rework and rewrite at will, then soon we will have a million versions, none better than any other, and the shared experience we have now will be gone. You'll be able to walk up to somebody on the street and bring up Romeo and Juliet, and they'll say know it, only in their version it's a happy ending, and Tybalt and Mercutio kiss and make nice, and who knows what else. Imagine a religion where everybody is packing their own personal translation of the bible. Religion would be a very different thing.