Shakespeare's in danger. We have to act now to avoid a great tragedy

England's greatest playwright bores today's schoolchildren, and his work needs translating into modern English, argues Susan Bassnett. But, as Emma Haughton finds below, teachers love to stage the Bard as he is
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The Independent Online

The other day I took my family to see one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. You'll love it, I told them. Nearly three hours later we tottered out into the night. Desperate to find something kind to say (there were friends involved), we praised one actor's Jim Carrey imitations and the flashing TV screens all over the postmodern set. And a costume made out of CDs that flashed like disco lights. And one character's use of a mobile phone. The rest was silence.

An American friend walked out of a Globe production recently, claiming that it was insulting her child's intelligence. That sums up the problem of so many contemporary productions; much of the Shakespeare we see now is unintelligent. The actors can't understand the words and compensate with silly antics. If the protagonist of the play I saw had lain down and kicked his legs in the air one more time I would have thrown a shoe at him. Directors, unable themselves, I suspect, to understand the text, resort to gimmicks, hiring designers to make the production more "relevant" or "meaningful". Nobody seems to have much idea how to pace a production. When in doubt, they insert a dance or a procession. Boredom and Shakespeare go increasingly hand in hand.

At some point during the interminable evening, I found myself thinking the unthinkable: why bother with Shakespeare today? Why not relegate him to the dusty shelves along with Chaucer and the dozens of other Great Unreads in the literary canon? Why are we still so obsessed with Shakespeare that we insist on boring teenagers out of their minds with plays in a language they find foreign? Isn't it time to rethink our relationship with the Bard?

Now, I am not advocating the silly, elitist idea that Shakespeare is so irrelevant to today that students should study the cultural significance of Hollyoaks instead. I believe there is such a thing as great literature, and it is important that every generation should have access to it. I've always been a believer in the importance of Shakespeare for everyone, because not only did he create some of the most wonderful characters ever to grace a stage, but his language is truly marvellous. Listening even to the mangling of that language the other night, I found the familiar words flooding back into my mind, in much the way that people of my generation have the King James Bible lurking somewhere behind the modern English versions. But my children don't have that language in their heads. All a bad production will do is deter them from going back to Shakespeare in the future.

The problem with Shakespeare today is linguistic. The language has become obsolete, Shakespeare's jokes are meaningless, his witticisms miss their target. It isn't the actors' fault: all they can do is struggle to make sense of a language that might as well be Tibetan. Directors compensate with devices that are supposed to facilitate understanding, and the whole enterprise falls apart, because the essence of Shakespeare is language.

Some of the best productions I've seen have not been in English but in German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Czech. The plays have been lovingly dissected and translated. The directors don't have to resort to trick lighting and other gimmicks, because the actors understand what they're saying and the audience responds. There is an apocryphal story about a foreign director saying he pitied the English, because they could only read Shakespeare in the original. The other night the full truth of that came home to me. Shakespeare in other languages can have real significance, because people understand him. English audiences can only struggle.

What we need are good English translators to take Shakespeare in hand and liberate him for a new generation. We need the Seamus Heaneys, Tony Harrisons, Timberlake Wertenbakers and Liz Lochheads to get a grip on Shakespeare and wrestle him into beautiful modern English. We need to throw away the outdated notion that everyone can understand Shakespeare if only they are exposed to his works, and get down to the business of making sure that people do understand him. Of course, some plays are more accessible than others: some of the tragedies still stand up reasonably well, as do some of the histories. The biggest problem is with the comedies Maybe that is the best place to start. What we need are two versions of Shakespeare's plays: the original written version for anyone with specialist knowledge of Renaissance English; and the performance version, in good modern English. Shakespeare would doubtless be grateful. What writers want to feel that audiences can't understand their jokes? Please, someone out there, commission a good English translation of Shakespeare and save the Bard from extinction.

The writer is Professor in the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick

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