Bringing the Bard into modern day

If Shakespeare believed that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” perhaps he would also be amendable to the idea that his plays, updated with modern English, would still hit the same.

The Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University is willing to bet on it.

This summer, the ACMRS Press began the publication of “Play On Shakespeare,” a series of 39 translations of the Bard’s plays into language accessible to contemporary audiences — without losing the “sweet smell” of his original verse.

“Shakespeare’s English is 400 years old. It’s not like you can just sit down without having studied it and really get it,” said Ayanna Thompson, center director and Regents Professor of English. “And while it is very beautiful, so is contemporary poetic English. So we thought, why not try this?”

On Friday, Oct. 1, the fourth installment in the series, the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark, “Hamlet,” will join “Macbeth,” “As You Like It” and “The Tempest,” which are already available for purchase from the ACMRS Press website. “The Merchant of Venice” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” are up next, with both slated for a Nov. 1 release.

Thompson was admittedly a bit skeptical when a colleague with whom she had collaborated for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival proposed the idea of commissioning contemporary playwrights to translate the plays into modern-day, poetic English. And she wasn’t alone – long is the list of critics of modern-day adaptations that, to Shakespeare purists, fall far short of capturing the lyrical beauty and deft wordplay of his original text.

“I was intrigued. I don’t know that I was at first enthusiastic, but I was intrigued,” Thompson said. “But then, when I heard some of (the early translations), it was so good, so clear, so artistic and beautiful. It made me think about how Shakespeare lives in translation in other countries. There’s a long history of translating him into German, Spanish, almost any language you can imagine. So the idea that we couldn’t translate him into contemporary English seemed a bit silly. And as with other translations, these are not meant to replace Shakespeare’s original words; they’re meant to live alongside them, like other translations do.”

A diverse group of playwrights, screenwriters and dramaturges was commissioned to write the translations, all of whom adhered to the same set of guidelines to maintain as much of Shakespeare’s original words, cadence and meaning as possible.

The result is a series of new texts whose differences from the originals are subtle enough to go unnoticed by most anyone but an expert, yet purposeful enough to make the language feel fresh and easily comprehensible.

Ruben Espinosa, an expert on Shakespeare and early modern literature who joined ASU this year as associate director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and an associate professor in the Department of English, remembers teaching Shakespeare to his students in El Paso, Texas, many of whom were students of color. He said they found the texts intimidating because they either didn’t see themselves represented in them or they struggled to connect with the archaic language — and sometimes both.

After watching performances of some scenes from the “Play On Shakespeare” series, Espinosa expressed enthusiasm for their potential to engage a younger, increasingly diverse student body in the classroom.

“For me, in terms of a teaching tool, this has it,” he said. “It’s been incredibly effective in terms of thinking about why Shakespeare and why that period matters. When we’re thinking about making it culturally relevant, it is doing it in a way that is scrutinizing very urgent matters in our present moment. … I think what has transpired in recent years is really putting on the table why the humanities are important.”

Video of Modern-day Shakespeare: Arizona State University (ASU)

MORE: Watch the full performances here.

Among the authors of the translations are several up-and-coming playwrights of color, including Marcus Gardley, who has written for Amazon Prime and cites James Baldwin and the Harlem art scene as influential to his work, and Migdalia Cruz, whose characters often draw from Latino history and her personal experiences of growing up in the South Bronx.

According to a representative for the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the “Play On Shakespeare” series represents a new future for the ACMRS Press — one that is “contemporary, equitable and forward-looking.”

“The press has a long history of publishing academic monographs and collections of essays, and we will continue to do that, because that’s important,” Thompson said, “but this seemed like an interesting opportunity to explore the trade side of publishing.”

She added that the ACMRS Press has already been approached about publishing a collection of Spanish translations of Shakespeare plays.

“I imagine we’ll try to do both as we go forward — academic publishing as well as exploring some other creative trade books in the future,” Thompson said.

Brandi Adams, another recent hire who, along with Espinosa and three others, is part of an effort to elevate scholars of color working on issues of race in premodern studies, said the “Play On Shakespeare” series emphasizes that “there is no one way to view Shakespeare.”

“The way that modern theater and modern scholarship is moving is in a much more inclusive way,” Adams said, “and this allows so many new versions of Shakespeare to appear.” 

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Emma Greguska
emma.greguska@asu.edu