The simple answer to that question is “yes” if by “modern audiences” we mean anyone without a BA in English Literature or a natural taste for Shakespeare’s plays. The real question is what needs to be done about it.
The occasion of this question is Professor James Shapiro’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decision to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English and the commitment of other companies to produce these versions.
As you might expect from a professor of English at an Ivy League school, Shapiro thinks this is a horrible idea. And I agree with the reasons why he thinks it is horrible. We will lose “hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis.” We will certainly lose the “music and rhythm” of the poetry. We will lose the “resonance and ambiguity.”
Professor Shapiro does concede that some of Shakespeare’s language is “difficult” which he qualifies with the word “deliberately.” Then he goes on to make a very particular argument, which is that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our Shakespeare – and not in our audiences – but in our actors and directors who “too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.”
As proof of this thesis, Shapiro presents the example of a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” at Rikers Island during which the inmates were “deeply engrossed” and “visibly moved”.
Well. I would expect that a Columbia professor would not make arguments in the Times featuring holes big enough to sail a New Panamax ship through but as is frequently the case in life, my expectations were disappointed.
On actors and directors lacking a “firm enough grasp” of Shakespeare’s words, the question is How does Shapiro know this? Has he administered a test to a representative group of actors and directors which reflects the critical consensus of the various professions concerned and which was constructed by psychometricians to ensure its validity?
As you can probably guess from the sarcastic tone of my question, the answer is “no” or Shapiro would have told us about his data. Which makes this statement an opinion though I suppose, based on the professor’s profile, an eminent one.
Opinions are fine of course, and many can be convincingly proven, but one anecdote doth not an argument make, as I would hope any professor teaching any subject at any college would realize, and one anecdote about one performance of one play is all Shapiro offers.
Further, we don’t know if the audience was truly “engrossed” and “moved” as Shapiro claims unless he conducted a survey of the inmates afterwards and like my hypothetical test above, didn’t bother to tell us about it. Otherwise, we are going on his perception, which may very well be correct. I certainly find it plausible that people in prison would respond to a play with great jokes and the suffering of a monstrously misaccused and slandered young woman.
Now Shapiro is surely right that a good performance of a play can make the text transcendent just as a bad performance of the same play can make the text opaque, ridiculous, and tedious. But it is both grossly unfair and grossly simplistic to lay the blame for all the difficulties with Shakespeare’s difficulty at the feet of actors and directors, who have the courage to go out night after night and risk spectacular failure before a live audience, all in pursuit of the elusive alchemy of the sublime.
The fact is that some of Shakespeare’s poetry is difficult to follow on first and second and sometimes third hearing to most people. That is often the nature of poetry. If Hamlet had nothing more to say than “Dude, life sucks” he wouldn’t be worth paying attention to once much less repeatedly. Shakespeare is full of archaic words and ideas and concepts and allusions and references which are simply unfamiliar to audiences 400 years later and not every line is like Hamlet’s “when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin” which is at least amenable to the actor producing a knife and holding it to his throat. (Whether this gesture works or is laughably literal is another matter.)
Finally, many of Shakespeare’s plays feature complicated plots with large numbers of characters that might take a person seeing the play for the first time a couple acts to sort out; and while Shakespeare could count on at least some people in his audience knowing enough about the War of the Roses to make sense of the stories of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V easily enough, for example, you are only going to stumble across the occasional modern audience member who knows enough about English history to recognize the characters by name when they first walk on stage.
To put it succinctly in the contemporary vernacular, Shakespeare has a “Who the f**k is that guy and what the f**k is he saying?” problem.
When these issues are ignored or dismissed or denied or excused, as Shapiro largely does in his piece, the net effect is to limit the audience for Shakespeare to intelligent, well educated men and women with a fair amount of specialized knowledge. That is a model that may work to keep your lecture hall full at Columbia but I suspect it is not working for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. If it were, would they bother rewriting the plays?
Shapiro’s model also has the fault (or is it virtue?) of restricting the audience for Shakespeare to an elite minority. Now many of the members of the elite minority seem to like this situation just fine, and I know people who continue to reflexively dismiss anything popular long after they should have outgrown such pathetic adolescent posturing.
But if the job of teachers and performers includes introducing great works of art to new people – rather than just preserving them as exclusive objects of status for the privileged few – then the efforts of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival look rather noble, even if the results horrify folks like me and Shapiro.
After all, if lots of people see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s modern language Shakespeare, and some of these people decide to try the real Shakespeare, and some of these come to love the real Shakespeare when they would not have come to love him otherwise – is that such a bad thing?