Monday, October 21, 2013

Working Our Way Back to the Bard: Studying Shakespeare is about Studying Shakespeare's Language

A new rendition of Romeo and Juliet will soon appear in theaters. It has produced quite a furry since Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter, has taken many liberties in his modernization of Shakespeare's language.

Writing at, Susan Wloszczyma writes: "By the time this muddled and dumbed-down version of one of the greatest love stories ever told comes to its can't-arrive-soon-enough conclusion, some might be compelled to exclaim, 'Oy! Romeo, Romeo.'" Wloszczyma characterizes Fellowes's treatment of the star-crossed lovers as a "hack job" and gives it a measly two stars. 

Not having seen the newest incarnation of R&J, I can't speak from an informed position about the general quality of the movie experience. Instead, my thesis is this: 

Rather than attempting to drag Shakespeare into our sloppy 21st Century vernacular, we should be "working our way back" to the Bard.

As this production from the Open University, argues, messing with the original language in Romeo and Juliet, as in all Shakespearean works, denies an audience a complete artistic experience.

For example, translators of the Bard often destroy the puns inherent in Early Modern English. "There are rhymes and puns which don't work in Modern English that do work in OP." OP meaning the "original pronunciation."

We miss the meaning of the sonnets when we don't consider the original pronunciation.

Teachers who eschew Shakespeare's language send a message to students, and the message is that we don't think kids are smart enough to learn Shakespeare's language. That's insulting. We shouldn't proclaim to students the equivalent of "You blocks, you stones, you worse than useless things," to borrow from Shakespeare, in our treatment of the original language.

As the video says, the original language and pronunciation can actually make understanding the play's themes easier. Shakespeare becomes more difficult for students when we fail to teach some simple ideas about pronunciation.

There are many stories, movies, and plays about teen lovers with parents who don't approve of their relationships. Watch this season's Homeland to witness one.

But there is only one William Shakespeare, and he's all about the language; he's all about the "words, words, words." That's something Hollywood needs to remember and English teachers should never forget.

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