Don’t Mess with Shakespeare

Shakespeare on a computer

By Marie Buckley Fish

I’m sorry, guys, but when I go to see a Shakespeare play, I want to see the real thing.

We have made a trip out of town several times to see Shakespearean plays. The last trip was a real downer. We saw two plays, neither in the original. To try to bring Othello into the twentieth century just didn’t ring true. It was not only unbelievable; it was kind of ridiculous. The second one was even worse.

Shakespeare’s plays in the stories they tell, they are not that unusual. The treasure that is Shakespeare is the language he uses. No one, so far, has improved in the way that the stories are told.

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” Surely, we can write a story or a play using that iconic prose without going back to the kings, queens, etc. and try to give them twenty-first century action. It seems foolish to read the original then try to update the entire play. There’s no way that it will make sense in a modern day and age. But you can take that line and create a whole different story that actually relates to the time period in which you choose to use it.

“The play’s the thing.” It certainly is. Saturday Night Live and other late night talk shows have demonstrated that night after night ridiculing every day goings on in this country and in this world.

Life in the twenty-first century is certainly very different in so many ways than how life was in England in Shakespeare’s day. But the languages, the expressions, occasionally whole speeches that he wrote in his day still resonate with us today.

Use them cautiously, carefully. Tell your story and use that amazing, descriptive language wherever it fits. It will improve your story.

But, please, don’t try to tell a Sixteenth Century story plopped down into twenty-first Century times. It won’t fit. Too often, it falls flat. West Side Story is an excellent example. They updated and retold a very old story in modern times. It made sense. If you can do that, you’re good. They didn’t pretend it was Romeo and Juliet.

If you read and study Shakespeare in the original, those stories weren’t all that unusual. It was what was going on in his day.

The truly amazing thing about Shakespeare was the language. I hope we can agree on that point. Still, we can hardly imagine today as it was in his time that a woman had to dress like a man, pretend to be a man in order to be allowed to speak in court in defense of anyone. But can any of us improve on that beautiful speech…

“The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘T is mightiest in the mightiest;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

when mercy seasons justice.”

—The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

This Shakespeare passage could be used today in a modern courtroom. If writing a scene calling for it.

Actually, I have not seen that play. What dimwit would put up his own flesh as collateral for a loan? Many a gambler has lost his shirt when betting on a “sure thing.”

You can update so many of his speeches and plays if you don’t go whole hog on the thing. “The play’s the thing, to check the conscience” of the Congress? You could probably do something with that. Write an updated “Comedy of Errors.” Not me, I don’t write plays. MSN

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