On the Adaptation of Shakespeare

“When the kite builds, look to lesser linen,” says the rogue Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. After doing my research to play the role, I now know what the line means. It refers to the habit of kites (as in small hawks) stealing sheets and clothing that were left outside to dry to add to their nests.

I love that line. I wouldn’t want to cut it. However, it’s an obscure reference that may have been more common knowledge when the play was written. I imagine few audience members today would recognize, much less appreciate, the line in the moment of its delivery.

I was amused by how scared (for fear is generally the seed of outrage) people got when they heard about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioning modern language adaptations of Shakespeare’s canon. Do people believe that one of the most renowned Shakespeare companies in the United States is going to abandon Shakespeare’s original text? Do they think this idea came from people who don’t love the original material? The adaptations allow the organization to engage with a wide range of artists. Why should actors and directors be the only ones exploring their craft in collaboration with Shakespeare’s text? I’ve learned as much, if not more, about Shakespeare’s text by setting it to music as I have performing it. What a great opportunity for the commissioned playwrights, not to mention the directors, actors, designers, and so on, who will bring these adaptations to life.

We already take great liberties with Shakespeare’s text: Different editions of the original texts have textual variations and discrepancies, and part of the process of mounting a Shakespeare play is sifting through those options and deciding which ones to use. Many productions already replace some of the more obscure terms with recognizable ones (that don’t disrupt the rhythm of the language) to clarify meaning. Finally, almost everyone makes substantial cuts and excisions because they want a shorter run time, and most of these cuts are determined by what will be clear to today’s audience. This practice of cutting and adapting Shakespeare’s plays hasn’t kept people from going back to the full original text When high schools students are assigned Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet or Othello, they read the original text. Even the “No Fear” translations aren’t intended to replace the original text, but to help students find their way into it.

So why was there such a strong reaction to the announcement of these adaptations? Are we scared that our hard work toward the comprehension and delivery of Shakespeare’s text will be for nothing? The language of the material is effective only when it is communicative and can move its audience. If people who are savvy in the craft come to see me perform Shakespeare and applaud my execution of the text, that’s nice, but if the language doesn’t viscerally resonate with the audience, the actor has ultimately failed. What makes these plays some of the greatest pieces of dramatic literature ever written is their capacity to move us. To walk away from a Shakespeare play simply appreciating the delivery isn’t enough.

Yes, the verbal semantics are a powerful aspect of these plays, but not just because the language is pretty. Heightened language is born out of and supported by depth of human experience. The exploration of the deep wants, desires, longings, fears, furies, and sorrows of the characters is what inspired the language in the first place, and we continue that exploration by returning to these stories. The magic comes from how beautifully the words articulate humanity, not how beautifully humans can articulate words.

If the text isn’t being effectively communicated, perhaps the fault is not in the times, the audience, or even the text itself. Perhaps we as actors must take it upon ourselves to dig deeper into our own exploration of humanity that we may reach the depths that evoke poetic text. Perhaps we as directors must look for the deep, driving forces of these plays and use them to orchestrate such a momentum that every person taking part in the experience, onstage and off, may be moved. Perhaps our charge as artists is to dig past the realm of interpreter in the hope of striking the streaming oil of the poet.

I love having to figure out “When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.” I love collaborating with directors and actors and coaches to discover the potency and intention in the text. I once worked with a text coach for over fifteen minutes to decipher a single line in Twelfth Night. The discovery wasn’t how to execute the line; it was to uncover its inspiration and motivation. A contemporary audience may never understand Autolycus’ kite reference, but if they sense that it comes from his pride, his playfulness, his cunning, the character is revealed and the audience continues to ride the roller coaster of the play.

Most of Shakespeare’s text isn’t hard to comprehend as it is. “Thou painted maypole” is still a great insult. “To be or not to be” is crystal clear language, even if the thought itself is profound. Even if it were altered by a contemporary playwright (I can’t imagine how to paraphrase it), could anyone read the original line without being struck by its depth and clarity? Let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s plays, as brilliant, glorious, and infused with genius as they are, were written to be popular entertainments. Moving the material away from accessibility and placing it on a pedestal does more damage than an adaptation intended to help people understand the story ever could.

“Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please.” – The Tempest

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