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I don’t get Shakespeare! Why do we still use that same old language?

I guess you’ve heard of Shakespeare 400 by now. I’m quite exhausted from it. I find his plays too difficult to absorb. I try my best to go to as many as I can, hoping to find something that will change my perception of Shakespeare.

But then restless leg syndrome kicks in. I try to control it, and my mind drifts. Then Redza Minhat appears in a loose, short-sleeved black shirt and army pants while everyone else is decked head-to-toe in battle gear. But Redza Minhat looks great in a loose, short-sleeved black shirt and army pants.

I know exceptions to the rule exist. Like when Dawn Cheong played Juliet in Shakespeare’s Women and everyone just got it. So I tried to figure out the problem. Was it just me? Or was it society?

Some of my friends who enjoyed theatre echoed similar sentiments, but many insisted the language just needed a bit of getting used to. How long, they didn’t say.

A quick trawl through the internet tells me that a number of forces are responsible for my dilemma, and that I am not alone. Why, even Former Director of the Royal National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, has something to say about the matter.

Why some of us don’t get Shakespeare

During an appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Nicholas confessed that he too sits in a Shakespeare performance awkwardly during the beginnings of a Shakespeare staging. He notes that most people only settle in after the first fifteen minutes.

But he also said this to the Radio Times.

The best way for anybody being introduced to Shakespeare is to see it well acted. If the actors are alive in it, it gets through.

— Nicholas Hytner, 11 October 2013

Meanwhile, a writer for The Telegraph was afraid her children wouldn’t get Hamlet starring David Tennant. She foretold them the story beforehand, just in case they don’t get the language. The kids, however, loved it.

That they did was almost entirely due to the brilliance and clarity of the production – and that has to be the key to the glut of successful Shakespeare on our stages.

— Sarah Crompton, 27 September 2013


So it seems brilliance and clarity are the missing ingredients. What these mean and how they translate on the stage I’ll leave to your interpretation. For now, we can all agree acting is indeed an essential part of any production, Shakespeare or not.

Still there’s only so much flak an actor should receive. I have always considered the language too verbose and riddled with obscurity, even on paper.

Like, why aren’t we updating the text, or at the very least adapting everything into modern day versions like Nam Ron‘s Gedebe?

Then came The New Yorker‘s God-sent answer, aptly-titled “Why we (mostly) stopped messing with Shakespeare’s language” by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner.

It’s a long, comprehensive read, but in summary, one must take into account history, particularly the stage’s changing disposition towards Shakespearean text over the centuries, to understand why we don’t change his language for the stage.

From the 1600s until the 1800s, Shakespeare’s plays were loved by many, but most weren’t staged using his original lines. The language was constantly updated throughout this period to keep up with modernisation — some bits were even “corrected”.

Today, we don’t actually know if the copy of Hamlet on the shelf is one-hundred percent Shakespeare or a hodgepodge of multiple editing jobs. Consider too, that some are known to credit Macbeth to Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton.

There is not a single, original Shakespeare manuscript left in the world. We’re finally keeping it literal after hundreds of years of editing, discussion and debates. We’re retaining what’s left of the Bard and celebrating his ideas.

How do I get Shakespeare?

The late critic and scholar Frank Kermode did extensive study on Shakespeare and released a guide to cracking the language in 2010.

He advocated studying the text before the show, and acknowledged that first-timers at a Shakespeare play might find the words opaque. But will knowing this keep us from being restless during something like Henry VI, Part 2?

However it’s worth looking forward to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)‘s translation project which aims to create companion pieces to Shakespeare’s original works. Vowing to “do no harm”, OSF will keep their translation strictly verbal — elements such as rhyme, rhythm and rhetoric will stay intact.

Launched last year, the program is called Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare and it has attracted a generous amount of outcry. You can also check out a before-and-after on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

But you know what else could be messing with our relationship with Shakespeare? The iPhone. One highly likely scenario is our diminished attention spans, reckons The Guardian.

The fact was the Elizabethans and Jacobeans were much better listeners than we are. That, I suspect, was what gave them a privileged relationship with the great writer of their age that we, alas, can never enjoy.

But none of them, of course, had the printed works. That’s our privilege.

— James Sutherland, 11 October 2013

Indeed, today his plays are physically-accessible like never before; all are available in full form on the internet. Back when he was alive, only the production and select friends could look at his writing, not members of the public.

One Shakespeare fansite provides an amusing account of The Globe‘s period of success — rival theatre companies sent audience members to Shakespeare’s plays to record (by hand!) and make copies. Copyright had yet to exist, so alternative versions started flying about — bits of which have ended up in today’s version of Shakespeare.

Compare this to simply downloading a free copy off the web or scrolling through Wikipedia for the gist of things. Which is what I will be doing before I enjoy my next Shakespeare play.

And I suggest you do too, because KLPAC’s Malay-language adaptation of Macbeth and Revolution Stage‘s Hamlet Machine is currently playing, Antigone starring Dawn Cheong opens 21 July, Titus Andronicus directed by Christopher Ling starts 30 July, and KLPAC’s Teater Hamlet begins 4 August.

Now, vote!

When you are sitting in a Shakespeare play, you’re…
…utterly captivated.
…struggling to stay focused.
…too busy texting.
…thinking about what to cook for dinner.
…figuring out what the last line was about.
…wishing the actors tried harder.
…not thinking about anything but what’s happening on stage.

make quizzes


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