Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Bless thee! Thou art Translated!

students perform MACBETH at the 2010 Secondary School Festival

They’re everywhere: No Fear Shakespeare, Simply Shakespeare, Translated Shakespeare. There are teachers who truly believe that their students can’t understand Shakespeare’s 400 year-old words, and turn to updated adaptations which give students the gist of the story, but none of the original poetry.

I used to be ok with it. I thought that as long as a side-by-side translation still printed the original text, students were still going to read and see and maybe even learn Shakespeare’s words. Then I flipped through one and discovered all of the poetry, all of the power, all of the original intent of the words gone. One of the awesome things about Shakespeare’s deliberate word choices is that certain words can mean so many things.

“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”
“Being King is worthless to me,unless I can feel safe and secure as King”
“To be king is nothing, unless I am safely king”

Part of the fun, at least for me, is in interpreting the many ways Shakespeare could have meant the word nothing. Not to mention enjoying the poetry of the repetition of to be… thus and feel that flow within the words. When you translate Shakespeare’s word choices into a definitive interpretation, you are saying that that is the only meaning for that line, and cutting off any discussion about what it could mean to individuals.

This comes up today because of a recent article in which a teacher in NY uses his own updated adaptations of Shakespeare’s text to teach his special education students. He asks them which version they prefer, his own or Shakespeare’s, and they all say his own.

It is my opinion, and I want to stress that it is my own – and Folger Education staff will chime in with their own, that if you offer students an “easier” option, you are telling them that they are not going to understand Shakespeare. You are putting that barrier there and telling them that Shakespeare is a distant and unreadable icon of an outdated language, and that it is no longer useful to study his original texts.

I am the biggest advocate of adaptation in this office – novels, movies, plays and musicals, modern-dress, silent – anything that takes inspiration from Shakespeare I want to know about and explore. But to teach an adaptation as if it were Shakespeare is not how adaptation should be used. It should be used to explore the ideas presented in the originals and discuss them in fresh ways – not to replace the originals in the classroom.

We have seen ESL/ELL students, elementary students, special education students, students of all ages and disciplines perform, understand, and enjoy  Shakespeare’s original words on our very own stage for decades. Where does this idea come from that the language cannot be understood or taught? Please share your opinions in the comments.


  • I agree Caitlin, I never would have fallen in love with Shakespeare if it had not been for my encounters with the original text and floetry. I am sure one of my extremely unimaginative high school English teachers who made us simply it and read Julius Caesar might have preferred to give my class something that was more “readable” for high school students, so that she wouldn’t have to take us through the process of dissecting the text and explore meaning, syntax, poetic devices, etc. However, my drama teacher who had us perform Othello would have been apalled and thank goodness for that.

    I think we have to look at teaching students to get through the barriers, jump the hurdles- not avoid them altogether. I understand using adaptations as an entry point to the learning- but to use them in place of, kind of inexcusable in my eyes.

  • I agree completely! In fact, I have an exercise I do with students where they look at the very speech from Macbeth that you quoted, and they can see how the translation in some cases completely warps the meaning. My favorite is when Shakespeare says “‘Tis much he dares” translated as “He’s daring.” The kids all scratch their heads over that. If kids get on their feet and really look at the language, they can understand it. And what are students going to say to a teacher? That they DON’T like his adaptation? I have used Shakespeare with all kinds of students, and I have watched too many of them fall in love because of the language, even more so than the stories.

  • Completely agree – the nuances and possibilities of Shakespeare’s language allow his plays to be performed over and over, adapted, etc.

    And the very sounds reflect what is being said and felt, not just in direct onomatopoeia, but overall harshness in the speech of one angry or tender sounds where it is all about love.

    People do not seem to have heard that only 5% of his words are no longer around nowadays. So construction of sentences and thought need a little more work than modern language, but don’t patronise people and don’t shortchange students!

    To lose the language is to lose the richness of Shakespeare, the succulent satisfying feast that one can taste working with his words, and his infinite variety.

  • One of my problems with this is that the teacher sets himself up as the all-knowing, the only one in the room who understands Shakespeare. He needs to put poetry and prose that has lasted for hundreds of years and been understood and appreciated throughout that time into language his students can understand. Why does he assume they can’t understand? They are smart enough not to tell a teacher to his face they don’t like his work (the teacher himself doesn’t seem to understand the implications of the person in authority asking “do you like what I wrote?”). I believe they are smart enough to understand Shakespeare. There are certainly uses for adaptations and other scaffolding material to help students understand the culture, expectations, background, and story line–but the language is what is powerful. Shakespeare uses language to create worlds. The students deserve to experience that.

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