Sunday, 14 June 2009

No Sweat Shakespeare

‘From now on, Shakespeare’s language can be fun, easy and exciting!’

About time! For all these years the old boy’s been famous only for being dull, difficult and boring, but now No Sweat Shakespeare offers us the plays and sonnets ‘translated’ into modern English and available as teen-novel e-books! Here’s the like totally awesome opening of No Sweat's ‘Much Ado about Nothing’? Hold on to your hats!

It was a hot morning in Messina. The only thing that interrupted the clear blue of the sky was the wispy smoke that rose lazily from Mount Etna. As usual, the governor's villa was filled with young people enjoying themselves with music, sports and conversation. An ensemble of minstrels played and sang fashionable songs that they had brought from Florence; two muscular fellows wrestled, cheered on by a group of spectators of both sexes, while the garden was dotted with pairs and trios, sitting in the shade of the huge pines, chatting.

Could it get more fun, easy or exciting? It’s nearly as good as a Geoffrey Archer novel. Doesn’t that stuff about Mount Etna just make you shiver? Like the whole pizzeria could go up in flames any minute! The website promises us that ‘these modern language translations have all the excitement and tension of the original Shakespeare texts’, and so they do, so they do. Here’s the bit in Othello where Iago is scheming to get Cassio pissed so he’ll disgrace himself in company. The plan seems to be to get an honourable, manly soldier to curl up on a lady’s knee like a Bichon:

Iago couldn't believe his luck. Now if he could just make him have one glass, that, together with what he had already had, would make him as quarrelsome and offensive as a lapdog.
The utter cad! That clunky syntax is the perfect reflection of Iago’s twisted thinking.

One of the main benefits of reading Shakespeare as a teen-novel e-book is that finally we get Shakespeare to say what he goddam means in plain, just-folks language. I mean, who the hell talks like this?

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire:
The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,
And, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl;
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.

Benvolio’s plea is ‘translated’ as:

‘If we bump into any of them there's bound to be a fight because the heat is stirring everyone up.’
That’s more like it. I mean ‘For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring’ might make you feel uneasy, threatened by some innate male violence about to bubble up in and around you. Explaining that to kids would be plain irresponsible in today's society, and anyway, they would never be able to get their minds round that inversion of subject and verb in the last clause, poor mites. I suppose some pedantic types will complain that the original quote culminates with the evocative word 'stirring' and the 'translation' sort of peters out with the drippy adverbial 'up', but at least we lose the blood. Can't stand the mention of blood.

I noticed No Sweat have no e-book for ‘The Winter’s Tale’ yet, so I have started one for them and diffidently offer the first scene:

It was an icy cold evening in Sicilia. There was snow underfoot and a clear starry sky overhead, but there were cracks in the thin ice on the lake, making most married men whose best friends were visiting them really wary of skating. In his magnificent palace, dotted with beautifully dressed people exchanging the latest gossip in clusters, King Leontes, a good family man, was entertaining his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. Minstrels sang all the latest madrigals and there were sumptuous pizzas and creamy zabagliones, and fine wines were being enjoyed responsibly by everyone over twenty-one.

Archidamus from Bohemia excused himself politely from the dining room, and in a quiet, splendid antechamber that was superbly furnished, he was wondering wistfully how his master could ever match this magnificent entertainment when Leontes came to Bohemia, as he was planning to, because it was time for him to do so, having scheduled it inexorably into his schedule for that coming summer. ‘We will give you wines to make you sleepy’ he twinkled chucklingly to Camillo, a splendid lord in Leontes’s court, who had followed him as he left the tastefully decorated dining room to check if there was anything wrong with the zabaglione. ‘Then you won’t notice how poor our hospitality is in comparison with yours.’

Of course, he was only joshing about the wines!
Got to go, it’s late. Parting is a sad but pleasant experience, but I need some sleep to knit the ravelled sleeve of care. That doesn't mean my sleeve really. You have to imagine I am thinking of my mind as a sleeve worn with worries, and sleep will knit up the holes. Get it? Yes, yes, I know I should just say what I mean. I'm going to bed.


Michael said...

I've used No Sweat Shakespeare, it helps a lot, a lot, a lot.


Bo said...

Oh Jesus Christ on a cock with candles. That is truly terrifying.

I have used 'simplified Shakespeare' parallel texts in the past, but only when teaching students whose first language is not English. One of the most rewarding students I have ever taught was Chinese, and we read 'Macbeth' using a parallel text, and then watched the Trevor Nunn production with Judi Dench and Serena McKellen. There's one terrifying bit where the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth emits this horrible, agonised, despairing scream for several seconds: my student gasped out loud in horror.

It was a very cheering moment, and one I'll never forget.

vilges suola said...

@ Michael, granted it might help as a way in, but do you actually go on from there to read or watch the original? It seems to me these things kill Shakespeare stone dead.

@ Bo, i' faith, a good mouth- filling oath! Yes, I can see these things might be of help as a lead- in for non-native speakers but I did not get the impression they were NSS's target audience. It's for teens who are forced to read Shakespeare by their teachers. I can't see how rendering Shakespeare into grey, flat-footed prose helps anyone.

Bo said...

I agree, absolutely!

vilges suola said...

Good to hear that your Chinese student was affected so positively, anyway.

Fionnchú said...

I'm teaching to my technical & business students (no liberal arts in my "polytechnic" other than the bare minimum for accreditation) "Othello" now; the anthology we use dropped in its second ed. "Hamlet." I get flack for Shakespeare in this "Contemporary Lit." course, but I defend it by asking why else do we keep making new films of old stories? Besides, many of my students are gaming-design majors, and I teach them to compare visual with print versions of narrative elements and structures throughout the course.

I show them the 1995 Fishburne-Branagh version one week and have them write about it, and the next week the 2001 BBC Eamonn Andrews-Christopher Eccleston "update" in a race-riot London. It works well, given for most this will be their only academic encounter (two weeks out of eight to boot!) with The Bard, and I get them to hear and watch the original language as well as compare and contrast the themes as dramatized two ways over four centuries.

While not perfect, this path also detours the "No Sweat" option, although I confess at my low tier of higher ed., difficulties can be formidable for us colonials and immigrants to master the intricate wonders of language and ideas fewer and fewer Americans have been even cursorily exposed to in their younger years, given the tyranny of "relevant" curricula, teaching to tests rather than from texts, and middlebrow pandering to special interests of all sorts, who truly dominate any textbook and every course taught our youth.

This entry reminds me of Bible excerpts peddled in the Aquarian age of "Godspell" and the Jesus People, casting Holy Writ into street jive. I guess an Angelina Jolie "Beowulf" will always outsell Seamus Heaney, anyhow. I once saw "Saki" as an "Asian American writer" on the approved reading lists for the L.A. schools!

vilges suola said...

Saki as an Asian American, huh? Well, at least they understood he was a writer and not a rice wine or a fish dish.

When I were a lad, we just read Shakespeare - nobody ever tried to simplify it for us, nor yet did think that t'were expedient, so to do; we just got pushed in at the deep end, and got stuck in. What has changed and why?

I'm so glad I do not have to teach literature. For one thing, I'm no expert - very, very far from it. For another, my Muslim students have so little understanding of the west, the language would be the least of our problems. So, respect!


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