Though reading William Shakespeare is usually required throughout the United States for most high school students and many college students, people still struggle to thoroughly understand Shakespeare’s work. This is due to the impenetrable and difficult language that bears little resemblance to the English spoken today.

Luckily, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a nonprofit professional theater group, has announced that it will do something to alleviate this issue. It has commissioned 36 playwrights to “translate” 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. These playwrights will be paired with a dramaturg, a theatre professional who deals with the research of plays, and together they will comb line-by-line for words and phrases that need to be changed while considering the rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric and theme as they go. They will not, however, be able to change the scenes, settings, time periods or outside references.

A theater company has announced its plans to translate 39 of Shakespeare's plays into modern English, which will help people around the world understand the famous writer's complex and brilliant words. PHOTO VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A theater company has announced its plans to translate 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English, which will help people around the world understand the famous writer’s complex work. PHOTO VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Some will undoubtedly argue that these translations are not truly Shakespeare, and in a strict sense they are right. However, these critics are missing the broader point that understanding Shakespeare is a labor of love, even for the most educated readers. Take, for example, a famous passage from Macbeth:

Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off.

As Macbeth contemplates killing King Duncan, the reader must figure out what “faculties,” “clear,” and “taking-off” mean in context to proceed. Now, take a passage that has been edited by Conrad Spoke, who produced some of the very first, lightly translated versions of Shakespeare’s works, and could serve as an example for the translations that will be made for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne authority so meek, hath been

So pure in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his knocking-off.

Spoke’s translation still makes for a difficult read, but brings it just within the grasp of the millions of high school students who study Shakespeare each year. The current state of Shakespeare education certainly warrants these new translations. In general, English-speaking students are left with the Folger Shakespeare Library Edition of the play that they are reading, which helpfully includes footnotes, plot summaries and illustrations, but still demands a great deal of dedication on the part of the reader — high school students likely recall furiously flipping between the play’s text on the left-hand page and the explanatory notes on the right side.

This forces many students to go a step further, discarding the actual text for the summaries and adaptations that can be found for free on websites such as SparkNotes, Shmoop and CliffsNotes. While these sites can give a general plot overview, they totally remove the reader from Shakespeare’s masterful works. The difficulty of reading Shakespeare is such that scholars have argued that foreign students who read Shakespeare in localized translations are more likely to master the works because a translator has already smoothed Shakespeare’s words into something that is easily understandable.

Overall, these translations will help advance Shakespeare education and allow modern readers to finally understand what they are reading without having to consult dictionaries, footnotes and online explanations.