"ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS,
EXAMINING THE DEBATE OVER MODERNIZING SHAKESPEARE’S LANGUAGE AND
EXPLORING VIABLE SOLUTIONS
B. A. VARGHESE
COPYRIGHT 2021. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
APRIL 5, 2021
ABSTRACT: Throughout the decades, the eorts of making Shakespeare’s plays more accessible
through translaon have oen met with signicant opposion. Translang plays from
Elizabethan-era English to a more contemporary English is not without controversy and
somemes leads to heated debate are-ups. This paper aempts to explore the ongoing
debate through the lens of both educaon and performance, analyze both sides of the debate
for their legimacy, and oer possible approaches to Shakespeare’s text in the realm of
educang students and entertaining audiences.
Varghese, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” - 1
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Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest writer in the English language. His
plays have been translated into more than a hundred languages (including the conal Klingon
language from Star Trek) and have been adapted in many countries, allowing his characters to live
on a global stage. However, Shakespeare’s use of the English language from the Elizabethan era
has become a major stumbling block for readers and viewers alike. This diculty is inherently
evident from students’ experiences in English classes when assigned Shakespeare’s plays or
audiences’ reacons to stage performances that adhere to the play’s original text. Aempts have
been made throughout the decades to make his plays more accessible to each newer generaon.
Eorts to translate the plays into contemporary English oen run into skepcism or signicant
academic opposion. It seems that the most recent are-up of this debate came when in
September of 2015, The Oregon Shakespeare Fesval announced their project called “Play On! 36
Playwrights Translate Shakespeare.” This project would commission thirty-six playwrights to
translate Shakespeare’s plays into modern English for stage performance. Of course, this project
ignited the feud once again, and this me through social media, various magazines, and journal
arcles, individuals voiced their opposion to the translaons as the “dumbing down” of
Shakespeare’s plays for Americans. One way to nd a hopeful soluon or a compromise between
the two sides is to examine this debate discussion and analyze each side's legimacy. With both
educaon and performance in mind, we can discover approaches to handling Shakespeare’s
original and translated text in the realm of educang students and entertaining audiences.
The Oregon Shakespeare Fesval commissioning the translaon project in 2015 is not the
rst me of such request or inquiry to “modernize” the language. According to “‘He shall signify
from me to me’. Romeo and Juliet in modern English” by Dirk Delabasta, in the 1982 volume
of the English Journal, Richard M. Eastman, an English Professor at North Central College, wrote
an arcle and addressed the queson whether it was me to translate Shakespeare into modern
English. He gave “a cauously worded armave answer. [Unfortunately,] this arcle went
largely unnoced” (189). Almost two decades later, this queson was again asked, and
“Translaon Studies scholar Susan Bassne… answered it, but more robustly, in the armave”
(189). A debate soon followed, which sparked controversy, and sides drew bale lines for and
against translang Shakespeare’s plays. Two decades later, The Oregon Shakespeare Fesval
reignites the re of controversy.
However, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a literary historian, argues that unl the late Victorian
era, “Shakespeare’s genius had to be salvaged from the obscure, indecorous, archaic, quibbling
mess of his language. For poets, playwrights, editors, and actors from the seventeenth century
through much of the nineteenth, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t intoxicang so much as
intoxicated: it needed a sobering intervenon” (Pollack-Pelzner). He states that at the end of the
English Civil War (1651), theatres reopened, and Shakespeare’s plays, some now more than y
years old, were out of date. Playwrights were commissioned to polish and even rewrite some
rough parts for performance. They reworked and reimagined Shakespeare’s plays into various
adaptaons throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, this all changed
with the inuence of the German Romancs. They “rebelled against French neoclassical restraint
and cited Shakespeare’s unruliness as a liberang precedent. Brish crics in the nineteenth
century followed suit, celebrang Shakespeare’s capacious characters and poec imaginaon…
Rather than subject Shakespeare to crical standards, Shakespeare became the standard”
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(Pollack-Pelzner). Then during the late Victorian era, English became an academic discipline, and
scholars made it their business to oversee Shakespeare’s plays, focusing more on preserving the
original texts for historical authencity instead of rewring archaic language for stage
performances. Over the decades, the need for textual authencity and reverence to
Shakespeare’s genius in academia may be the reason why most scholars are reluctant to accept
any modern translaon of the plays as adequate in comparison to the sheer poetry of the
One of these voices in opposion to The Oregon Shakespeare Fesval’s commission came
from James Shapiro from Columbia University. In his OP-ED arcle for The New York Times, he
blatantly argues that the project is “a waste of money and talent” and that “it misdiagnoses the
reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow” (Shapiro). He believes that
the problem lies not with the dicult lines or the use of archaic words, but stems from the
directors, actors, the whole producon team themselves that fail to understand Shakespeare’s
language and the intended meaning of the words he used. He also states that:
To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of
meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse. They will search for
them in vain in the translaon: The music and rhythm of iambic pentameter are gone.
Gone, too, are the shis — which allow actors to register subtle changes in inmacy —
between “you” and “thee.” Even classical allusions are scrapped.
Shakespeare’s use of resonance and ambiguity, dening features of his language, is
also lost in translaon. (Shapiro)
There is absolute truth in what Shapiro states. There are online resources that translate the plays
for educaonal use, such as No Fear Shakespeare [www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/] and
ShakesCLEARe [www.litcharts.com/shakescleare/shakespeare-translaons]. More and more
students use these resources to understand what is going on in any assigned play to the point of
reading these translaons instead of the original text. The use of these resources should not be
discouraged, but educators should emphasize that such sites should be used as tools to help one
understand the original text and not a complete substute for them. Taking a few lines from any
play and comparing a modern translaon with the original, one can immediately see how a
modern translaon alters the meaning of some of Shakespeare’s intended lines. A quick
examinaon of Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5 Lines 17-28, can be used as an example of a translaon
Original Text :
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
No Fear Shakespeare :
Life is nothing more than an illusion. It’s
like a poor actor who struts and worries for
his hour on the stage and then is never
heard from again. Life is a story told by an
idiot, full of noise and emoonal
disturbance but devoid of meaning.
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This scene takes place as Scosh troops are approaching Macbeth’s castle to aack.
Macbeth also gets news that his wife is dead. In a sense of loss and despair, he speaks one of the
play’s most famous lines. The translaon plainly states the content of Macbeth’s soliloquy. It is
adequate to gain an understanding if the lines of poetry are challenging to grasp. Yet, the
meaning of these lines has altered in their impact. The translaon does not carry the same power
of Shakespeare’s language and word choices. There is a repeon of sounds throughout the lines
– “walking shadow,” “poor player,” “struts and frets...the stage,” “It is a tale told by an idiot,”
“full…fury… signifying” – This poec repeon evokes beauty and force, making the lines hard to
Most scholars would agree with Shapiro’s posion. Examining various commercial
publicaons that adversed removing the “obstacle” of Shakespeare’s language from his plays,
Maeo A. Pangallo of the University of Massachuses makes the observaon that the
“‘discussions of language’ may be one of the ‘interesng and thought-provoking aspects of
Shakespeare’” and for those publishing modern translaons, “[the plays’] language becomes an
‘obstacle’ to geng at the deeper, idealisc meaning behind the words” (31). Pangallo believes
that these modern English edions of various plays should not be calling themselves
“translaons.” Instead, since there is an alteraon of meaning from the original text, they should
be considered “adaptaons” of the plays. “At the outset of every aempt at translaon, the
translator, recognizing that direct correspondence between source and target languages is
impossible, must idenfy an acceptable objecve for the translaon that accounts for that
compromise in understanding” (31). Anca-Simina Marn at Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu makes
a similar statement regarding Shakespeare’s puns. “[T]hat puns are, more oen than not, an
‘untranslatable stylisc phenomenon’…aempts to render them from one language into another
are doomed to failure” (170). Though Marn’s piece is regarding translang into a foreign
language and how Romanian translators created their own variaon of puns, we can understand
how the humor of the Elizabethan era may not translate as well into a modern English equivalent,
especially with staying faithful to Shakespeare’s original intent.
To get at the heart of what Shapiro, Pangallo, and most scholars are stang, consider this.
Suppose we take a look at Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night through the lens of a
grayscale lter (which removes all color). From the painng, with only shades of black and white,
we can see that a brightly lit terrace café is sll serving its patrons well into the night. People
stroll along the street and gaze at the dark buildings beyond or up at the star-lled sky. We know
the locaon, the characters, and the event taking place. Now consider the original with its color:
the bright yellow café, the deep blue buildings, the dark green trees, all against a starry blue sky.
We not only get the locaon, the characters, and the event taking place, but there is depth to the
painng because of its color. More details crash and ood our senses. There are layers that evoke
an emoon or a mood. One gets the sense of wonder that Van Gogh must have felt as he painted
this work of art. It is that loss of wonder and that missing layer of depth that Shapiro and Pangallo
must have felt when reading a modern translaon of Shakespeare’s plays.
Nevertheless, some feel that translaons into modern English are essenal, especially for
modern readers and audiences. John H. McWhorter, an associate professor of English at the same
Columbia University as Shapiro, was one of the more prominent voices that supported The
Oregon Shakespeare Fesval and their translaon project. He has been defending the pro-
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translaon posion since 1998, and there are those in the theatrical side and educaon that
agree with him. In his essay for The Wall Street Journal, McWhorter proclaims, “Yes,
translaons—because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of [today] that it
oen interferes with our own comprehension” (McWhorter). He connues stang that not only is
Shakespeare’s language hard to understand for the general public, even highly educated people
have diculty fully grasping what exactly Shakespeare is trying to say.
We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and
that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poec,” or that it takes Brish
actors to get his meaning across. But none of these raonalizaons holds up. Much of
Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their
meaning oen has changed signicantly over the past four centuries (McWhorter).
The essay connues with examples of lines from plays where the words no longer carry the same
meaning as we understand them today, rendering the lines confusing or incomprehensible. Of
course, if we take the me to read notes and carefully study the text, we can gain an insight into
what Shakespeare’s intenons were. However, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare created the
plays for performance and that we are supposed “to hear and understand what’s spoken on the
stage, in real-me… We cannot reach up to a meaning that is no longer available to us”
(McWhorter). He agrees that translang a play will alter the play and may render the play no
longer Shakespeare, but as a society, we should not be sased with these plays only being
meaningful to an elite few while the rest of us just scratch our heads and go along in reverence to
Like Shapiro, there is absolute truth in what McWhorter states as well. Translaon into
modern English is not just necessary; it is imperave. Possibly, this “going along in reverence” to
the few elites for generaons has led to a failure among some to understand why Shakespeare is
so great. Some have heard he is a genius but cannot precisely say why. It may explain the
disinterest among students when reading Shakespeare for the rst me, struggling with the
language of his plays and wondering why read his works at all. It may explain why that even
though Shakespeare’s works can speak to us universally and that his plays have mullayered
mulcultural characters, schools and universies are trending toward removing requirements or
the need for Shakespeare classes in the face of a mulcultural and diverse student body that
cannot understand why they should study the works of a dead white man. English majors at some
universies are no longer required to take any dedicated course on Shakespeare. “A 2015 report
from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that among 52 elite instuons
surveyed, only four (Harvard, UC Berkeley, the U.S. Naval Academy, and Wellesley College) have
retained such a requirement” (Miura, 45).
Possibly for these reasons (and more), The Oregon Shakespeare Fesval’s commission
comes at a me when a revival of all things Shakespeare is necessary, much like before when the
restored monarchy reopened theatres by the end of the English Civil War. And though this
commission has ared up the debate between those for and against translaon, Bre Gamboa,
an Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, suggests that both McWhorter and
Shapiro are essenally seeking the same thing. Both are suggesng ways to make it easier for the
audience to understand Shakespeare’s language. Whether it is McWhorter who believes that
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Shakespeare’s English should be replaced with modern vernacular understandable to a listening
audience or it is Shapiro who feels that it is the responsibility of the director, the actors, the
producon to carry the meaning and provide clarity of Shakespeare’s lines to a viewing audience,
both “are working to the same ends as Shakespeare’s ‘translators,’ all striving to make the plays
more comprehensible to more people, and all willing to sacrice some complexity and verbal
richness in the pursuit” (Gamboa, 28). Even though Gamboa admires The Oregon Shakespeare
Fesval’s aempt to bring clarity to Shakespeare’s English, he lts toward Shapiro’s opinion
fearing that the purposeful ambiguity of some of Shakespeare’s lines might lose its meaning
when translated or reworked. “And translators may be prone to doing the greatest harm when
they encounter and aempt to clarify the paradoxical language that creates an atmosphere that
both resonates against and naturalizes the presence of the complex characters and situaons at
the plays’ surface” (Gamboa, 30). It may seem that there are more in academia who are against
translaons, and it may also seem that they are aempng to preserve their professional
legimacy, but that cannot be the case. It is evident that they have a sincere love for Shakespeare
and his works, and it may be dicult for them to see how this love has not enrely echoed or has
dwindled with each new generaon. Translaons into modern English, to them, is removing what
is so Shakespeare about his plays. Emphasis must rest on Gamboa’s earlier statements of how
individuals on both sides of the debate are essenally seeking the same thing: a connued
admiraon for Shakespeare as a writer and respect for the art he penned. Those for and against
translaon are just individuals on opposite sides of the street but moving along it in the same
For a possible middle ground, Delabasta’s fascinang arcle “‘He shall signify from me
to me’. Romeo and Juliet in modern English” goes into the details of Shakespeare’s language
problems and also provides methods of resoluon. He notes that Shakespeare wrote his plays in
the English language that is now four centuries old. “This historical dialect is usually called Early
Modern English (EME); the same language was used in the hugely inuenal 1611 Anglican Bible
translaon known as the Authorized Version or the King James Bible (KJB)” (192). It is important
to pause and make a note here regarding the King James Bible and its similaries to the
Shakespeare debate. The language in the King James translaon is dicult to understand for new
Chrisan readers, even though the passages carry power and poetry. Early aempts to translate
the Bible into modern English have provided various English translaons for today’s audiences.
There was a moment when individuals from Anglican and Bapst backgrounds insisted that the
King James Bible was the sole and superior translaon of the Bible into English. These individuals
started the King James Bible Only movement, which deemed other English translaons inferior
and corrupt. Those who read the other Bible translaons like the New Internaonal Version or
the New Revised Standard Version were believed to be misled in their faith. It seems that those
who cling to the King James Bible as the only true and pure version have failed to understand the
reason behind the whole process of translang. Translaons of any text are to provide the
original tone and message to a target audience in their language for their comprehension.
Otherwise, the only way for the target audience to understand the original text is to teach them
all the source language and its nuances, which is a much more tremendous undertaking. If the
target audience fails to comprehend the translaon, then is that translaon a failure by its own
Varghese, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” - 6
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As an adolescent, I remember reading from the King James Bible. I remember being oen
confused by most passages. Psalm 23 is the most popular of all Psalms, with the rst verse being
the most well-known among Chrisans. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (KJB). That
threw me for a loop. Did I or didn’t I want him to be my shepherd? It was only aer I received the
New Internaonal Version from my father that I fully understood that verse. “The Lord is my
shepherd, I lack nothing” (NIV). Furthermore, today, if I wondered what the original phrase was
before translaon and wanted to explore its deeper meaning, I have resources like the Blue Leer
Bible (hps://www.blueleerbible.org) that includes tools to look up the original Hebrew,
Aramaic, and Greek words. Unlike the King James Bible Only movement, we should not be so
rigid in our mindset against other translaon aempts, especially if the translaon can enlighten
new and younger audiences. The same can be said for translaons of Shakespeare into modern
English. New translaons can enlighten and bring new audiences. Then there will be those from
the new audiences that will engage Shakespeare in his original language for more in-depth
insight. This is vitally crical for Shakespeare to survive for years to come. Otherwise, things of
Shakespeare will go as Delabasta notes what had occurred with Beowulf:
Moving further upstream in the English literary canon, we meet the oral epic
Beowulf from the eighth century, which is composed in Old English, a language that is
today accessible to none save a small circle of specialized philologists and acionados.
Beowulf is very rarely read in the original; (192)
In his arcle, Delabasta connues detailing the dierences between Shakespeare’s English and
modern English language (spelling, punctuaon, pronunciaon, words morphing, syntax,
vocabulary) and then provides various soluons from cung away obscure lines to educang
viewers/readers in becoming procient in Elizabethan English to treang Shakespeare’s language
as a foreign language. The last is by far the most logical since most edions of printed
Shakespeare plays provide footnotes and appendixes for clarity as if Shakespeare’s language is
foreign to the reader. Delabasta spends the rest of the arcle, almost eleven pages, on
translaon as being the viable soluon and oers dierent translaon methods.
Along with translaon, other soluons can be explored, especially for educaon. In an
arcle in Volume 14 of Early Modern Culture, Cassie M. Miura brings to light the trend of a
declining Shakespeare requirement among naonal instuons and suggests that the eld of
Shakespeare study can only survive if it “shows how our work informs and is informed by current
events. Especially as early modern scholars, we need to respond to the world as it is and imagine
how it could be rather than waxing nostalgic for the past” (45). Miura recommends taking
Bardolatry (the worship Shakespeare) as a crical object to be studied and explored. She also
suggests studying canon formaon:
From a student-centered perspecve, I suggest that one way to beer serve rst-
generaon students is to make visible the process of canon formaon alongside our
teaching of canonical works. By this, I mean empowering students to vocalize and
interrogate their own assumpons about Shakespeare within the larger educaonal,
cultural, and arts instuons that have shaped them. (46)
Stephanie Pietros’ arcle in the same volume of Early Modern Culture considers
approaching the study of Shakespeare through problems found in his plays. Because of
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Shakespeare’s status in our culture, even well-prepared students feel inmidated and avoid being
“not smart” in front of other classmates. Pietros’ approach helps “to break down students’ fears
about Shakespeare. The idea that the works of such a ‘great’ writer as Shakespeare have
‘problems,’ whether in form or content, is liberang for students” and “the use of ‘problem’ as a
kind of hermeneuc is one that invites students to reect explicitly on Shakespeare’s cultural
status and ulmately engage more crically with his work” (90).
In the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Miles Harvey, Adrianna Deuel, and Rick
Marla write a fascinang arcle together that discusses how they modernized Shakespeare
through mulmodal learning staons. “Mulmodal instrucon aords students numerous modes
for interacng with texts, construcng meaning from content knowledge, and accomplishing
academic tasks through numerous literacy pracces” (560). This eort was in response to an
online debate where “54% of secondary educators proclaimed the Bard’s me in our schools to
be over” (560). For an eighth-grade classroom, these educators created various staons and
integrated Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, QR codes, videos, and smartphone applicaons
along with tradional, print-based material to create opportunies for students to engage with
Shakespeare’s complex texts in ways that reect their socially and technologically situated
idenes. Aer analyzing their collected data of the results and responses, it was encouraging
that the students expressed excitement and curiosity to engage with the learning staons. It
seems that technology acted as the “translator” of Shakespeare’s plays for this audience and
their preferred language of comprehension.
Theatre and performance can also benet from translang plays, bringing in new viewers.
Even though The Oregon Shakespeare Fesval commissioned thirty-six playwrights to translate
Shakespeare’s plays into modern English for stage performance, the translaon project is
considered conservave. The playwrights are under strict guidelines “not to cut, not to edit, not
to add personal polics, not to change the seng or me period or references” and “[t]he
translaons are billed as ‘companion pieces’ for Shakespeare’s originals, not replacements”
(Pollack-Pelzner). Perhaps funding can be used to commission a complete translaon of one of
the plays into the modern English vernacular with updated puns, expressions, syntax, and
vocabulary. It could be interesng for new audiences. Moreover, audiences versed in
Shakespeare’s language can connue to see plays from the original text because those
performances should be commissioned and fully funded as well. Theatre producons can
possibly make eorts toward incorporang technology, like Virtual Reality and Augmented
Reality, allowing these spaces to bridge the language gap as translator in performances.
In examining the debate, we can sympathize and clearly see that both sides desire for
Shakespeare and his art to connue through the ages. Modern English translaons of his plays
should not be feared but welcomed as a means to convey Shakespeare’s message in a
comprehensive way to newer readers and viewers. It may be excing to see how far and vast our
imaginaons of Shakespeare could go, especially in this brave new technologically immersive
world. Oh, what delights we will see as we connue moving forward in bringing Shakespeare to a
new generaon of admirers.
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Delabasta, Dirk. “‘He Shall Signify from Time to Time’. Romeo and Juliet in Modern English.”
Perspecves, vol. 25, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 189–213.
Gamboa, Bre. “Understanding Shakespeare.” The New Criterion, vol. 34, no. 8, Apr. 2016, pp. 27–
Harvey, Miles, et al. “‘To Be, or Not to Be’: Modernizing Shakespeare With Mulmodal Learning
Staons.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 63, no. 5, Mar. 2020, pp. 559–568.
Marn, Anca-Simina. “There’s a Double Tongue in Cheek: On the Un(Translatability) of
Shakespeare’s Bawdy Puns into Romanian.” American, Brish, and Canadian Studies, vol.
29, Dec. 2017, pp. 169–189.
McWhorter, John H. “A Faceli for Shakespeare.” Wall Street Journal, 25 Sept. 2015,
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Generaon Students," Early Modern Culture: Vol. 14, Arcle 7, 15 June 2019
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