Much Ado About Language

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By James Shapiro ’77CC, a Columbia professor of English and comparative literature, condensed from an October 7 op-ed in the New York Times about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decision to translate Shakespeare’s work into modern English.

Two years ago I witnessed a different kind of theatrical experiment, in which Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in the original language, trimmed to ninety minutes, was performed before an audience largely unfamiliar with Shakespeare: inmates at Rikers Island. No inmates walked out on the performance, though they were free to do so. They were deeply engrossed, many at the edge of their seats, some crying out at various moments and visibly moved by what they saw. Did they understand every word? I doubt it. I’m not sure anybody other than Shakespeare, who invented quite a few words, ever has. But the inmates, like any other audience witnessing a good production, didn’t have to follow the play line for line, because the actors, and their director, knew what the words meant; they found in Shakespeare’s language the clues to the personalities of the characters.

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