Translating William Shakespeare Research Proposal

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Translating Shakespeare

William Shakespeare has long been considered one of the greatest writers -- perhaps the greatest -- in English or indeed possibly any language. This might seem strange given a cursory examination of his stories -- originality and creativity are often associated with great writing, and Shakespeare "borrowed" almost all of his stories and plots from other sources, including other contemporary playwrights of his era. But although Shakespeare did not actually make up the plots of his plays, he showed an enormous amount of creative genius in the way he told these stories. It is his use of language, and the depth of human emotion and character that he is able to plumb and render clear through the scenarios and stories he borrowed, that have made Shakespeare the enduring literary figure that he is today. His plays not only reflect the artistic values and political leanings of his time (as well as his own commentary on society and historical events), but their universality in the way they speak to humans regardless of culture, language, or place in the increasingly global society we live in today.

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Shakespeare was a master of both comedy and tragedy, and often saw the potentials for both in many human scenarios -- several of his plays contain similar plots with vastly different effects. What this illustrates more than anything else is the importance of character; Shakespeare's characters are some of the most enduring and emblematic figures in the English and Western literary canons. Romeo and Juliet are the archetypal young and innocent lovers (though this innocence could be questioned in the play itself); Richard the Third, though ostensibly an historical character, is still invoked as the embodiment of ambition, greed, and vicious cunning' Shylock was for many years (and likely still is to some) the epitome of the miserly, money-hungry Jew, and his name is still synonymous with shady lawyers or "shysters."

Research Proposal on Translating William Shakespeare Assignment

Two only slightly less well-known characters that illustrate the importance of individuality in determining the outcome of a plot -- which itself speaks to Shakespeare's ability to perceive and render human emotions and motives clearly, allowing his plays to speak universally to everyone -- are Othello and Iago from one of Shakespeare's most socially complex tragedies, Othello. The basic plot of Othello is very similar to the major subplot of Much Ado About Nothing, which is one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies: a man (Othello in the former and Claudio in the latter) is tricked into thinking that their wife/betrothed is having an affair with another man, and their jealousy causes them to spurn their lovers and ignore their protestations of innocence. Because Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy, no one dies (though Claudio and his companions believe his fiance, Hero, to be dead for a time), and when the plot is uncovered everyone forgives everyone else (mostly), and there is the wedding typical for the end of Shakespeare's (and indeed most Elizabethan) comedies.

Othello, not surprisingly, is more tragic. The plot to deceive Othello, the brainchild of his supposed friend and officer in his army, Iago, is eventually uncovered, but by this time Desdemona is dead and many lives have been ruined. Still, these two plays quite clearly illustrate the adaptability of the stories that Shakespeare told. He is able to perceive and to portray both a comic and a tragic outcome of the same basic set of circumstances, and in both plays the characters are fully rendered as flesh-and-blood human beings with deep underlying psychological motives.

These characters are the reasons that Shakespeare's plays have remained so enduring, and so adaptable. There are illustrated volumes containing children's stories based on Shakespeare's tales, and countless novels and other adaptations have sprung up from his plays and characters as well. Many of these have included re-imaginings of certain characters, plots, or events that Shakespeare used. The nineteenth century saw a particular fondness for plays based on Shakespeare's, often (though not always) using some of his language but with additions and emendations and often significant changes made to the plots (including several versions of The Merchant of Venice with widely varied representations of Shylock). Other more recent well-known examples of adaptations or spin-offs from Shakespeare's plays include Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged. Both of these use the basic plots of Shakespeare's plays, but neither uses much of his original language to tell the stories. In a way, this is what Shakespeare himself did -- he appropriated known stories that he felt he could reinterpret in a meaningful and/or entertaining way, and he proceeded to do so by writing a new script from the old stories.

Then, of course, there are the countless productions of Shakespeare's plays, which are themselves necessarily interpretations and adaptations of his scripts -- insofar as they have survived. The nineteenth century also saw heavy editing of "Shakespeare's" plays, and those texts for which folio and quarto texts do not exist are at least partially -- and perhaps largely -- the creation of certain intervening editors. Then there is the propensity for modern directors to set Shakespearean plays in any setting but the one suggested by the script, and likewise very few productions are performed in the style that Shakespeare's own company likely performed them. This leads us to an interesting development of the twentieth century in the reinterpretation of Shakespeare.

Just as Shakespeare himself told few if any original stories, the stories told by many films have already been told before in other terms and in other sources. The medium has proven itself to be uniquely adaptable to the telling of almost any story; the ability to depict things of practically any scale and of immense detail, as well as the ability to direct focus in ways that are simply impossible in theatre and not defined enough in novels and other works of literature, has given filmmakers immense power in the construction and interpretation of a story. As one of the most adapted and re-interpreted artists n the world, it is not surprising that Shakespeare has had his plays turned into many different films. Like adaptations of Shakespeare's work in other media, some of these films have attempted to remain faithful at least to Shakespeare's language. A surprising number of them also recreate the settings described in his scripts, and though this is not how Shakespeare's companies would have performed his plays this type of realism in cinematic versions of Shakespearean plays is notable given the diversity of theatrical interpretations.

The fact that so many cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare attempt some level of realism and a true adherence, as much as possible, to his scripts could have something to do with the fact that there is room for interpretation in so many other ways with film. Without distorting the story by changing settings, costumes, and other elements outside the script, every film and filmmaker is able to tell a slightly (or hugely) different version of any story by deciding where to focus things, color schemes, what cuts should happen where, and the entire host of cinematic techniques necessary to the making of a good film. Shakespeare has provided ripe fodder for such cinematic reinterpretations, as the recent run of Kenneth Branagh films proves.

Branagh, considered one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of our age, as also directed several film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, including Henry V, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing, with its plot so similar to that of Othello -- a film version of which Branagh starred in as Iago but did not direct. Oliver Parker took the helm of this adaptation, and in order to make the film more palatable he cut enough of Shakespeare's script to get the entire movie's running time down to just over two hours. Yet despite the massive cuts to the script that this time reduction required, the movie stays remarkably close to the play not just in language but in spirit and intention as well. Rather than attempt to modernize the play at all, Parker keeps it set in the time and place that the play itself suggests. He also manages to enhance the script (or what's left of it) not by using fancy effects or overly elaborate scenery, but focusing instead on the characters themselves as the story unfolds. This seems most in keeping with Shakespeare, whose own productions of his plays made use of virtually no scenery at all.

Strangely, this film is truer to Shakespeare's script than Shakespeare' own productions of Othello, at least in one regard. Othello is described in the play as a Moorish officer; the Moors came from Northern Africa and were dark skinned. There are many references to Othello's color in the script: "Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" and "Haply, for I am black" are two of the most explicit examples, and there are other less obvious ones (Shakespeare Act I, scene iii, lines 289-91; III.iii. 263). This is the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Translating William Shakespeare.  (2009, May 10).  Retrieved October 19, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Translating William Shakespeare."  10 May 2009.  Web.  19 October 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Translating William Shakespeare."  May 10, 2009.  Accessed October 19, 2020.