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‘Dumbing down’ Shakespeare: to be or not to be?

Written by jen, 26th April 2008

A call from the University's press office at noon on a Friday is not a particularly usual occurrence. 'We're after someone to talk about Shakespeare, just for a few minutes, as part of City Talk's discussion on making Shakespeare more accessible to younger people - we thought that Jane Davis would be a good person to do this, is she around?' Ah. No, Jane's in Paris. Estelle, the coordinator of our Community Shakespeare project is also unavailable. A little more information required now, as I could see that this interview was to be falling upon my shoulders. So I discover that this has all come about after an article published in The Telegraph about Martin Baum's new publication Yoof Speak.

I feel that yes, Shakespeare, were he alive today, would have felt "duty bound" to reflect "life as it really is in the 21st century" but as far as I can tell, life isn't all "innit", "bovvered" and "geezas" in the 21st century. I am not alone in thinking this, am I? Perhaps I live in a bubble where sentences still have words without a littering of zs and vs. Were he alive today I am sure Shakespeare's language would reflect our current idioms but still be as poetic and beautiful as it was four-hundred years ago. He may well drop a few ts or swear more frequently but really, "innit"? I doubt it. So, in an attempt to defend the richness of the Bard's language and to reinforce that part of the enjoyment of Shakespeare is in getting to grips with that language, searching for the meaning and feeling like you've achieved something, I took to the stage (as it were). Oh okay, if I must... click here to 'listen again' (about 45 minutes in).

Now, the problem that I have about this mutation of:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.


Verona was de turf of de feuding Montagues and de Capulet families. And coz they was always brawling and stuff, de prince of Verona told them to cool it or else they was gonna get well mashed if they carried on larging it with each other.

Is that it's just not Shakespeare is it? I truly believe that Shakespeare can be accessible for all and is, if the time is given to it and texts or performances are approached in a dynamic and interesting way for those who would be otherwise uninterested and un-enthused. Take The Reader Organisation's Community Shakespeare project: organised by Get Into Reading, we will be staging two performances of The Winter's Tale in August, reaching out across the Wirral community to members of our GIR groups, local schools and people who, for various reasons feel socially excluded, in the hope that we will be able to make Shakespeare more accessible to the wider community. Members will take part in a wide range of activities to support the event from costume making, ticket design, painting and publicity. It will be hard work, it will take a lot of time, a lot of planning and energy but it will be, we hope, an invigorating, life-enhancing and enjoyable experience for all involved.

Surely it is better to take the time to read, explain and hopefully, eventually, be able to connect with the words of Shakespeare than to alter the language to such a hideous extent that even the story itself loses its essence? Shakespeare is his language. To alter that alters the entire experience.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

4 thoughts on “‘Dumbing down’ Shakespeare: to be or not to be?

Piers Hartridge says:

I entirely agree that to alter Shakespeare’s language is to alter the entire experience and that Shakespeare is his language (though I gather from my reading not all academics do!) but I would like to add that we need to accept that there will always be those whose grasp of language simply isn’t great enough to appreciate the plays in all their richness and complexity.

Whilst this may be a matter of regret, we should in no way feel that this somehow diminishes Shakespeare’s work. After all, the fact that many of us (I include myself) are tone deaf and musically illiterate in no way diminishes the scale of Beethoven’s achievement and the fact that my spatial intelligence is strictly limited in no way means that the excellence of the buildings of (say) Wren or Richard Rodgers is compromised.

No-one can have any objection to an adaptation of Shakespeare such as West Side Story (or the translation of Shakespeare into modern teenspeak) provided no-one pretends that nothing of importance is lost as a result of the process of adaptation/translation. When we produce a very free translation, when we radically depart from the original work we are in effect creating a new work, only distantly related to that original.

Rob Spence says:

Hi Jen
I was the one on the other line, and like you, I think I was there because there was no-one else about at the time at Edge Hill. I think they thought we might present opposing views, but we clearly felt exactly the same about Mr Baum’s execrable work. I suspect that the whole thing is rather pointless though, since you have to know your Shakespeare to understand what he’s done with it. It’s clearly not going to go into schools, and I note that the author is described as a humorist, so there is no need for panic just yet – though if that is the standard of his humour, I don’t think I’ll be going to see him any time soon.
Best wishes

NOGGIN says:

Oh, come on, guys, where’s your sense of humour? From the extract I read it seems really funny and it might even make the odd person want to experience ‘the real thing’. Most kids hate Shakespeare because they have to read it but it wasn’t meant to be read, was it? Who knows (or cares) what Shakespeare would be writing now? Maybe he’d be in advertising! I ain’t bovvered ‘bowt vat. BUT I AM bothered that we should have persons promoting accessibility to ‘the wider community’ whilst hosting gigs almost exclusively on ‘ye Wirral’ – how are we defining ‘wider’, here? Seriously, cut some slack, get your heads round it and deal wiv it – no-one owns Shakespeare and the fact that he CAN be used so imaginatively is evidence of his enduring genius, innit?

p.s. Have you read Spike Milligan’s Wuthering Heights? Borrow a sense of humour and have a laugh, go on, you know you want to …!

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