Colorize Thy World: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and The Bard

when you translate b/w into color is there a pointThere’s a modern myth stating that modern audiences won’t appreciate art unless it’s created in modern technology.  The art must be accessible to the audience.  So films are colorized.  Or recropped for a widescreen.  Or re-released in 3-D.

So says the modern myth.

Imagine we needed to repaint the Sistine Chapel because Michelangelo didn’t have Prussian or cobalt blue on his palette.  Ridiculous, right?  Painting underwent a tremendous revolution with the advent of modern chemistry.  Yet we don’t think anything in the works of da Vinci, della Francesca, or Velázquez needs updating just because the artists couldn’t sing the cobalt blues.

Artists create their works with the technology at hand.  Either the works are complete as is or they are not.  And it’s a pretty good bet if the works are regarded as culturally significant, they are complete.

For Shakespeare, the new “technology” was the English language itself.  In fact, coming as he did just after England cleansed its language by taking a Great Vowel Shift, Shakespeare is considered the starting point of “Modern English.”  To keep his meter, Shakespeare needed to invent a lot of Modern English words.  Just imagine trying to describe a fraternity party without words like puking, swagger, obscene, scuffle, hoober-bloob, and lonely.  Okay, hoober-bloob was coined by Dr. Seuss but he also invented lots of words for similar stylistic and rhythmic reasons.

the result when you translate Casablanca b/w into colorThe point remains: since Shakespeare was helping to invent Modern English, why would anyone need to “translate” him into Modern English?  Well, according to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) folks, who just launched a three-year colorize-the-Bard’s-plays project, it’s the old “make things accessible to the audience” trope.

Sure, after 400 years, Shakespeare needs the occasional tidying up.  After all, the Quartos and the First Folio were assembled in a non-scholarly way with the text based on non-standardized spellings and minimal (if any) punctuation.  And all compiled after Shakespeare’s death, so he couldn’t provide the final editorial say-so.

You wanna change “porpentine” to “porcupine”?  Transform some periods into commas?  Be my guest.  But the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is purporting to “translate” Shakespeare.  How do we know?  It’s in the title of the project:

Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare

And why do the smart folks at OSF need to “translate” something from early Modern English to contemporary Modern English?  The leader of the project, Lue Morgan Douthit, puts it this way:

‘Translate’ is an inadequate word because it implies a word-for-word substitution, which isn’t what we’re doing. I’m going for something much more subtle. But I like the rigor that ‘translate’ implies.

Now, I’m no linguist but it seems to me that if you are about to embark on a tricky language project (and especially one with the goal of making the language more accessible), you’d at least be able to find the words to describe what you are doing.

Naturally, the public is assured that the “translation” (whatever that means) will be strictly faithful in meter and rhythm and metaphor and et cetera.  Sounds like the scholars will have to be so faithful to the original work, the only thing they’ll be allowed to change is the font.

First Folio Shakespeare seems accessibleWhich begs the question: what’s the point of this lingual colorization?

After all, Shakespeare made up words, thousands of them, his contemporary audiences didn’t necessarily use daily (if at all), though they are in standard use now.  And, conversely, the English language is full of clichés first expressed by Shakespeare.  How can something be clichéd if it isn’t already accessible to a modern audience?

The real contemporary issue is one of “marketing,” a word that Shakespeare did not coin.  If Shakespeare isn’t as popular as people imagine he should be, it must be because his plays were filmed in black and white!  Colorize him!  Something tells me, however, that Shakespeare’s works wouldn’t have survived 400 years if they weren’t already accessible.

In much the same way that the careful visual choices of black and white cinematographers are lost during colorization, updating Shakespeare’s language and verse tosses aside the very reason people are fascinated with his plays in the first place.   (It is Shakespeare’s plots that often seem old and outdated.)  But Bill Rauch, OSF Artistic Director, tries to convince us of the need to colorize anyway:

In this aspect of our endeavor, I am reminded of restorations of old paintings.  When the layers of brown glaze that have accumulated over the centuries are carefully removed, the original colors can be astonishingly revelatory in their intensity.

Except what Rauch doesn’t say is that even well-meaning, careful, and very, very expensive restorations can destroy the artist’s intent.  Like when the non-Prussian blue Sistine Chapel paintings were cleaned.  Carbon black, assumed to be from candle soot, was scrubbed from the paintings’ surfaces. In fact, Michelangelo used this material to give a shadowy depth to his work – and his figures’ eyeballs (a word Shakespeare did coin).  With both shadow depths and eyeballs “cleaned” away, Michelangelo’s figures are now as short-sighted as the restorers who had hoped to improve things.

lets colorize michelangelo

I’m assuming this was not the colorful metaphor Rauch had in mind.

Methinks some actors doth protest too much.  If audience enthusiasm for Shakespeare is waning, don’t blame the writing, blame the acting.  For as any good actor will tell you:  if the actor understands what they are saying, the audience will understand as well.  Holds true for Shepard, for Shaw… and for Shakespeare.

Maybe we just need something to make Shakespeare accessible to the actors?

Furness Variorum HamletFortunately, that something already exists – and has for over 100 years.  The Furness Variorum of Shakespeare collects hundreds of scholarly interpretations of the Bard’s phrases and allows the actor and director to do what they are supposed to do:  artistically interpret the script while remaining 100% faithful to the writer’s words.  The Furness Variorum is comprehensive and therefore definitive.  It is still being compiled and new volumes continue to be released.  Some older volumes are even available online.  And the best part? Rather than being straitjacketed by someone else’s colors of Shakespeare’s language, the Variorum permits the actors to create the artistic “translation” for themselves.  The plays thus remain always fresh, always modern, always accessible.

The language of the theater renews itself not through translation but through performance.

A lot of time, effort, and especially money is being invested in the OSF project.  One wonders if it would be a better value to simply republish the Variorum in a modern font.  And put it online.  For free.  With hyperlinks and everything the kids like today.

You know:  Use modern technology to make Shakespeare accessible.

True, updating a 100+ year-old repository of human knowledge is a less splashy project but it would likely be more beneficial to future generations.  Maybe someone will be inspired to set up a Kickstarter campaign over it?

how would Warhol colorize ShakespeareFor ultimately, with all its good intentions and extensive resources, the OSF project will likely not achieve its desired results.  The people who already love Shakespeare were able to fall for his work in its original form.  Without any tampering.  They are certainly not going to seek out a watercolored down version of what they love.

And what of the general public, the audience OSF is specifically targeting?  Well, that would be me.  The guy who is neither a literary scholar nor a drama major.  Who doesn’t know much about Shakespeare except as titles of old Star Trek episodes.

I won’t be interested in colorized Shakespeare either.

And that’s best understood by realizing Bill Rauch’s painting metaphor fails at a very basic level.  The OSF project is not about restoration.  It’s about creating a copy, very nearly like the original, but not quite.  In the world of painting, that’s not called a restoration.

That’s called a forgery.

In the art world, some forgers are so skilled that their painted fakes have fooled experts and been sold to museums for tremendous sums of money.  Clearly these fakes would fool the general public as well.  In principle, the fakes could be hung in local galleries for people who couldn’t travel to New York, Paris, or Saint Petersburg to see the originals.  The paintings would be very accessible.  Yet no one proposes such an idea because it’s obvious the public would neither pay money nor stand in lines to view such works.

Because, in the end, art is not about the object but, rather, the artist’s vision.  Our need for art is to experience a reflection of the creator’s soul.  To feel the echoes of hard-won inspirations that came to be represented by the art.  None of this can be recaptured in a mere copy which, by definition, is more about the object than the vision.  To colorize, to allegedly “make things more accessible to the audience,” trades the magic for the marketing.  The general public knows that culture is not based on near-copy.

Without Shakespeare’s words, we no longer have Shakespeare’s plays.


Other thoughts about the Bard:
Happy Birthday, Mr. Shakespeare!

Recent writings:
Cousin Gary
Dost Thou Protest Enough?

About Kevin Delin

Kevin Delin is a Los Angeles-based writer and scientist. He has 4 degrees from MIT, including a PhD in physics, and co-authored Foundations of Applied Superconductivity, a popular internationally-used textbook on superconductivity. While at MIT, he also took writing courses from author Frank Conroy, poet Stephen Tapscott, and playwright A.R. Gurney, the latter becoming a life-long mentor. After a post-graduate stretch in Silicon Valley, he worked at NASA where he invented and patented the Sensor Web, a unique wireless sensor system suitable for Mars (and Earth). Kevin is also a member of the Antaeus Theatre Company Playwrights Lab. His numerous pieces on art and society have bylines in American Theatre, LA Weekly, Script Magazine, Footlights, and Stage Raw. His adventures include deploying his technology with firefighters in first response operations, inventing the future with venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and solving national security issues with generals inside the Pentagon. He’s the recipient of the prestigious NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal and, drawing from his extensive tech background, professionally advises storytellers who want to ground their work in science. He tweets at @kdelin and his stage plays can be found on the New Play Exchange. His other writings are at

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  1. I’m the sponsor of this project to translate Shakespeare. I agree with you that his plays do not need to be modernized in order for audiences to enjoy them! I have been seeing Shakespeare since I was a kid. One of my favorite experiences is spending an afternoon reading a play out-loud with friends and then seeing a live performance together that evening.

    If I don’t do that preparation, however, I don’t enjoy the performance nearly as much. I thought it would be a fun and fascinating experience to see Shakespeare translated into 21st century English so that I could have an experience more like Shakespeare’s original audience, seeing it in my native language without the four-hundred years of distance that we now have from his words.

    Some worry that translations will hurt the original somehow, but Shakespeare is stronger than that. They won’t damage his words any more than West Side Story has damaged Romeo and Juliet. Translate Molière from French to English and the original is still there, undamaged. In fact, good translations sometimes inspire people to study the original language so that they can have the “true” experience. I hope people will enjoy performances based on these translations, and I hope it will inspire some of them to study Shakespeare’s original words, hopefully even enjoy an original performance more than they would have otherwise.

    Every translation is a new work of art. If we are lucky, some of our translators may create art worthy of respect. I don’t expect us to replace Shakespeare or to surpass him. I do expect to learn something and go back to Shakespeare’s original words with new eyes.

    • monsterid

      Dave, I very much appreciate your taking the time to write in response to my article. Your passionate effort to bring Shakespeare to a wider audience is both extremely generous and laudable.

      What did you think of my idea to make the Variorum more digitally accessible? In addition, even when one understands the language of Shakespeare (however that process happens), Shakespeare’s plays cannot be truly appreciated without the context of Elizabethan culture. For example, people today need no “translation” to understand the literal meaning of “to swear an oath” yet we do not hold those words in the same binding way that the Shakespearean audiences understood them. A lack of awareness of the Elizabethan world – its expected mores, values, and customs – presents the real barrier to modern audiences for fully understanding the actions and motivations of the characters created by Shakespeare’s words.

      I wonder if it’s possible to extend your OSF project to include both a digitally modernized form of the Variorum (for the actors) and a popular, but scholarly-based, book on Elizabethan culture (for the audience)? Both of these would likely have very broad appeal and be of lasting value.

      • I LOVE these suggestions! Yes yes yes, a digital Variorum! As an actor and producer of the Bard, this would be hugely valuable. And I must add, I have been a part of a few productions after which audiences have asked if we updated the language. Nope, we just know what the hell we’re saying.

      • Actually Kevin, I think Furness would be in full agreement with the PlayOn project. In 1893 he wrote to Augustin Daly: “In the name of sanctity, why do you think I’ll be shocked at any changes which a modern playwright thinks best to make in the omission or transposition of scenes in Shakespeare. His stage is not our stage, his audiences are not our audiences.”
        Additionally, each project has been given their own dramaturg as well as a budget for research materials. I am certain the New Variorum (for the plays that have a NV) will be a key resource for the dramaturgs and playwrights.

    • It is ultimately unsurprising that someone with the means and honorable idea to “make accessible” the complicated works of a four hundred year old canon inspired this “translation project.” We are eradicating the idea of scholarship, intellect, and good old fashioned American work at something, because it’s easier to buy 12,000 Twitter followers than become a working artist.

      My issue is not with Dave and his $7 Million, but with the OSF for taking his money. The OSF. America’s premiere (we thought) Shakespeare Festival.

      A “translation project” belongs at a college. Or a high school. Or, come to think of it, grade school. I’m reminded of a coaching session in which one of Americas leading Shakespeareans listened to me speak the speech, and politely mentioned when I was through that, perhaps I should “revisit my third-grade grammar class”. Man, did that sting! Because he was right. I didn’t put in the work nor research to understand what I was saying. The first job of an actor.

      With this project, I am left with the feeling I had leaving the theatre after seeing Jurassic World: “Well, at least this film employed thousands of people so they could pay their rent.”

      So thank you for employing 36 professional writers Dave. I just wish it could be for something we actually need.

    • As a director and theatre practitioner with a slightly better than average exposure to Shakespeare, I, for one, am thrilled that Dave and OSF are supporting this effort, because the caliber of artist working on this project is very exciting. I can’t wait to see/hear/read what someone like Taylor Mac will bring to Titus, or Ellen McLaughlin to Pericles, or Lloyd Suh, or Naomi Iizuka, and so on.

      I have a few hassles with this piece: 1) it presumes that audiences are easily confused. If I’m watching a translation, I understand I’m watching a translation: I understand that Richard Wilbur is not Moliere, but I appreciate that Wilbur is helping me understand Moliere’s ideas, his comedy, and his point-of-view. 2) “But Shakespeare’s already in English!” Yes, and his syntax and word choices are sometimes extremely convoluted for an audience to parse at the speed of performance, no matter how hard actors and directors have worked to make it clear. Rigorous acting and direction are huge parts of effective Shakespeare practice, of course (and no one is saying that they shouldn’t happen) but they are not the magic bullets many claim they are: otherwise we wouldn’t be cutting these plays or making substitutions in actual practice. 3) There is an undercurrent in much of the criticism (this piece included) that something is being taken from you against your will, as you accuse the artists involved of being forgers and avow that you have no interest in supporting this project. Your analogy to Michelangelo falls apart when we realize that, unlike those paintings, the original plays still exist, can still be enjoyed, produced, whatever you like, as Shakespeare’s long lineage of editors intended. I believe audiences can understand this distinction as well, and if this project helps debunk the idea of “protestant work ethic” Shakespeare (i.e., “this is good for you and if you don’t understand it, it’s because you don’t work hard enough.”), then that seems like a worthwhile outcome.

      • monsterid

        a) It was Artistic Director Bill Rauch who made the analogy to painting restoration — as an attempt to justify the project. However, I’ll stand by my analogy of these translations (which are obviously distinct from adaptations) as the literary equivalent of forgery.

        b) I never wrote the audience had to work harder as you imply. I wrote the actors and the directors had to work harder. In fact, it is these translations that are based on the presumption that Shakespeare “is good for you.” And if Shakespeare is good for us, why not give us Shakespeare?

  2. A very interesting discussion taking place via this article. The debate is a long-standing one. City Arts Project was the first entity to create the full online Canon, back in 1994/95, and much discussion was held prior to the project, as to whether we should “publish” Canon content (First Folio) in original format, or use various pursuant editions. We opted to publish First Folio, whilst including as much additional versioning as possible in search returns (the repository was fully cross-indexed and searchable by word and/or phrase). This elicited a diversity of responses and reactions.

    Having produced and/or directed every play in the Canon during my previous career in theater, I hope I may claim a modicum of insight in to the accessibility of the language, and I suggest that both Kevin Delin and Dave Hitz hold very valid positions. The power of timeless literature is that it survives and surmounts any and all experiments, and is indeed, as Mr. Hitz suggested, more often than not elevated by the initiative(s): The Bible, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, The Canterbury Tales, et al – these and many other works merit celebration and exploration from a multitude of angles, be it the stories (regardless the linguistic packaging), the phraseological context, the meter, the prevailing sociopolitical realities (The Scottish Play was, among so many other things, an intense exercise in political pander, at the time).

    I say mess with the bard as much as you like, so long as you understand and respect that your efforts are all derivative. They may inspire new audiences, or awaken heretofore dormant perceptions, but all owe allegiance to the OB (Original Bard)…and even there we are not all resolved in agreement as to the identity! The Play’s the thing, wherein we’ll catch the value of that thing. The rest is silence…or words, words, words.

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