Re-Branding McShakespeare

by Cynthia Wands

Artwork by Cynthia Wands
Artwork by Cynthia Wands











Both McDonalds (French fries, Ronald McDonald, Cheeseburgers) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear) have a problem.  They’re both trying to rebrand their image to the public, and oh the noise.

McDonalds recently broadcast that they are no longer using margarine, they’re now using butter.  And furthermore:  “The company announced recently that it would stop selling chickens that have been raised with antibiotics that could affect human health, and milk from cows that had been treated with growth hormones. They introduced low-calorie “artisan grilled chicken” sandwiches..”  The New York Magazine, November 2, 2015: Freedom From Fries

And then the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced it would launch a new project:  “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for today’s audiences to understand. It recently announced that over the next three years, it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.”  The New York Times, October 7, 2015: Shakespeare in Modern English

The artistic director of the Festival, cited his deep interest in rewriting the plays of Shakespeare: “My interest in the question of how to best create access to these remarkable works is life-long,” OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said. “As a seventh grader, I translated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into contemporary English for my classmates to better understand it. I am delighted that the Play on! translations will give dramatists a deep personal relationship with Shakespeare’s words and that they will give artists and audiences new insights into these extraordinary plays.”  Broadway World Article, September 9, 2015: OSF to Translate Shakespeare’s Plays for Modern Audiences

And The New Yorker chimed in:  “Last week, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it had commissioned thirty-six playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. The backlash began immediately, with O.S.F. devotees posting their laments on the festival’s Facebook page. “What a revolting development!” “Is there really a need to translate English into Brain Dead American?” “Why not just rewrite Shakespeare in emoticons and text acronyms?” Beneath the opprobrium lay a shared assumption: that Shakespeare’s genius inheres not in his complicated characters or carefully orchestrated scenes or subtle ideas but in the singularity of his words. James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, used a regionally apt analogy to express this opinion: “Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It’s like the beer I drink. I drink 8.2 per cent I.P.A., and by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light. Bud Light’s acceptable, but it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of that language.”  The New Yorker, Why we Mostly Stopped Messing with Shakespeare’s Language

Afterwards, Bill Rauch wrote an essay,  American Theatre Magazine, October 14, 2015: Bill Rauch Why We’re Translating Shakespeare, giving more insights as to the project:  “First of all, I question the dangerously elitist assumption that old language is superior and new forms of language are somehow inferior. Shakespeare brilliantly invented new words at an alarming rate, sometimes daringly mashing up language from the streets with heightened poetry. I am not the first to observe that Shakespeare would probably have been a hip-hop artist were he alive today.”

If this project needed more buy-in, Mr. Rauch also plugged the culture correctness of the casting of the players on the project.  “The Play on! project, by commissioning more than 50 percent women writers and more than 50 percent writers of color, will bring a range of diverse voices and perspectives to the works of Shakespeare…” (Will we ever get to a time in our history when this is a given, and not a promotional note?)

The comments at the end of the American Theatre Magazine article were fully of noise, fury and some enthusiasm and defensive wordsmithing.

It is rather disconcerting to hear that the Artistic Director still references his seventh grade translation of “A Midsummer’s Night” so his classmates could better understand it. I’m not sure that’s a real recommendation (unless, of course, we can find some of his seventh grade classmates and ask them to weigh in on this project.) And somehow, likening Shakespeare to a hip-hop artist makes me rather tired. Yes, or course, Shakespeare was a man of his time. I just don’t know that he would have that whole hip-hop thing down.

What I’m more interested in are the original plays that OSF is developing –  the American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a 10-year commissioning program of 37 plays that spring from moments of change in U.S. history. And yes, one of those plays, All the Way, won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014.

So, in three years, OSF will have 36 new (adaptations? translations? or per Bill Rauch: “specify up?”) Shakespeare plays.  And in ten years, we’ll have 37 original plays.

I sense a culture of Hollywood’s sequel-madness in this Shakespeare adaptation / translation / mash up.  (“The Avengers: 4”; “Fast and Furious: 7”; “Mission Impossible”: 8). I did wonder what they will title the “newly adapted”, “translated” (mashed up?) Shakespeare plays.


So I offer you possible titles of the upcoming plays at OSF:

“Twelfth Night” now known as “11.5 Night”

“The Tempest” or “The Very Bad Storm”

and lastly:

“Two Gentleman of Verona” now appearing as “Two Millennials Try Hooking Up Without That Iambic Pentameter”


And after I read all this press, I found the blog Bitter Gertrude, which has some great comments at the end of her article, including a comment from the man who is subsidizing the series, (Dave Hitz).

Bitter Gertrude, October 13, 2015: The Problem with the Shakespeare Translation Controversy

And then I read this in the Bitter Gertrude blog: “OSF has no plans to stage them either, apart from the developmental readings.”

Oh. So these are developmental readings. Not scheduled stage productions. All of this press, all this angst, is about a series of developmental readings. It does seem more than much ado about nothing.













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