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Translating Shakespeare: or, How to Evangelize and Not Be Eaten by a Bear

May 14, 2018


At the end of a tiring, busy day, have you ever thought, “Ah, yes, I need to unwind. I’ll curl up on the sofa with . . . a copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”

No? I suspected as much.  

Good—you are the perfect audience for the rest of this piece.

One of the most noticeable things about reading (or seeing) a Shakespeare play is that . . . well, the language is pretty weird, isn’t it? As an English professor, it’s easy to forget just how strange Shakespeare’s language is to people who (very understandably) are familiar only with modern prose. Fortunately, I’ve been teaching Shakespeare in my classes for many years now, so that every year I have a fresh reminder that the language is rather opaque.  

Here is Prospero speaking to his daughter in The Tempest:

I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father.

Thee, thou, art, nought . . . Outside of Renaissance Faires, we don’t talk to each other like that.

We also don’t use many of the vocabulary words and phrases that were common in Shakespeare’s day. Consider this bit from Hamlet, in which Hamlet is chastising himself for his lack of courage in speaking up about the murder of his father:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light, 
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.

Oh—wait, wrong excerpt.

(You may see where I’m going with this.)

Here’s Shakespeare:

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal: bloody, bawdy villain!

Despite the absence of any confusing thees and thous, this passage is bound to be difficult for modern readers. To be sure, a reader with a very good vocabulary will recognize the unfamiliar pate (skull, head), and kite” (in this context, a bird of prey, not a child’s toy). Even so, the cultural context means that some of the words and phrases are difficult to understand. To insult someone, we might make an obscene gesture, but not yank on a man’s beard, and we don’t swear by God’s wounds (‘swounds). We’re also not used to reading verse, so the line-breaks are distracting to most readers who are (naturally) accustomed to prose.

In short, Shakespeare’s language is difficult for modern readers. The plays are tremendously rewarding when we get into them: the characters, Shakespeare’s insight into human nature, the imagery—it’s all rich and engaging! But it’s a richness that is hard to enter into.

What do you do if you don’t happen to be in a college class with a professor who 1) is making you read it, and 2) can help you understand it? Well, you probably don’t read the plays, because there are lots of other things that are also worth reading, and that you can understand when you read them. A very reasonable decision.

Now consider how the language of the Nicene Creed—and indeed of many of our explanations of Christian doctrine—uses language that is unfamiliar to most modern people. Begotten? Consubstantial? Incarnate? Those are technical words. Even the phrases that sound more conversational are difficult: “true God from true God.”

The precise language of the Creed is very important, because it conveys an astounding amount of information in a relatively short space. This precision of language and this specificity of meaning is both essential and valuable for the Christian: the Creed helps keep us firm in the truth and prevents us from drifting off into error. But to benefit from it, people need a full, meaningful grasp of the words. Helping people to gain that grasp of the meaning is an essential part of discipleship and evangelization.

What creates a problem is forgetting that we have to do the work of meaning-making. When we attempt to share our faith with someone, and we don’t attend to the way we use words like salvation, incarnation, or even Holy Spirit, we may end up being about as comprehensible as if we’d started speaking in Elizabethan English.

I’ve written at length elsewhere (in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination) about the necessity of establishing meaning for terms like these, which are either empty or confused for many people today.

As we consider the analogy with Shakespearean language, the approach of translation may come to mind. Although the Christian terms that we need to imbue with meaning are already in modern English, translating them into different words and phrases could help people grasp the ideas. This seems logical . . . perhaps even too simple. Are we missing anything?

Perhaps we should consider whether it works to translate Shakespeare?


If you ever wish to stir up trouble (ahem, lively discussion) at a gathering of English-literature people, I have a sure-fire recipe for success: propose that we should translate Shakespeare into modern English!

Just be prepared to live out that famous stage direction from The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by bear.”

I’ve tried this experiment myself, and I can vouch for the way that a seemingly mild-mannered English prof can become positively ferocious in defense of reading Shakespeare always and everywhere in the original text, for ever and ever amen.

If (like most of the world) you are not an English professor, you may be wondering exactly what the big deal is. Surely, it is obvious that most readers are not well-versed in Elizabethan English? Wouldn’t a translation be useful? What’s the big deal?

The anti-translating-Shakespeare argument has three main points—and all three of them have parallels in Christian apologetics.

The first is that translation is wrong, and the second and third are that it’s unnecessary:

1. Dumbing down a text is a bad thing to do.

2. Translation isn’t necessary. If you don’t know a word, just look it up.

3. You can get the gist of the story even without understanding every word.

Let’s look at each in turn.


1. Dumbing down a text is a bad thing to do.


But translation doesn’t necessarily mean oversimplification. If it does oversimplify, it’s a bad translation. (Hello, “No Fear Shakespeare,” which I banned from my undergrad classes.) If translation per se were bad, we could not read any work written in a foreign language without learning the language. Want to read the Divine Comedy? Learn Italian! Want to read War and Peace? Learn Russian! Want to read the Bible? Learn Hebrew and Greek! Hmmm, we have a problem.

Even within a language, both grammar and vocabulary change over time.  That’s why it’s necessary to study Old English in order to read Beowulf in the original, and Middle English to read The Canterbury Tales in the original. Eventually, Shakespeare’s plays will have to be translated . . . and so will works of modern English that we’re reading right now, today.

The reason that translating Shakespeare feels like it must necessarily be dumbing down the play is that much of Shakespeare’s language does not absolutely require translation at this point, especially for the reader who is experienced with older texts and understands how verse works. Surely, we don’t need a translation for “To be, or not to be, that is the question . . .”! No, not for that; some parts of Shakespeare are clearer than others even for a new reader.

What Shakespeare enthusiasts can forget is that it doesn’t take much incomprehensible Elizabethan English to make a reader give up. Why would you go on reading something when large sections of it are completely opaque? And how much confidence would you have that you actually do understand the bits that seem understandable? 

“Translating” concepts of Christian theology and doctrine into modern language may feel unnecessary— because we speak the language. It is meaningful to us . . . but not for others. Language change happens slowly and silently; similarly, the tide of religious incomprehension has been rising for decades now, and the result is that a lot of what we say merely sounds Christian-y without conveying real content.

It is not a matter of intelligence to know (or not know) words that are no longer in common use, or to know allusions to events and people long past. The fact is that even well-educated people today have often very little knowledge of Scripture or Christian teaching; they don’t have the context to even begin to understand what we’re talking about. Helping to provide that context is not dumbing-down; it’s meeting people where they are. Where else could we expect to meet them?


2. Translation isn’t necessary. If you don’t know a word, just look it up.

Ah, says the Shakespeare enthusiast: you don’t need a translation, you can get a good edition of the play and use the footnotes and a dictionary!

Reading a text with the aid of supporting materials is helpful, but it is also hard work. A reader will only make the effort if he or she has already been convinced that the payoff is worth it . . . and without any prior engagement with the joys of Shakespeare, the reader has no grounds for believing it’s worth the effort.

When I was a teenager—though I was an avid reader—I found Shakespeare to be a dull slog, and reading plays like Julius Caesar in English class was an exercise in tedium. That all changed when, serendipitously, I saw Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Henry V. Wow! I didn’t understand half of what the characters were saying, but oh, that King Henry (swoon)! I was swept off my feet, and it motivated me to read more of the work by this fellow Shakespeare, and to learn to enjoy it.

But I would never have bothered without that schoolgirl crush on Kenneth Branagh.

Indeed, there are lots of things I can do with my free time other than read a Shakespeare play. Many of those things are harmless, wholesome, even very good and productive things. There is no pressing reason why I should read, say, Romeo and Juliet and not Pride and Prejudice. Reading a novel is much less work; it’s natural that I’d prefer that.

As Christians, we can’t assume that people already know that our faith is valuable and worth the effort of investigating. They don’t; that realization is part of the process of evangelization, not the starting point. 

If people are to do the hard work of understanding Christian ideas, and of reading Holy Scripture, they need to have a reason to be interested. The work of imaginative apologetics is, in a sense, the work of translation: taking ideas and stories and embodying them in new images and contexts, so that they come to life for the reader or viewer. Only when the larger context is intriguing does it make sense for someone to take the time and effort to understand the specific details of a text—even one as important (to us) as Holy Scripture.


3. You can get the gist of the story even without understanding every word.


Hamlet is about a man who can’t make up his mind whether or not to kill the murderer of his father. Various people die along the way.

Macbeth is a story about a man whose ambition prompts him to murder his king. It doesn’t end well. There are witches.

Romeo and Juliet is about two teenaged kids from families at war with each other, who fall in love and make poor decisions along the way. They die.

Hmmm . . . something’s missing . . . and what’s missing is the point.

Sure, you can draw enough out of a Shakespeare play to get the general plot and identify the characters, but that’s not enough to really experience the play. You might be able to get enough out of it to squeak through your literature professor’s test, but it certainly isn’t the sort of thing that you’d choose to do on your own . . . and it certainly won’t have a lasting impact on you.

And that’s assuming that you’ve gotten an accurate gist of the story.

How often do we encounter people who think they’ve gotten the gist of the story about our faith? “Christianity is about God punishing people for not believing in Him.” “Catholics worship Mary.”

If we leave people to just get the general sense of what our faith is about, by making the best (or worst) guess about the meaning of words and ideas that are alien to them, we can reasonably expect mayhem to ensue.

In Shakespeare’s day, even illiterate people flocked to see his plays. Sure, there were parts that only some of the audience would have picked up on, but the play as a whole was something that everyone could understand at a solid level, without having it explained to them. The language was their modern language; the references were to their modern politics and popular culture. Similarly, even fifty years ago, people had a basic frame of reference for understanding Christianity. They understood references to Scripture; they knew the basic points of Christian doctrine, even if they didn’t agree.

Alas, today, all that is gone. It is to be sorely regretted that it is gone—and it would be good work indeed if a revival of classical schools (secular as well as Christian) brought about a renewal of cultural literacy with regard to the Scriptures and Christian tradition—but the simple fact is that right now, today, it’s gone. We have to meet people where they are, not where they might have been if culture had gone on a different trajectory for the last few decades.


The bear

But is there nothing to fear as we embark on translating Christian ideas?

No. We do have things to fear. It is possible to translate badly; it is possible to water down ideas when we try to make them comprehensible to others. It’s also possible to forget that translation is just the first step, not the last step. But these are healthy fears that, when balanced with a commitment to sharing the faith, will help keep us on track.

Translations do not destroy the original. Someone who reads, and loves, Tales from Shakespeare as a child will be able, when older, to turn to the full plays themselves. Branagh’s film version of Henry V uses an abridged version of the play, as most films do, to keep the running time within the expectations of modern-day audiences; but I was able to then read the full play for myself.

Every year, I lead students through the reading of at least one, usually several, Shakespeare plays. They’re almost always deeply skeptical, even resistant. But by the time we’re done, they’ve come to understand and appreciate the plays; they’ve discovered that Shakespeare is in fact highly relevant and insightful for our modern day . . . and some of them have discovered, much to their own surprise, that Shakespeare is fantastically good and they love him!

It’s quite remarkable that we can achieve this, even for some people, with a sixteenth-century dramatist; but we must concede that not quite everyone is going to like Shakespeare. That’s okay.

But if Shakespeare is almost universal in his appeal, our faith is truly universal—and this should give us hope. Christian language can be translated; it can be made meaningful, even for a distracted and confused age; we can help to lead people Home.