Shakespeare Lives

‘Thou Art Translated!’ | Shakespeare Lives!

David Cottis brings together the topics discussed at three panels for the Shakespeare Lives! season curated by the British Council and hosted by Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.

At ‘Shakespeare in Translation’, one of the panel discussions accompanying Shakespeare Lives!, a season of films marking the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, and organized by Chapter Arts Centre and the British Council, Paul Prescott commented on the three meanings that the word ‘translation’ had for an Elizabethan audience:

‘One is to transform, metamorphose, change; as in “O Bottom, thou art translated” when Bottom comes back with the ass’s head [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream]. The second is about linguistic translation from one language to another. And the third refers to interpretation, so to translate something is to say what you think it means. So we get in Hamlet, when just after Hamlet has killed Polonius and Gertrude is just left alone and she makes these sounds, and Claudius comes in and says “There’s matter in these sighs, these profound heaves. You must translate, ’tis fit we understand them”.’

By this third definition, any production of a Shakespeare play is inevitably a translation. The plays shift their meaning in different times and circumstances; to take an obvious example, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Henry V as a wartime flagwaver is a very different film from Kenneth Branagh’s mud-soaked 1989 version, but both are clearly versions of Shakespeare’s play, as is Robert Hastie’s gender-swapped version currently playing at Regent’s Park, with Michelle Terry as the warrior king. The idea of a ‘straightforward’ production is an illusion; every production must make choices that imply interpretation – casting a tall actor immediately takes away possibilities that would be open if you cast a short one.

Film and television versions are ‘translations’ in another way – William Shakespeare is a writer who celebrates the theatrical, and any film-maker must find cinematic equivalents for his artifice. Again, Henry V provides a good example; the play starts with the Chorus setting out the contract with the audience:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance [armies].
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them,
Printing their proud hoofs i’th’ receiving earth:
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
Turning th’accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass.

(Henry V, Chorus I, Lines 23-31)

The speech is simultaneously an apology for, and a celebration of, the nature of the theatre. How can this be translated into the more visual, literal medium of film? The two film versions provide different answers. Olivier starts in a version of the Globe Theatre, gradually increasing the cinematic realism throughout the film, with the Battle of Agincourt shot on location (in war-neutral Ireland), then returning to the Globe for the end. Branagh opens in a film studio, with Derek Jacobi’s Chorus lighting striking a match as he summons the ‘muse of fire’ and (literally) opening the door to the cinematic world.

These questions become more focused when the play is ‘translated’ in the second sense, transposed into another language or, as in cases like West Side Story (1957, filmed 1961) into the language of (roughly) our own time. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made three films adapted from Shakespeare: Throne of Blood (1957), based on Macbeth, The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which transposes Hamlet to a modern business-world setting, and Ran (1985), an adaptation of King Lear. Gwyneth Lewis, the first Welsh laureate, and another member of the ‘Shakespeare in Translation’ panel, talked about the way in which the latter film found a non-verbal equivalent for Shakespeare’s verse-form, the iambic pentameter:

‘I was fascinated to listen to the soundtrack, which was wonderful, it was almost as if you had natural sounds throughout. It was almost as if Kurosawa was letting the meter wind away in the background, so there was a sense of rhythm throughout was almost the omitted poetry.’

Rebecca Gould, who chaired the panel on ‘Shakespeare and the Musical’, made a similar point about Jerome Robbins’ use of dance in West Side Story: ‘It’s got all the elements of iambic pentameter; it’s got the heart-stopping shared lines, shared rhythms, shared dance moves that we see in Romeo and Juliet, which is an early play but a play with some of the most fantastic language in the canon.’

Ran also translates verbal imagery into visual, as when the Lady Macbeth-like villainess surreptitiously crushes a moth under her cloak, in analogy to Gloucester’s ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport’ (Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 36-7). An audience member suggested that this was, in a way, truer to Shakespeare’s play than a more ‘traditional’ production could have been:

‘The thing that for me makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is this idea that, as Peter Brook said, every line is like an atom and you can explode it a thousand different ways, so actually it is more possible to be Shakespeare on film, because you can show those many pictures.’

Gwyneth Lewis picked up this idea, arguing that ‘perhaps one of the signs of a great artist in one medium is the fact that they are moving on to another medium already, a medium that hasn’t been invented yet, and in this case it was the pop video, in Shakespeare each metaphor is a sort of video.’

Both Ran and West Side Story retain the bare bones of their Shakespearean originals, (Prescott described the plot of Ran as ‘reduced to mythical rhythm rather than reproduced in detail’), while making some significant changes. Ran combines Lear with the Japanese legend of Morikawa and changes the patriarch’s three daughters to sons – Kurosawa argued it wouldn’t be credible for a woman to inherit a kingdom in 17th century Japan. He also eliminated the Gloucester subplot while, as Prescott pointed out, keeping elements from it:

‘[Kurosawa] says “Well, that’s good, I need to have a blind person in some way on this Heath. That’s good. That works in Shakespeare.” But here it becomes interesting because it’s a previous victim of the Lear character, and what Kurosawa is very keen is to do is to provide some sort of backstory. And it’s a horrendous backstory. Shakespeare is sometimes quite silent about his lead characters’ backstories; Lear says very little about what he did before he started this play. But in Kurosawa we keep getting these hideous revelations of what the Lear character has done to previous generations, and actually to future generations. He’s blinded this kid; he’s gouged his eyes out, and this kid will come as a figure of Nemesis and haunt him in his madness. But again that’s Kurosawa with that magpie eye, just like Shakespeare, thinking “I can use that image of the blind confronting the mad that otherwise I’m cutting out of the play.”.’

Translation is this sense can be about a director or adaptor looking at some of the unanswered questions in the play, and answering them for the audience. Another unanswered question is that of what happened to Lear’s Queen, who is absent from the play in a manner similar to that of Miranda’s mother in The Tempest – Juliet apart, mother/daughter relationships are rarely dealt with in Shakespeare. Miranda’s Letter, a short film written and directed by Teresa Griffiths, gives voice to this unseen character, taking the form of a letter to Miranda from her mother, and is one of a series of films commissioned by the British Council as part of the Shakespeare Lives festival.

If Miranda’s Letter focuses on a parent that Shakespeare ignores, West Side Story does the reverse. Where Romeo and Juliet shows the conflict between generations, the musical takes place almost exclusively among the young characters, with parents only appearing as offscreen voices. The few adult characters that we see are either comic or ineffective: Doc, the drugstore owner, is a loose equivalent to Friar Laurence, but without that character’s sense of agency, the policemen are either racist or mockable. The world of the musical is thus very much one of youth, and battles between youth factions.

The other significant change, and one that has had an influence (not always a positive one) on productions of the original play, is also a question of backstory. Shakespeare never tells us the basis of the feud that separates the families (we’d told in the second line that’s an ‘ancient grudge’ and that’s about it), whereas West Side Story makes it explicitly a racial turf war, between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Jets a mix of Irish, Italian and Polish, described in Arthur Laurents’ libretto as ‘an anthology of what is called “American”’. (One of the few respects in which the film has dated is its use of artificial skin-darkening for some of the actors playing Puerto Ricans; Natalie Wood in particular is the least convincing Hispanic in film history.)

This immediately makes the story a more American one – American history, at least in the last century, is the story of the relationships between different groups of immigrants. Jerome Robbins had originally conceived the idea of a New York Romeo and Juliet in the ‘forties, then calling it East Side Story and setting it among Jewish and Catholic gangs. It wasn’t until the mid ‘fifties that he returned to the idea, with Leonard Bernstein composing and the 24 year-old Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics. By this time what we now think of as youth culture had begun – Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One were made in 1954, Elvis Presley had recorded ‘That’s Alright, Mama’ the same year. West Side Story is a show that could only have been written in a very specific period – it comes out of rock culture, but makes no reference to rock ‘n’ roll in its score.

The most successful marriage of Shakespeare with rock’n’roll occurs in the work of Bob Carlton, the writer behind From a Jack to a King (1992), a music biz version of Macbeth, and the West End hit Return to the Forbidden Planet (1983), which adapts the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956) together with that film’s original inspiration, The Tempest. These combine Shakespearean pastiche (‘But soft, what light through yonder air-lock breaks.’) with classic, mostly pre-1966 rock songs, so that Return’s Miranda will lament her romantic difficulties with Frankie Lymon/Marty Wilde’s ‘Teenager In Love’.   Carlton’s achievement here is to find the connection between two forms born of cultural miscegenation – the iambic pentameter, born when Sackville and Norton (and later, Christopher Marlowe) fused Latin verse forms with Anglo-Saxon rhythms, and rock‘n’roll, Sam Phillips’ combination of rhythm and blues (black, urban) with country and western (white, rural).

Carlton’s adaptations are the most successful British additions to the sub-genre of the Shakespearean musical, which tends to be an American form: West Side Story, Kiss me Kate (1948, filmed 1953), which finds an equivalent of The Taming of the Shrew’s induction and framing device in its use of backstage romance, The Boys From Syracuse (1938, filmed 1940), which retains a single line of The Comedy of Errors and adds a Rodgers and Hart score that includes ‘This Can’t Be Love’, and Julie Taymor’s stage version of The Lion King (1997) which adapts both Hamlet and the 1994 Disney film. (There is a website which lays out the similarities and differences between play and film, finishing with the helpful information that ‘Hamlet, unlike The Lion King, takes place among people’.)

Where The Lion King travelled from screen to stage, and was completely reimagined in the process. West Side Story went in the opposite direction with small changes, particularly to song order. Onstage, the songs ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ and ‘I Feel Pretty’, both light in tone, come in the second half, after the death of Riff, the musical’s equivalent of Mercutio.   In the film, the director Robert Wise, feeling the need to ratchet up the tension, moved both to the first half, replacing ‘Krupke’ with the first act’s ‘Cool’. (As Gareth Griffiths pointed out, this created a slight problem since the character who sings ‘Cool’ in the original has died by the time the song appears in the film, so Wise created a new character called Ice – ‘”Ice-Cool”; you can see the joke there.’ – to sing the song.)

This alteration makes an interesting point about the nature of the two media – theatre can accommodate sudden switches from tragedy to comedy (as Shakespeare himself realised, with his comic Porters and Gravediggers, who appear at moments of high tragedy, thereby annoying the hell out of French classical critics like Voltaire, who described Hamlet as a ‘vulgar and barbarous play’). Film, by contrast, has a momentum – once the tragic machinery is in place, nothing can get in its way.


All of these adaptations raise the question of ‘Is it Shakespeare?’. Prescott said that perhaps a more important question is ‘Does it matter?’:

‘There’s a lot of ink spilt about this is the academy; about the various gradations and various taxonomies of adaptation – what is an offshoot, what is an adaptation, what is a so-called ‘tradaptation’ and so on. And it really worries some people whether we can call something Shakespeare or Shakespearean, because there are various cultural politics surrounding this; there is the authority of Shakespeare’s name. It doesn’t bother me for a second one way or the other.’

The issue here is partly one of ownership. As Prescott said, William Shakespeare is a figure of some cultural authority, and plays a major part in discussions of what it is to be British – he was invoked by both sides during the recent EU referendum debate, with one correspondent in the Guardian, a few days after the result, quoting Richard II: ‘That England, which was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ (Act II, Scene 5, Lines 65/66).

The author’s status as a national symbol can lead to certain cultural insecurities – the belief that the author’s work belongs primarily to a specific gender, accent or even ethnicity, and an elevation of the texts to the status of holy writ. Prescott referred to last year’s teacup tempest over the Barbican Hamlet which (at least in preview) moved the ‘To be or not to be.’ soliloquy to the beginning of the play. (Lewis argued that this wasn’t blasphemy but ‘I thought it was bad drama.’)

Of course, a Shakespearean text is not itself a stable thing; the plays for which we have multiple versions (notably Hamlet and King Lear) show an ongoing process of revision and editing (‘translation’ in Prescott’s first sense). Indeed, the First Quarto of Hamlet places the debated soliloquy much earlier in the play, and at least one twentieth-century actor-manager held that it had to go at the start, on the grounds that Hamlet couldn’t credibly describe death as ‘the undiscover’d country/From whose bourne no traveller returns’ after seeing the Ghost.

Shakespeare himself, as a political dramatist, was much preoccupied with this question of authority, and how it is expressed through language; the presence of Welsh- and French-speaking characters in the Histories raises the question of how conquering a language is part of conquering a people, and in The Tempest, Prospero’s authority over Caliban is partly symbolized by the fact that he (or his daughter) taught him language. Lewis’ Welsh translation of the play Y Storm, first seen at the National Eisteddfod in Camarthen in 2012, emphasized this by casting Simon Nehan, at that time a Welsh learner, as Caliban.

At times, Shakespeare is the writer who symbolises British cultural expansionism, as when Geoffrey Kendal toured his productions round post-war India, the basis of the Merchant/Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), in which Felicity Kendal (Geoffrey’s daughter) plays out a fictionalized version of her own sister’s relationship with the classical Indian actor Shashi Kapoor. Salman Rushdie revealed in a recent talk at the Hay Festival that this company had provided him with his first exposure to Shakespeare, and set up a love for the author that has carried on; Rushdie this year wrote the introduction for Lunatics, Lovers and Poets, an anthology of short stories by English and Spanish-speaking authors inspired by Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, who also died in 1616.

However, Shakespeare isn’t just the voice of the establishment; his plays show an ambiguity that enables them to give voice to the ruled as much as the rulers: one of the great icons of the struggles against South African apartheid was the ‘Robben Island Bible’, an edition of the Complete Works in which political prisoners had marked their favourite passages. Nelson Mandela’s was from Julius Caesar – ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant only taste of death but once.’ (Act II, Scene 2, Lines 32/33).

On a less extreme level, the plays have inspired many companies that seek to give expression to voices and groups that have otherwise been marginalized: Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides has reclaimed the plays for the regional accent, while actors with disabilities have been foregrounded by companies like Deafinately Theatre, who have performed British Sign Language versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost (perhaps the most verbally complex play in the English language) at Shakespeare’s Globe, and the inclusive Taking Flight, currently touring Romeo and Juliet round open-air venues in South Wales. Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae Theatre, has recently been working in Bangladesh with actors with disabilities on a British Council-funded adaptation entitled A Different Romeo and Juliet.

One of the Chapter screenings was a ‘live’ broadcast of a stage production that raised some of these questions – Sarah Frankcom’s production of Hamlet, seen at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, with Maxine Peake in the title role. This was accompanied by a panel discussion on ‘Gender and Cross-Casting in Shakespeare’, chaired with Carol Rutter, with Yvonne Murphy, who last year directed an all-female Henry VI at the Wales Millennium Centre, and actors Hannah O’Leary, who played the King in that production, and Lisa Zahra.

Murphy and Frankcom’s production were both part of a recent wave of all-female and cross-cast Shakespeares that also includes Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar and Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and, coming up later this year, Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, with Tamsin Greig as ‘Malvolia’.

While part of this is connected with recent debates about the constructed nature of gender, part of it is a simple bid to even out the playing-field. As Murphy pointed out, of the 981 characters in Shakespeare, only 155 are female – roughly 16%, with only 13% of the total having 500 lines or more. Casting women as men, or changing the sex of a character, can both help to bring those proportions of the cast closer to those of the audience (and, indeed, of the human race).

Rutter made a distinction between what she referred to as ‘gender-blind’, and ‘cross-gender’ casting. The former involves an actor playing a part not of his or her own gender, as when Mark Rylance plays Cleopatra, or Maxine Peake Hamlet. Cross-gender casting involves a change for the character, as when (again in Frankcom’s production), Polonius became Polonia, or Claire Benedict, as the Player Queen, took on the lines of the Player King.

Gender-blind casting is by far the older tradition – Shakespeare himself was writing for an all-male troupe, and he exploited this, with the multiple layers of ambiguity in a play like As You Like It. Women playing men is a younger tradition, but not much so, especially for certain parts: as Rutter pointed out, quoting Women as Hamlet by Tony Howard: ‘the first Hamlet on film was a woman [Sarah Bernhardt], the first Hamlet on radio was a woman [Eve Donne], and in periods of crisis, political crisis, social crisis, Hamlet returns to us as a woman.’

Casting a woman as a male character (or vice versa) inevitably changes certain things. Rutter used a musical analogy:

‘If you’re orchestrating something, and you orchestrate with piccolos as opposed to cellos something different is going to come out of the music, and if you cast women’s voices something is going to come out differently of the sound the play is making for an audience.’

Gender-blind casting can function as a kind of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt,; Murphy argued that when you ‘hear those words out of a woman’s mouth, you start to hear those words for the first time.’ This is especially true of Hamlet; the play is, among many other things, an examination of masculinity, and casting a woman can act as a defamiliarisation of that concept, and what it means. Murphy described Peake’s performance as ‘gender -neutral’ and saw it as part of ‘a huge seismic shift’ in modern thought, moving towards a world in which we ‘have less binary definitions around masculine and feminine and actually start describing people as “people”, and not just defining them by their gender…. It’s a really interesting place that we’re going to, a much more interesting place.’

Cross-gender, changing the sex of the character, is a more radical shift, and one which inevitably alters the nature of the character’s relationships. This can affect the dynamic in interesting ways: Polonius becoming Polonia threw a different light on the character’s relationship with her children, particularly Ophelia, creating one of those mother/daughter relationships that Shakespeare rately portrays. Rutter also commented on the effect of having the Player King/Queen’s speech on the fall of Troy spoken by a female voice:

‘Suddenly this woman’s voice in a powerful way was telling us this story of slaughter and it made me think “How many times in so many scenes of war around the world, if we look at Syria, if we look at Europe in crisis, if we look throughout history, it’s the women who are left to pick up the pieces, trying to feed the children, find the water, rebuild some houses, so that the men can once again take the boy children off to war?” In Benedict’s Player Queen, I found that elision of the feminine with the male story profoundly important.’

When Bottom is ‘translated’ into a human/ass hybrid, the transformation leads him into a series of adventures, including a romance with the fairy Queen Titania. Returned to human form, he muses:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he but go about t’expound this dream. […] The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of my dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’, because it has no bottom, and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 201-213)

The play is silent as to whether Bottom has been changed by his adventures in the woods. Similarly, all ‘translations’ of Shakespeare plays affect our perception of the original, while still leaving it intact, available for the next generation of directors, adaptors and translators. It’s precisely this ambiguity and openness that has kept the plays alive for the four hundred years since the author’s death, ensuring that, like Bottom’s dream, the well of Shakespeare translation has no bottom.

David Cottis

This piece contains material from three panels that took place at Chapter Arts Centre in the Shakespeare Lives! Season:

‘Shakespeare and the Musical’, chaired by Rebecca Gould, with David Cottis and Gareth Griffiths, 17th April 2016.

‘Shakespeare In Translation’, chaired by Siobhan Brennan, with Dr. Gwyneth Lewis and Dr. Paul Prescott, 24th April 2016.

‘Gender and Cross-Casting in Shakespeare’, chaired by Professor Carol Rutter, with Yvonne Murphy, Hannah O’Leary and Lisa Zahra, 1st May 2016.

All Shakespeare quotations and references are from the Oxford edition, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.





David Cottis is a Lecturer in Scriptwriting at the University of Middlesex

This piece contains material from three panels that took place at Chapter Arts Centre in the Shakespeare Lives! Season:

‘Shakespeare and the Musical’, chaired by Rebecca Gould, with David Cottis and Gareth Griffiths, 17th April 2016.

‘Shakespeare In Translation’, chaired by Siobhan Brennan, with Dr. Gwyneth Lewis and Dr. Paul Prescott, 24th April 2016.

‘Gender and Cross-Casting in Shakespeare’, chaired by Professor Carol Rutter, with Yvonne Murphy, Hannah O’Leary and Lisa Zahra, 1st May 2016.

All Shakespeare quotations and references are from the Oxford edition, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.