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Sound and fury for naught

What’s in a name? Much, if you are a devotee of Shakespeare — and much more, if you should endeavor to translate the Bard’s words to be better understood by modern audiences.

That was the challenge taken on by the Play On Shakespeare project: to commission 36 playwrights to translate all 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but without losing the time period, the cadence and the heightened language. The idea began at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which secured a grant to translate five plays. Then a larger grant made it possible to expand the work to all 39 plays in the canon.

The undertaking was seen as heresy by some. Alter the Bard’s words? “Translate” his timeless work? Nothing good could come of this.

A petition was started at MoveOn.org. It has attracted only 150 signatures in three years, although it was still attracting signers as recently as last month.

“ ‘Simplifying’ Shakespeare?” reads one comment from June of this year. “That’s like making an abridged version of Beethoven’s Ninth, or a twenty-minute condensed cut of Citizen Kane ... ”

Well, not exactly. The idea is not to condense or shorten the plays — the Reduced Shakespeare Company has cornered the market on that, anyway — but to carefully update the language to make it more easily understandable to speakers of modern English.

All’s well, we say. If Play On brings a new audience, that’s a good thing. And if you prefer your Shakespeare in the original, to thine own self be true.