Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Shakespeare for Slackers

Recently, I was editing John Poulsen's Shakespeare for Reader's Theater and was looking around to see what other books might represent competition to our series, when author Mike Plested turned me on to the Shakespeare for Slackers series by Aaron Kite. I picked up the softcover Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet for $7.99; Macbeth is only $6.99. And they are absolutely brilliant. They work on so many different levels its hard to know where to begin.

(Well, I began by showing it to my 14-year-old daughter, who immediately fell out of her chair laughing. She's taken my copy and won't give it back. Instead she took it to school to show her equally nerdy friends. They too all immediately fell in love with it. I can't tell you how great it is to see a group of teens sitting around reading Shakespeare aloud to each other! If I were still teaching high school English, I would drop copies strategically around the school, then post signs forbidding students to use Shakespeare for Slackers to complete their assignments, to ensure that all the students read it cover to cover.)

The basic concept is simple: the original Shakespeare text down the left hand side of the page, while the right carries the 'translation'.

Much of the humor in the updated Romeo & Juliet stems from seeing Shakespeare's poetic language and flowery delivery translated into the brutally direct and limited vocabulary of modern teens. Benvolio's:

"Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the East,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward reetheh from the city's side
So early walking did I see your son:
Toward him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood:
I, measuring his affections by my own,
That most are busied when they're most alone,
Pursued my humor not pursing his,
And gladly shunn'd who gladly fled from me.

becomes Ben's:
I saw him this morning, by the woods. He seemed pretty bummed.

Presenting one random excerpt doesn't do justice to the cumulative effect of reading lengthy passage after passage, closely followed by the ten word translation. It was fascinating watching my daughter's group of teens reading out the original Shakespeare in full Shakespearian theatrical projection, and then the usually briefer, always more direct Americanization in the clipped delivery of modern cinema; followed immediately by gales of laughter at the breathtaking inaccuracy of the translation. But the thing is…you can't get the joke unless you sort of work at understanding what Shakespeare actually said. The translation may focus more on the connotations than the actual wording, but in terms of conveying meaning, the result is actually a big improvement over editions that merely define/explain words and phrases from the original.

Consequently, much of the humor comes from actually understanding what's going on, especially in the first half of Romeo and Juliet. A lot of Shakespearian English is now obsolete or at least too obscure for modern audiences, and the original comedic bits often too hard to follow when read aloud without accompanying footnotes. Here the 'footnotes' morph into the entire speech rewritten in a way that recreates the original jokes, satire and ludicruoius situations. There are several excellent cinematic versions of Romeo and Juliet that capture the whole 'rival gang' theme in a contemporary setting, for example, but none of these seems to have been able to really convey that much of the first half of the play was written to be funny. Gregory and Sampson are clowns in the original Shakespeare, but are usually portrayed as just angry teen gang members in contemporary renditions. (Okay, admittedly it's a fine distinction, but the original dialog was supposed to be funny.)

And, if you're 14, the third element of humor is that the naughty bits are translated into recognizable, explicitly naughty, "you didn't really just say that, did you?" bits.

So one's initial reaction is to laugh a lot. I was frankly surprised that this wasn't a one-gag concept, that I kept laughing as I kept reading. But it's Shakespeare: reading the original dialog is continually uplifting--which makes the accompanying pie in the face funny, every time. We're continually reminded that Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare because he had good plots or ideas, but rather that it's all about the poetry of his language. Because the same story told in modern dialog is so lame or ludicrous or obvious that the contrast is funny, every speech.

On the other hand, I grasped the educational implications immediately. These volumes take Shakespeare out of the classroom and place him back in the gutter, where he belongs. As the back cover explains:

You want to know something cool? Back in the day, Shakespeare wasn't considered elite. Oh sure, his plays were performed for royalty, but they were actually written for tradesman, shopkeepers, average Joes, anybody who could pay a penny for a ticket. Mostly he wrote plays for the common man, using the language of the times.
Times have changed. . . .
In Shakespeare for Slackers . . . you get what a few of us think he probably would have written if he were still around today. (And if he sat around watching a lot of television.)

I know that a few of my English teacher colleagues (or parents) will be highly offended by this attempt to knock Shakespeare off the pedestal upon which they have placed him, but I think most will appreciate not just the humor, but the serious intent to make Shakespeare both accessible and relevant to modern teen audiences. Ironically, the completely over the top translations manages to convey the essence of the original without watering down the content or speaking down to the audience. Puzzling out the meaning of a passage based on footnotes is a painfully slow and discouraging activity compared to the riotous readings that result from this romp through Romeo and Juliet. Let's face it, every kid already knows the story of Romeo and Juliet by the time they hit high school, so if we don't do something to make them fall in love with the language, then there is simply no point to requiring them to read it. By vandalizing, brutalizing and outright demolishing Shakespeare to the language of our times (to paraphrase the back cover), the author has forced the reader to really pay attention to language and imagery and iambic pentameter and really appreciate the unique richness that was Shakespeare's. The volume reintroduces the playfulness of language, which is really what English courses are supposed to be about.

I well remember taking Shakespeare in high school. It was a painful process even for those of us who loved Shakespeare, because everyone in the class had to take turns reading out, and some of my peers could not yet read Dick and Jane fluently. Listening to them struggle with Shakespeare was as torturous for the listener as humiliating for them. What was the point of that? What was the lesson the majority learned: that Shakespeare wasn't for them.

I once had the opportunity of listening to a recording of an archival interview with the administrator responsible for introducing Shakespeare into the Canadian curriculum, and he explained why he regretted that decision. He explained that when he'd made it, only about 20%-25% of the population attended High School, so it was the equivalent of university today. Those students could easily cope with Shakespeare, so for them it had been a positive experience. But, he explained, by the time he had retired, high schools had become mass institutions (a good thing), and many of the students being exposed to Shakespeare were not sufficiently strong readers to properly decode, let alone enjoy, reading Shakespeare. The possibility of their enjoying seeing the plays was being undermined, he felt, by their prematurely being asked to read what should have been a dramatic presentation.

Here, then, is an approach that turns that potentially slow, dry, angst-ridden process of decoding Shakespearian text into a riotous deconstruction. The contrast between the two texts presented in this volume forces students to think about language; about deconstruction; about the differences between classical theatre and cinema; about what makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare. And isn't raising those issues, even implicitly, what including Shakespeare in the curriculum is really about?

I cannot conclude the review without at least mentioning the brilliant cover, seen above: half Shakespeare as he was, half as a modern punk rocker, complete with piercings. This book should be on the shelf of every drama teacher, every English teacher, and every Shakespeare fan. And the cover image should be available separately as a poster.

Highly Recommended.