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The problem is not confined to translations. Shakespeare himself is nowadays subjected to unnecessary textual fiddlings, or worse. (The RSC’s productions are generally a happy exception.) Adaptations of his works are nothing new: one need only think of Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, written as early as 1681 and admired by Johnson. That fact of itself does not confer any merit on the practice; a long theatrical history of infidelity to the text does not justify its continuance. As will be seen, performers of classical music have recently tended to abandon old habits in favour of a quest for authentic realisation of the score. Current theatrical practice by contrast gives rise to an increasing presumption that there is no inviolable core text at all. Accessibility, not authenticity, is the guiding principle. There seems to be no grasp of the fact that whilst the peaks of high culture must be open to all, we serve no one’s long-term interest by reducing their height. To do so simply restricts the view from the summit.

So, for example, there were several distracting adjustments to the text in Benedict Cumberbatch’s (2015) Barbican Hamlet, directed by Lyndsey Turner: audiences were assumed to require simplified translations of lines such as “popp’d in between th’election and my hopes”; as Guardian critic Michael Billington wrote, it is as if we were too dumb to work out the meaning of the original lines. Andrew Scott’s terrific current Hamlet at the Pinter theatre (an excellent modern production by Robert Icke) has Guildenstern reporting that the King is marvellous distempered with “anger” — in case the audience might hear the original “choler” as “collar” perhaps. In the National’s recent Twelfth Night featuring Tamsin Greig, there was a gratuitous Alan Titchmarsh joke (as if the play were not already funny enough). Rhys Ifans was given carte blanche to insert modern text into the role of the Fool in Glenda Jackson’s King Lear. A recent Cheek by Jowl Winter’s Tale involved a wholesale re-writing of Autolycus’s part. And this without mentioning the antics of Emma Rice at the Globe, of all places — now fortunately curtailed. The fact that Shakespeare may have had a relaxed and pragmatic approach to his own texts, no doubt because he did not foresee their future canonical status, is taken as conferring a liberty on certain Lilliputian figures in the contemporary theatre scene to adjust as they please, whereas it is not difficult to imagine the regard which Shakespeare would have had for the works of his own heroes — Seneca, say, or Ovid.

It is of course possible to be too rigid in demanding adherence to the original; rules must have sensible exceptions. One of the sharpest jests in Henry IV Part I comes when an unwilling Hotspur is bidden to attend to Owen Glendower’s daughter singing in Welsh; he replies that he would rather “hear Lady, my brach, howl in Irish”. Since the word “brach” (meaning “hound”) is now completely obsolete, the joke is lost unless a discreet substitution is made. Maybe there will come a time when “choler” goes the same way, but it hasn’t yet. 

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