From the Editor - Chewbacca not mess with the Bard

28th June 2013 at 01:00

Few things irk traditionalists more than attempts to jazz up the Bard. Garden gnomes at the Chelsea Flower Show, fascinators at Ascot or wind turbines almost anywhere come close. But nothing infuriates them as much as efforts to make Shakespeare "contemporary".

When Mary Bousted, union general secretary and former English teacher, suggested in TES last month that Shakespeare's plays were best taught inside out, with the most dramatic bits first to get students hooked, the reaction was less than measured. Fomenting classroom discontent and calling nationwide strikes was one thing, but starting Macbeth in Act II? Seditious nonsense and quite possibly illegal.

Yet how many prithees, zounds and verilys should teachers expect adolescents to absorb before they mentally exeunt? Hence the periodic attempts to translate Elizabethan English into modern speech.

Unfortunately, the translations are never without cost. Rendering "Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meatsDid coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" as "It was all about saving a few bucks, Horatio. The leftovers from the funeral came in handy for the wedding" may make Hamlet understandable but also more like Vinnie Jones than John Gielgud. Exactly, traditionalists respond. Short cuts and demotic translations only ruin the original. Genius cannot be appreciated on the cheap.

But now the debate has an added twist. Instead of bowdlerising Shakespeare, a US academic has translated a modern classic into iambic pentameter. Ian Doescher has penned William Shakespeare's Star Wars in the hope of bringing the Bard to the people rather than dragging the people to the Bard (see page 9). Or, as the blurb puts it, "May the Verse be with you!"

Children, Dr Doescher hopes, will find his Star Wars a gateway into Shakespeare because they already know the storyline. "Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not," ponders a reflective Luke Skywalker, while a mildly surprised Han Solo asks, "Is this an ast'roid field I see before me?" You get the gist.

Mashing up science fiction with the classics isn't new, of course. Who could forget Chancellor Gorkon's aside in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country? "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon." And Dr Doescher admits that he was inspired by the recent novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Where, though, will it end? One resource on the TES Connect website already challenges students to ascribe the quote: Shakespeare or Batman? "Smouldering, I burn you - burning you, I flare, hot and bright and fierce and beautiful." No, not Macbeth but Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, apparently. Now we have Luke Skywalker channelling Mark Antony: "Friends, rebels, starfighters, lend me your ears."

It's all very well taking liberties with Shakespeare, but with George Lucas? Most of R2-D2's lines, for instance, consist quite properly of beeps and squeaks. But at times Dr Doescher has him actually speaking: "This golden droid has been a friend, 'tis trueAnd yet I wish to still his prating tongue!An imp, he calleth me? I'll be reveng'dAnd merry pranks aplenty I shall playUpon this pompous droid C-3PO!"

Heresy! Meddling with the canon like that! Is nothing sacrosanct?

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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