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I'm cool with revisions

I was listening to the back catalog of the Lexicon Valley podcast the other day and got to the episode where John McWhorter floats the idea of updating Shakespeare.  To be more specific, he was talking about how some terms and turns of phrase are simply obsolete, and how he thinks having an alternate, slightly-modernized version of each play would make Shakespeare more accessible to modern audiences.

I am 100% onboard with that plan.  McWhorter mentioned in the podcast itself how he's been victim to bardolatry in the past and how it manifested one night with a Shakespearean purist giving him a drunken manifesto / impromptu reading to "prove him wrong."  I can empathize.  As both an English teacher and student, I've had my share of frustrations with that sentiment.

It's the same complaint I have with Star Wars, really.  At a certain point, your admiration for a person or a creation can go from "fandom" to "religion," and that's where you start to be blind to very real limitations and flaws.  (And here's where I insert my standard disclaimer: I do not hate Shakespeare nor Star Wars, I think both are important cultural landmarks that merit study and scrutiny, it's cool if you like them, etc.)

In the case of Shakespeare, we often forget that while he was a brilliant poet and wordsmith, he was a terrible storyteller.  Even by English Renaissance standards, his plays take too long to set up conflict.

But the bigger problem I've encountered is that people seem to think Shakespeare is always an ideal choice as an educational tool, even in contexts where he's highly inappropriate.  I keep thinking about a tenth grade class I had to teach that was essentially remedial English.  Half the students were on an IEP, three were ESL students, nearly all of them had behavioral problems of some sort, and we had to go over a unit on rhetorical strategies (e.g., ethos, pathos, and logos).  The way the curriculum wanted us to teach it?  Julius fucking Caeser.

If there was a modern English version of Julius Caeser, I could almost see it working.  (Not that I don't still think a few Epic Rap Battle of History episodes would get the job done in like 20 minutes.)  And when I imagine fools out there trying to convince me that, "Oh, no, no, it is modern English, a modern speaker can totally understand it, you just have to experience it the right way," I want to shove 'em in that class and say, "Good luck with that, asshole."

The flat-out truth is that Shakespeare wrote his shit hundreds of years ago for a completely different audience with a completely different cultural, historical, social, political, and educational context, and that's not even touching on the language itself.  It's abject nonsense to put that in a curriculum for kids who aren't even totally able to read Harry Potter without assistance.  To suggest otherwise means that you've let your admiration take place of reality.  You've become one of those intelligentsia assholes the rest of us despise.

But then I think about this from the perspective of religion again.  Shakespeare has had hundreds of years of reverence - mostly earned - that has led to his strictest devotees to fear change.  I suspect on some level they think, "Oh my God, what would Bill himself think if we were so rude to his words today?"

And then I think... jeez, if my work was ever so popular and respected that people 400 years from now were debating whether or not to edit it, I'd be so honored I wouldn't care what you do with it.

The truth is, art is not immortal, no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise.  Just like language, we are constantly reinventing authorial intent, assuming that a creation even survives long enough to be studied a century later.  To honor a long-dead artist, simply keep enjoying their work any way you can.

So, let that be a clear, concrete message to any super-devoted fans I might accrue in the 25th century.  If you feel the need to translate my books to your modern tongue, please do.  Go nuts.  I'm for it.  And thank you for caring so much to put in the effort.