In Bernhardt/Hamlet, actress Sarah Bernhardt struggles to remember and make sense of Hamlet’s 1500 lines. She commissions playwright Edmond Rostand to rewrite Hamlet, asking him to take the plot of Shakespeare’s famous play and create a faster and more direct version. As Rostand says, “It is Hamlet without the poetry.”
How Shakespeare’s Language Works
Shakespeare didn’t invent the stories of his plays: he borrowed them from books, English history, and current events. Hamlet is based on a Norse legend called Amleth, written in Latin in a book called History of the Danes. Shakespeare’s unique contribution to the theatre isn’t plot; it’s how he uses language to create character and tell the story.
Shakespeare’s plays, written between 1590 and 1612, were created for a theatre very different from modern-day Broadway and very different from Bernhardt’s theatre in Paris in 1899. His works were originally performed during the day in a round theatre, open to the sky, for 3,000 audience members who filled the building, many standing around the stage. Audiences ate, drank, cheered, and booed. Actors were costumed, but few set pieces were used.
Audiences were accustomed to getting information aurally (through listening) rather than through seeing images or constantly reading. Shakespeare’s characters often “paint a picture” of the scene with their words, as Horatio does when he says “the dead vast and middle of the night.” Additionally, the poetry of Shakespeare—the rhythm and the sound of the words—reinforces the meaning of the lines and helps the audience understand what’s happening.
When Hamlet says, “To be or not to be—that is the question,” for example, the short syllables and staccato consonants indicate that Hamlet is thinking quickly, trying to make sense of something. The words be, not, and be are the first stressed syllables; even if an audience member isn’t paying close attention, or there’s noise around him, he catches the most important words.
Shakespeare’s plays are popular around the globe: in the past 60 years there have been productions of Hamlet in more than 75 languages, including Klingon, a language invented for the television series “Star Trek.” A literary translation of Shakespeare is an attempt to put Shakespeare’s text fully into another language, maintaining all of the characters, settings, and dramatic moments of the original. Translators may choose slightly different words in the language in order to preserve the sense of the line, as we see in this German translation:
O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
O daß dieses allzu—allzu—feste Fleisch schmelzen und in Thränen aufgelöst zerrinnen möchte!
A word-by-word rendering of the German reveals that the translator chose to use Thränen, the word for tears, rather than Tau, the German word for dew, in order to best convey the meaning of what Hamlet is saying.
Translators likewise seek to preserve the effect of the rhythm in Shakespeare’s plays, called iambic pentameter, in which each line has ten syllables, and syllables alternate between unstressed and stressed. This presents a challenge when translating into languages that do not have stressed syllables. Korean poetry is based on syllable counts. Hyonu Lee, a professor at Soon Chun Hyang University in South Korea, recently translated Hamlet. Lee used a pattern of Korean poetry in which three syllables are followed by four syllables because, like iambic pentameter, it mimics the rhythm of the human heart and breath and takes about the same amount of time to speak. Interestingly, Bernhardt performed her adaptation of Hamlet in her native French.
A play is adapted when it’s changed to suit a different medium, audience, or cultural context. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet film, set in contemporary times and featuring a pop music soundtrack, is an adaptation that uses the original text of the play. West Side Story, the 1961 stage musical, transfers the plot, but not the language, of Romeo and Juliet to an immigrant neighborhood on the Upper West Side in the 1950s. Kiss Me, Kate (which will open at Roundabout’s Studio 54 on Valentine’s Day of 2019) is a 1948 musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew; set during production of a musical, the main characters are the director and leading lady, a far cry from Shakespeare’s Katherine and Petruchio of 15th century Italy. Turning to tragedy, Ran is a 1985 Japanese film that merges the plot of King Lear with the legend of a Japanese warlord. Ran employs both translation and adaptation, changing the language, medium, and context of Shakespeare’s play. More recently, Vishal Bhardwaj, an Indian filmmaker, produced Haidar, a 2014 Hindi-language adaptation of Hamlet. Haidar, a student, returns to his family home in Kashmir during a 1995 insurgency to find his father missing and his mother too friendly with his uncle.
Bernhardt wasn’t the first to produce an adaptation of Hamlet, nor was she last. Producers and actors have often altered Shakespeare’s text to fit their visions and the needs of their audiences. In 1772, the famous actor and producer David Garrick adapted Hamlet to make the play more palatable to his audiences and critics. He shortened Hamlet’s speeches, restored parts of the play that had been omitted in previous productions, and cut the gravediggers’ scene and much of the fifth act, radically altering the play’s ending. In the 19th century, producers went even further with alterations of Shakespeare, performing a happily-ever-after version of King Lear in which Lear lives and Cordelia takes the throne with her soon-to-be husband, Edgar.
Translation or Adaptation?
In 2016, Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned 36 playwrights to “translate” each line of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, without altering the story, characters, or setting. The language Shakespeare wrote in is called Early Modern English, and English has evolved continuously since his time. Modern audiences aren’t often familiar with Shakespeare’s vocabulary, and allusions to 16th-century culture—things like falconry, fencing, or Greek myth—mean nothing to contemporary theatregoers. The line-by-line nature of this translation project puts the focus on making the play understood by audiences.
Learn more about OSF’s Translating Shakespeare Project here: https://www.osfashland.org/prologue/prologue-spring-2017/prologue-spring-17-play-on.aspx
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet