There are many roads, high and low, to Shakespeare's timeless works
While reading parts of this article, you may feel an odd whirr beneath your feet. That is the sound of English teachers spinning in their graves as I recommend the No Fear Shakespeare series.
My own teachers, long may they live and lecture, were an inspired and inspiring lot. They did not just teach Shakespeare. They fostered a love of puns, double meanings, deadly asides, and well-turned obscenities. A love so deep that, 25 years after I “finished” studying literature, I pounce on anything to do with the plays, whether it's Maqbool with Irfan Khan, Shakespeare in Love, or the priceless Lego Macbeth on YouTube.
I think they would agree with me that No Fear Shakespeare is not a travesty but a window for those who want to try the Bard's timeless works but are still debating whether to do it under local anaesthesia or general.
Each book in the series prints the complete original play on the left hand pages and a translation into modern English on the right. There is an occasional explanatory note, for example, to say that Prospero gives Ariel an invisibility cloak or that Stephano is making a lewd and untranslatable joke.
Someone I know recently bought The Tempest and I immediately borrowed it out of curiosity. I read the modern English first, then the original. As I expected, the spicy bits come out bland. The original: She loved not the savor of tar nor of pitch/ Yet a tailor might scratch her where'er she did itch. The tone-deaf translation: She didn't like ship smells like tar/ But liked it okay when a tailor took her to bed.
But rhythm and word play are just part of the Shakespearean spell. There is the power of the story itself. The plays are endlessly translated into other languages, cultures and genres. I have enjoyed four takes on Othello, not counting the play itself: a Kathakali performance in a Delhi auditorium, Verdi's Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the film Omkar starring Ajay Devgan and Kareena Kapoor, and the film O, about a high-school basketball player and his white girlfriend. Each version thrilled me and sent me back to the original for another read. And I still haven't seen the rap, rock, or Lego Othello.
What other author belongs so entirely in the public domain? Any performing artist feels free to take a play and run with it. And the reader may do the same. When I read The Tempest, I breeze past Prospero's tyranny and self-glorifying forgiveness, skip Miranda's teenage yada yada, and linger on Caliban's tirades.
A “new” play was recently attributed to the Bard, called Double Falsehood or Distrest Lovers. One day I will acquire it, but till then I'll content myself with making a small mental note when I pick up my battered old book, and consider that volume the Incomplete Works of William Shakespeare. For me, every play is new, every time I read it.