Shakespeare’s legacy is rooted in language. The majority of students in the United States study Shakespeare in English classes throughout high school and the education surrounding Shakespeare curriculum is rooted in the linguistics and poetic form. His influence on English has survived centuries and his contribution to our vocabulary is often taken for granted. In Measure for Measure alone, we can thank Shakespeare for giving us the words “belongings,” “gnarled,” and “sanctimonious,” amongst a plethora of idioms and phrases. The intense study of Shakespeare’s English and the power of his words have fueled scholars and performers for centuries, keeping Shakespeare the most produced classic author.
However, what happens when Shakespeare’s works are translated into other languages? Do the power of his words still retain their strength? In ArtsEmerson’s upcoming presentation of Measure for Measure, we invite audiences to hear Shakespeare’s words like you’ve never heard them before.
Performed entirely in Russian, this particular production of Measure for Measure from Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre transcends the language barrier. Co-Artistic Director of Cheek by Jowl, Declan Donnellan remarks, “We have never been frightened by language barriers. Really the barriers tend to diminish once you realize that words are only a small part of how we communicate. Not only that, occasionally language becomes an actual barrier to communication. The most important things we cannot actually define in words. Shakespeare, in common with Chekhov, often has characters use words to deceive themselves. In fact self-deception is one of their major themes and very often words are used to hide truth. As Feste says in Twelfth Night ‘words are grown so false.'”
For Shakespeare especially, the universality of his work travels from culture to culture, language to language, without losing an ounce of substance. The stories remain intact, the emotions are still felt, and even those who cannot understand the words are able to understand the humanity. The human emotion Shakespeare is able to grasp is not bound by language. While his poetry is considered some of the most remarkable work we have, it possesses power beyond the page. How we communicate is often through unspoken means and Shakespeare, amongst his new words and famed phrases, allows for the breath for that very human connection on an emotional level.
On producing Shakespeare in Russian, “inevitably working with Russian actors the production will take on Russian parallels but the extraordinary thing about Shakespeare is his universality,” Donnellan explains. “Wherever the play is performed it will throw up contemporary references. Of course, Measure for Measure is a political play about corruption, but also, importantly, our own capacity to be corrupt. It crosses that Shakespearean landscape where political, spiritual and psychological dangers criss-cross in a thrilling matrix.”
We cherish his words, but perhaps Shakespeare’s ability to create connection is what keeps audiences entranced by the Bard’s folio. Shakespeare’s plays have been translated in over 80 languages, including Star Trek’s Klingon, making it remarkably clear that while he wrote in English, his plays resonate worldwide (and even into space apparently). With the upcoming production of Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre’s Measure for Measure, we invite audiences to engage with Shakespeare and perhaps experience something entirely new.
Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre’s Measure for Measure will be at the Emerson Cutler Majestic from OCT 24 -28.