Have No Fear, Shakespeare’s Here!

As we pass William Shakespeare’s birthday, we reflect upon his plays and their readability among modern audiences. Why do some scholars and purists look down on No Fear Shakespeare, Sparknotes’ series of comprehensive Shakespeare “translations”?

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s fascinating to think that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) significantly evolved the English language during his lifetime, introducing new idioms and even new words. He created new verbs from nouns (e.g. “to elbow”), and was especially illustrious for his mastery of insults. Yet despite his achievements in shaping the English language we use today, many people have difficulty understanding his writings.

Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom in Richard III (1955). Photo: IMDb

There’s a distance between Elizabethan/Jacobean English and contemporary English, of course. So it’s understandable that reading Shakespeare requires some mental gymnastics compared to, say, reading your everyday newspaper or a new novel. This year, to honour the Bard on the occasion of his 456th birthday (presumed April 23 – he died the same day in 1616), I’d like to discuss No Fear Shakespeare.

The Macbeth version of No Fear Shakespeare. Photo: Kobo

No Fear Shakespeare is a student’s dream come true: it’s a modern-day translation, and therefore an interpretation, of Shakespeare’s plays. Published by Sparknotes and known for distinctive blue and white covers, each paperback volume includes the original text of a Shakespeare play, side by side with a modern translation. Depending on how you want to be perceived in English class, copies of No Fear Shakespeare are either coveted or derided among schoolfellows.

At least in my high school, I remember being grateful for No Fear but hesitant to be seen using it. During undergrad, I definitely wouldn’t dare flaunt a copy – to do so might be akin to admitting you didn’t understand Shakespeare. But I’ll readily admit I own copies of No Fear for King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest. In truth, it doesn’t hurt to have a translation available for when you’re tired or simply want to read Shakespeare for fun (don’t laugh; it happens worldwide). Literary skills aside, there’s no point pretending translations aren’t useful, no matter how clever you want to appear. Take this translation from King Lear (my favourite tragedy):

It is the cowish terror of his spirit
That dares not undertake. He’ll not feel wrongs
Which tie him to an answer.
Our wishes on the way
May prove effects. Back, Edmund, to my brother.
Hasten his musters and conduct his powers.
I must change names at home, and give the distaff
Into my husband’s hands.

William Shakespeare, “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

He’s a coward and can’t commit himself to doing anything risky. He chooses not to be insulted rather than challenge those who offend him. But what we talked about with longing on the way may soon come true. Edmund, go back to see my brother-in-law. Gather his soldiers and organize his troops. I plan to take charge of my household. From now on I will wear the pants, and my husband can play the housewife.

No Fear Shakespeare, modern translation of “King Lear”, Act IV, scene ii, lines 13-17

Here, Shakespeare’s language may seem oblique or confusing in terms of what Goneril is saying; No Fear has brought it down to a clear-cut modern translation.

No Fear is aptly named, as people often approach Shakespeare’s writing with just that: fear, or at least a feeling of intimidation. We often fear that which is difficult to understand. But among scholars, why is No Fear tacitly shamed? Because there’s a pronounced sense of pride that comes with being able to understand, appreciate, and quote Shakespeare. I say “pride”, but in fact it reeks of elitism. No Fear Shakespeare is seen as cheating – the easy way out, as one avoids doing the bulk of the interpretation one’s self. There’s also a strong case against No Fear translations in the sense that they’ve “stripped” the plays of what makes them great: Shakespeare’s unparalleled writing style.

Kenneth Branagh as Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). Photo: IMDb

Shakespeare is known for his eloquence, and by interpreting his plays yourself, you can engage with them in a way that No Fear would preclude – unless you can resist looking at the translations on the right-hand side of each page. That’s why English majors don’t bring copies to their university lectures, apart from the actual optics of the thing: even though it’s available, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by simply reading a translation, and we don’t want to look over-reliant on the watered-down No Fear. If you were to only read translations, you’d be missing the essence of Shakespeare’s writing itself, and that would be a shame.

But using No Fear doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. As demonstrated above, it can help with those hard-to-understand passages – and I can never fault anyone who’s working to make Shakespeare more accessible. I applaud the No Fear team, because the more barriers we eliminate between people and their enjoyment of literature, the more inclusive literature can be. If No Fear Shakespeare acts as a doorway to a lifetime of loving Shakespeare and his stories, then that can only be a good thing – we should never look down on anyone trying to learn something.

After all, I first got into Shakespeare by reading kids’ comic versions of his plays, adapted by Terry Deary. Film adaptations like She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) also offer a contemporary lens. If these adaptations are successful in introducing modern audiences to the Bard, then count me in. Just don’t ever ask me to give up the real deal: Shakespeare’s words, verbatim.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Though Shakespeare has been dead for over 400 years, modern renditions of his plays are still alive and well. BBC’s The Hollow Crown adapts Shakespeare’s history plays, which prompt us to examine the Bard as not only playwright, but historical interpreter.

By Serena Ypelaar

As we approach William Shakespeare’s 455th birthday – thought to be April 23, the same day as his death – one can’t deny his unparalleled legacy. Shakespeare is still studied in schools worldwide. His words and idioms still pervade the English language. And people are still adapting his works on stage and screen.

As a self-professed Shakespeare devotee, I’ve seen several productions, personal highlights being Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in London; Colm Feore in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival in Ontario; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare in High Park. I have yet to see King Lear and Richard III (my favourites) on stage, but thanks to Shakespeare’s robust canon, we’re also blessed with film and television adaptations – like The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown. Photo: BBC

Most of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays are his comedies and tragedies. When I first heard about The Hollow Crown, which adapts Shakespeare’s tetralogies, I knew I had to see it. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, Tom Sturridge, Sophie Okonedo, and Dame Judi Dench, The Hollow Crown covers Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V in the first cycle; and Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III in the second cycle.

Shakespeare’s history plays don’t receive as much appreciation, but they’re fascinating because they demonstrate the playwright in action as a historical interpreter. Taking historical events and condensing them into dramatic plays is a sensitive act of storytelling, albeit heavily influenced by reigning powers at the time. Shakespeare composed his plays during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and his work thus appealed to Tudor and then Stuart sensibilities. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare furthered the Tudor Myth, which essentially comprises propaganda that glorified the Tudors and sought to legitimize their claim to the throne – which meant historical figures like Richard III, the Plantagenet king slain by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) were heavily vilified. Shakespeare’s contribution is Richard III, a play depicting Richard as deformed and mercilessly evil.* 

The Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West), Henry VI (Tom Sturridge), Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo), and the Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) in The Hollow Crown’s adaptation of Henry VI. Photo: Robert Viglasky

Since Shakespeare’s history plays were political tools used to flatter and curry favour with kings and queens, their content is open to discussion. However, to those unfamiliar with early English monarchs, the plays can also familiarize audiences with important histories. I admittedly never could get Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI straight (so many Henrys!), but after watching The Hollow Crown, I’ve grasped enough of an overview to launch further research (of the Wikipedia variety for casual learning). Much of my medieval history knowledge has therefore been shaped by Shakespeare, for better or for worse.

Like any historical adaptation, it’s important to understand the changes Shakespeare made for the sake of drama (and political appeasement). A completely accurate account may not make for the best entertainment, especially on an Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. All the same, I admire how Shakespeare’s tetralogies are all interwoven. In The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, for instance, we see the future King Richard III witnessing his father Richard of York’s death at the hands of the Lancastrians; revenge is a major theme in the plays, which The Hollow Crown illustrates well. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.
Photo: Robert Viglasky

As a screen adaptation, the delivery differs from stage productions, but the performances are so excellent that the production is still effective. Most notably, Benedict Cumberbatch’s monologues as the dastardly Richard III gave me chills. In typical Shakespearean asides which break the fourth wall, Richard’s eye contact with the viewer fosters an unsettling connection, even through a television screen. Likewise, Tom Sturridge’s depiction of both compassion and weakness as Henry VI demonstrated complexity in a sympathetic way, and so I felt – from the comfort of my sofa – swept up into the dramatic interpretation of dynastic conflicts from centuries past.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s plays transcend entertainment because they are prominent accounts of history. Like any historian’s account of events, the Bard’s plays continue to inform our remembrance of English political history. The Hollow Crown is a reminder of this phenomenon and the weight that the legendary playwright’s voice carries. That leaves Shakespeare as not only a dramatist, but a historical interpreter shaping contemporary perceptions of history – both in the late 16th and early 17th century, but also as long as his plays continue to be performed and read.

*During the Book History and Print Culture part of my master’s degree I specialized in Richard III and how Shakespeare’s portrayal influences public memory of the Yorkist king, and I’ll be writing about him in detail in the future.