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Shakespeare's language is 'means and mode' of his accomplishments, professor says

Thursday, October 01, 2015

LAWRENCE — The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has announced plans to modernize the language of 36 of William Shakespeare's plays and perform them within three years.

A University of Kansas professor who studies Shakespeare is available to address questions surrounding adapting the Bard's language versus plots of his work.

Jonathan Lamb, assistant professor of English, researches Shakespeare's biography, plays and poems, as well as the Bard's reputation throughout history and how his plays came to be seen as central to Western culture. Lamb is currently investigating the way Shakespeare responded to and shaped the early modern English literary marketplace through the "thick" formal features of his works. He argues that Shakespeare wrote in constant interchange with other writers, writings, trends and ideas. In 2014, Lamb received the Ned N. Fleming Trust Award from KU, one of the university's highest teaching awards.

Q: Is it true or feasible that Shakespeare only intended for his plays to be performed, not researched, for meaning in language? Or does that even matter at this point?

Lamb: The claim that Shakespeare wrote for performance and not for research presents a false dichotomy, as if one activity — writing for performance — necessarily means we have to jettison another — studying the language closely.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival should be commended for "translating" Shakespeare's plays in an effort to make them accessible to audiences. People have done things like this before and will do them again. But the risk in doing so is to forget that Shakespeare's accomplishment is unavoidably rooted in language. He took most of the "plots" for his plays from other sources, adapting them with his remarkable use of language to craft works of powerful dramatic art.

Q: If we change the language, is it really Shakespeare anymore?

Lamb: No and yes. No, because Shakespeare's language is the means and mode of his accomplishment as a writer. If we take close attention to language away from our approach to Shakespeare, there hardly seems to be much point in studying Shakespeare's writings rather than any other writer.

Yes, because language in Shakespeare's time and in Shakespeare's writings is a thing constantly in flux. He wrote in the collaborative, constantly adaptive environment of the theater. His plays and poems carry not just his fingerprints but those of other writers, actors, censors, publishers, printers and more.

To arrange an interview with Lamb, contact George Diepenbrock at gdiepenbrock@ku.edu or 785-864-8853.