Although there’s some debate about whether to include Edward III in the official list of Shakespeare plays (the Folger Shakespeare Library does not), the Play on! project to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English decided it made the cut and asked playwright Octavio Solis to take it on. This conversation with Solis continues our series of Q&As with Play on! participants.
Beginning May 29 and continuing through June, the Play On Shakespeare Festival will present 39 readings from the Play on! Shakespeare translation project in partnership with Classic Stage Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The readings will take place at the Classic Stage Company performance space in New York.
What were your first impressions of Edward III?
My first impression was that scholars had it all wrong. This was not a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd or some other lesser writer. The work was entirely the Bard’s own. If this was a collaboration, it was between a young swaggering upstart just learning his craft and the genius that would pen the later masterpieces of his career; both of them happen to be Shakespeare.
What did you learn about Edward III through the translation process? Do you see it differently now?
I thought the play was a propaganda piece designed to glorify the reign of a popular king, but it was also a bit of a mess. That’s because in writing a work about this King’s more or less successful war campaign to France, Shakespeare could not ignore some inconvenient facets of his protagonist’s character. Therefore, in the middle of the play, there’s an entire and very engaging romantic subplot involving Edward and the Countess of Salisbury, with whom he is thought to have had an affair. There’s also the fact that the King’s incursion was brutal and often mercilessly conducted on foreign soil, making him look like an invader.
What was remarkable in working on this play was realizing that the whole construction of the story is supported by a single theme: the value of a man’s word. It’s a play on which promises, oaths, vows and signatures all direct the action of the play. Questions of fealty to one’s king, husband, father, country, and even one’s own heart are raised and wrestled with. This single ligament of one’s good word draws together what seem like incongruent storylines and character arcs into a single unifying sheaf.
Can you describe your process for translating the play?
I realized that translating the work required a code. I’m a fan of crossword puzzles, and to solve them requires breaking their embedded code. In other words, I have to think like the puzzler. I worked in this way, thinking like Shakespeare, until I understood how he was solving his own puzzle: how to make sense and meaning mesh with music and metaphor and then have it all somehow fit in single lines of alternating stresses. I had to wear his writing gloves, really feel like I was in his skin, breathe and walk in his rhythm, as I tried to solve the same problems in the same way.
That’s when I realized his genius. I found that so many of his words or compound terms first appeared in print within his plays. He didn’t have the benefit of a compiled lexicon to work with; the OED wouldn’t appear until well after he died. Meanwhile, I’m using my Roget’s Thesaurus and all manner of dictionaries, on-line and on the shelf, to “translate” his work. I also have the benefit of four additional centuries’ worth of added language to work with, included the whole of his canon, while he had none of that. (After all, this was a very early work of his.) If Will needed a word or phrase to suit the purpose, that is, to fit the meter and convey the meaning of the line in the most poetic manner possible, and that word was not available to him, he simply invented it.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of translating Edward III?
I’m writing a history play, about a very particular war in a very particular epoch in time, and that required me to refrain from updating the text too much. But there are too many words signifying articles of war and animal husbandry that are simply unknown to us now. Most people today have no idea what a “buckler” is, for instance. But they do know what a shield is. For all the amassed vocabulary we’ve assumed since we first began to speak, it’s amazing how narrowly we actually use the range of our idiom.
Another challenge revolved around figuring out how to translate text that uses generally accepted concepts of the past that we don’t use today. In ancient times, people believed in the notion that the human eye generated its own light in the dark, like little flashlights in our pupils. We know that isn’t true today, but how do you reconfigure text that relies on people knowing about and accepting that idea as scientifically true? In its original state, it’s confusing, it stops us with its illogic, and we don’t know what is being said.
There’s another notion that suggests that the nightingale’s song was sweeter as a result of its slashing its breasts against the thorns of the briar. Commonly accepted in its time; utterly unknown today. Most people don’t even know what a nightingale is. I never wanted to modernize the text and spoil its beauty, so I had to negotiate around these ideas in such a way that the sense was never compromised.
Can you give us an example of a speech that you’ve translated in a way that makes it noticeably different from the original language?
Now in the sun alone it doth not lie
with light to take light from a mortal eye
for here two day-stars that mine eyes would see
more than the sun steals mine own light from me.
And here is mine:
If eyes to see by render their own light
And light of day itself expands my sight,
Then gazing here I should but cannot see,
For her twin suns steal my own light from me.
This was a deep dive into Shakespeare’s text. How do you think it’s affected you as a playwright?
I have always been a “language” playwright. I’ve leaned on language and all its tools—metaphor, rhythm, rhyme, hyperbole and oxymoron, music and silence—to create the world my characters live in. But as I have grown older, I have wanted to eschew this form and move toward more naturalistic dialogue. I think delving into Shakespeare’s idiom through Edward III has given me pause, and it’s offered me some comfort for the choices I’ve made in my writing. It’s our most enduring and beautiful invention, this thing we add to and subtract from constantly, this language, and how we use it says a lot about our culture and the direction it is moving in. I don’t believe we are becoming an “Idiocracy”, but as writers, we have to assume some leadership in refuting that, not just by telling the stories that matter but enriching them with the language that colors the very air we breathe.