Shakespeare for the age of texting (Book Review)

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Title: YOLO Juliet (OMG Shakespeare); Author: William Shakespeare and Brett Wright; Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers; Pages: 112; Price: Rs.399

Will Juliet’s impassioned question: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet…” lose anything in its effect if rendered as “…what’s the point of names anyway? srsly, you could call a (rose emoji) a different name, and it would still (nose emoji) just as sweet”.

Or the dying speech of Romeo’s noble friend Mercutio: “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man” become any less tragic as “It’s not deep, but it hurts like a mofo. (Sad emoji) I’ll be a goner by 2morrow. (Skull emoji).”

If this new style of rendition has not hurt your aesthetic sensibilities, but rather intrigued them, then you might like tthe immortal story of young, star-crossed lovers stripped of its quaintly colourful Elizabethan English and iambic pentameter and retold as a series of texts, voice memos, check ins and group chats, as if Romeo, Juliet and other characters had fully-enabled smartphones.

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The man behind this innovative overhauling is Brett Wright, a full-time children’s book editor in New York, who had studied Shakespearean tragedy in college but found it “sadly lacking in emoticons”. Others have adapted Macbeth and Hamlet.

There is no changing of the original story-line, or any major omission, save that few secondary characters do not figure – in this case, Romeo’s mother and some servants. The change is in the treatment, with voice memos replacing that Shakespearean trademark – the soliloquy, and check-ins, the settings – in act 2, scene 2 we learn “Romeo has checked into the Grounds Below Juliet’s Balcony” – and texts, for the dialogues.

However, an issue the last entails is that texting implies people are not face-to-face and consequently, it makes for some clumsy (but not unthinkable) situations, such as when the lovers arrive at Friar Laurence’s church to marry, and start to text their love to each other. The image that conveys of the two, eyes down on their phones, is priceless – but not unknown in our times.

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One other issue is that though this seems aimed at the young, there is a lot of racy language – which is there in the original plays, a lot bawdy as was common in the times they were first staged. It may seem presumptuous to think that the young are unaware of such language, but the cautionary note is necessary.

The question however is whether reducing one of Shakespeare’s best-known works to the language of texting and social media is sacrilege, or a homage to its capability to transcend time and setting, and doing so, attract some to read the original. It depends on you but it bears minding that the bard’s works have been freely adapted down the years, furnishing plots, but with different characters, or settings, in forms ranging from Broadway plays to Bollywood blockbusters.

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“West Side Story”(play 1957, film 1961) was set in mid-20th-century New York City, while the warring aristocrats families became street gangs, Peter Ustinov’s “Romanoff and Juliet” (play 1956, film 1961) was set in the Cold War, and Disney’s “High School Musical” (2006) had the young lovers in rival school cliques. There is no shortage of Bollywood movies which use the plot.

Also there have been stage adaptations with the main characters being Israeli and Palestinian, or the setting apartheid-era South Africa. And then in April/May 2010, the Royal Shakespeare Company itself presented “Such Tweet Sorrow”, a version comprising improvised, real-time series of tweets.

A trend-setter as far as language was considered, Shakespeare, if around today, might have very well considered the format too!

(12.05.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])



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