Shakespeare and race

This is Eavesdrop, a series of conversations between artists, playwrights and audience members. Today we listen in on a chat between playwright Elise Thoron, who has translated in modern verse the upcoming Local Lab reading of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and company member Rachel Fowler, director of the reading. The Merchant of Venice is part of Local Lab 2017: New Play Festival, presented at Dairy Arts Center from March 17-19, 2017. Limited festival passes and single show tickets are still available here.

Rachel Fowler:

Elise, I am very much looking forward to heading to Boulder from my home here in London and seeing you in a few weeks to work alongside you at Local Lab. We chose this modern verse translation, part of the Play On! project at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, because of its timeliness to current events. As we prepare to enter the world of this this play, I want to ask you: Why this play? And why right now?

Elise Thoron:

The Merchant of Venice is a play awkwardly posed between comedy and tragedy, entertainment and cringing in your seat. In this moment of polarization and examination of racism in our own country, not Venice or Belmont, the play has a lot to say about how prejudice moves in society, how it perpetuates itself, and is not easily resolved. The questions it asks spill over into our own lives. It has been called anti-Semitic, and there’s a big debate around Shakespeare’s intent with the character of Shylock. But whatever that may be, the illogic of prejudice runs through all the characters infecting the fairy tale world of Belmont and the romantic comedy that plays out there as much as the courtroom in Venice.

This makes it an unsettling, uncomfortable play to watch that asks more questions than it gives answers. However, the exploration is one we need to embark on as a community. The discussions the play provokes are discussions we need to have, and Shakespeare, with his breadth of humanity and richness as a dramatist, creates characters and drama we can deeply engage with and learn from.


Agreed! There are a number of themes in Merchant I find very contemporary—the cycle of hatred and abuse, mercy as a weapon or leverage, Christian hypocrisy, exclusion of the “other”… all of these are very human and very messy. Shakespeare has written a play that on the surface seems like a straightforward fairy tale, with heroes and villains. However, there is a complex richness to all these characters: we find them likeable, pitiable, pathetic and awful all at the same time. In our current political climate, where everything seems very black and white, I think it’s important—and really exciting—to explore how these dichotomies exist in us all.

So, why translate Shakespeare at all? There was certainly quite a bit of controversy in the press and theater community when Oregon Shakespeare Festival initially announced the Play On! project.


I was initially skeptical about the idea of “updating” Shakespeare’s language into modern contemporary English. I love the poetry of the original tongue, the music and the effort involved in parsing it out. But Oregon Shakespeare Festival gave me a play I am particularly interested in, and Lue Douthit, our fearless leader of Play On!, wisely presented it as an experiment: “It may be a good idea, maybe not, but we’ll learn a lot from doing it.” 

So, I accepted the challenge, and now having finished the first stage of this arduous task and heard a draft of Merchant read in its new “translation,” I can see the merit of making this play more accessible to the contemporary ear.


Say more…


By stripping away archaic language, abandoning the “thees” and “thous,” it becomes inescapably a play about the present day, more brutal and hard hitting. There’s not recourse to the feeling of prejudice it explores—that this was happening way back when in “olden times.” By updating the language, you remove the remove, which makes the play more accessible, but perhaps harder to watch, harder to dismiss or ignore, and more controversial in a good way.

And it does nothing to untangle all the thorny questions surrounding Merchant except to push us deeper inside the play, allowing us to feel it closer to our contemporary lives and experience. The one thing in “translating” Shakespeare I found myself holding onto like a life raft, in fact, is his meter: iambic pentameter. For me, it was essential to preserve that as the breath and heartbeat of the play.   


Okay, so I have to say I, too, was skeptical when I first heard of this endeavor. As an actor, I love picking apart Shakespeare’s language and finding those delicious levels of meaning. Then I thought, if it were translated into French or Russian, the language would be modern. So why not find a way to have the play hit the modern ear more easily in English? 

“Translation” feels a misnomer for what this is—it makes it sound like it’s transformed into something completely different. Your work, Elise, is incredibly subtle and highly respectful of the original text. I am excited to get into the rehearsal room with an amazing cast and explore how it comes to life! See you in just a couple of weeks!