Fellowes’ attempt to rewrite Shakespeare prompts outrage

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Douglas Booth as Romeo and Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Douglas Booth as Romeo and Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet. - Credit: PA

Julian Fellowes, lord of Downtown Abbey and survivor of The Titanic disaster, has this week insulted much of the nation by suggesting that we’re all a bit too dim to understand Shakespeare.

Writer Julian Fellowes, right, and his wife Emma Joy Kitchener arrive on the red carpet at the premi

Writer Julian Fellowes, right, and his wife Emma Joy Kitchener arrive on the red carpet at the premiere of the feature film "Romeo and Juliet" at the ArcLight Hollywood on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP) - Credit: Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP

He has just written the screenplay for a new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and has justified it by saying that most people find Shakespeare difficult to understand because they haven’t had the benefit of his class of education. He appears to be suggesting that only those who have studied English at Cambridge have the wherewithal to tackle the works of England’s greatest playwright.

Responding to critics who have taken him to task for his cod-Shakespeare dialogue in Carlo Carlei’s re-telling of theatre’s greatest romantic tragedy, he told the BBC: “When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearean scholarship, and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.

“I can do that because I had a very expensive education; I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that, and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.”

It would be better if Fellowes kept his own counsel. Unfortunately, when he feels the need to explain himself then the hubris he displays is not very appealing. As Shakespeare himself penned in Coriolanus: “More of your conversation would infect my brain.”

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The trouble with his screenplay is that, judging by his rewritten dialogue, he seems to have misunderstood the lines – or at least given them a perverse interpretation.

Fellowes has said that he wants to reinvent Romeo and Juliet and open it up for a new generation and doesn’t want Shakespearean language to be an obstacle.

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It’s a laudable and understandable objective but, the bizarre thing is, he has kept the most often quoted lines intact (which become a theatrical greatest hits package) and has replaced the rest with cod-Shakespeare. The result is just horrific and merely underlines how false the new dialogue is.

In fact the dialogue in Game of Thrones sounds more Shakespearean than the script of this bastardised version. In one scene Romeo says: “Juliet, if your heart like mine is full, then tell the joy that awaits us this night.” You will search in vain for this in any Shakespeare text. You will also fail to find Romeo’s line after he has killed Tybalt: “What have I done but murdered my tomorrow?”

This latest film may have the actors speaking loosely translated Shakespeare but it has a very traditional look about it – it’s Romeo and Juliet in tights. It is set in Verona in Italy during the early 1600s and visually appears to be quite pedestrian, despite the presence of such of the moment actors as Damian Lewis, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, Paul Giamatti and Stellan Skarsgård.

The look and the pacing seems dated. During the past 30 years Juliet has become increasingly sparky. She has become one of the great, feisty heroines – defying the wishes of her family to follow her heart.

Romeo, too, has ceased to be a mooning, love-sick boy and has been transformed into a headstrong, lusty youth with more of a brain between his ears than his friends.

Not that you would realise this from this latest film version as Juliet is reduced to a series of petulent pouts and Romeo is just wet.

The problem is that, in terms of updating Romeo and Juliet, Australian film-maker Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 LA street gang-take on the story has yet to be bettered. It had a rock video feel to it, bags of contemporary music, fast-cuts and heightened colour. It looked and sounded like a summer blockbuster but the all-important Shakespearean dialogue was kept intact and nobody had a problem with following the story.

What Julian Fellowes and other literary academics fail to realise is that William Shakespeare was a man of the people. He was a glove-maker’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon. He was a jobbing actor who got into writing to fix other people’s plays and discovered he was quite good at it. Consequently, he then started writing plays of his own.

His plays were written to be performed not to be studied on the page in lofty academic circles. Granted, you may not understand every single word, on a first listen. But, you will understand enough and you will understand the meaning of the scene. As the play unfolds you will find your ear becomes attuned to the dialogue and you will understand more.

But, Julian Fellowes is unlikely to be moved by such arguments – after all his billing on the posters is more prominent than Shakespeare’s and he is a marketable name.

“Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade.” (Measure For Measure)

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