187500-shakespeare-with-a-laptopDo you find Shakespeare’s plays a little too complex for your modern understanding? If so, there is help for you. MakeUseOf reports on Sparknotes’s “No Fear Shakespeare,” screen-readable versions of many of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. These versions display the original text on the left, and a modern-English translation on the right.

It’s a clever idea, and one I’m surprised no one’s come up with before. It’s a great way to keep the poetry of the original Shakespeare, but at the same time provide access to a version you can more clearly understand. I can see how this would be a boon to high school students studying the play, as well as to actors trying to decide how to interpret the original by gaining a clearer understanding of what the words they are saying are actually supposed to mean.

Sparknotes is a site that specializes in notes and analysis of various books—sort of a Cliff’s Notes for the modern age, and just as beloved of high schoolers as the latter. It makes sense it would come up with something like this. Certainly, being able to go through Shakespeare line by line with the original text right there will be a lot more useful in class than a simple summary. It could be especially helpful when watching movie adaptations or filmed plays on your computer. Just keep the website open for easy reference.

Shakespeare isn’t the only “No Fear” literature title available. Sparknotes also offers side-by-side transliterations of several other works of classic (and public-domain) literature: Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Heart of Darkness, The Scarlet Letter, and A Tale of Two Cities. It’s an interesting way to rediscover literature you might otherwise have had trouble understanding—and a keen argument for the usefulness of a well-stocked public domain. It’s too bad we won’t be seeing any more works enter the public domain for a while—if ever.


  1. Ah, but you’ll miss much of Shakespeare’s humor in so-called modern translations. Much of his humor lies in his puns and to grasp that you’ll need not just the original words but the original pronunciation. Here’s a Youtube video about that and it should show links to others on the same topic:


    I also disagree with the mindset behind this: “Do you find Shakespeare’s plays a little too complex for your modern understanding?”

    Too complex? Modern understand? Shakespeare’s plays were done for a popular audience and haven’t been “modern” for hundreds of years.

    “Good then young teen,” I would say. “Now get off your rump, put aside Angry Birds, and learn the real Shakespeare, not a stripped down version suited only for lazy, indolent minds. Wrestle with the bard himself without being led by the hand a simplified version. Do something hard. It’ll be good for you. Life is filled with hard tasks. The sooner you learn to master them, the better.”

    Keep in mind that a century ago a good high-school education didn’t mean a infantilized Shakespeare when 95% of the original is still understandable to native English speakers. It meant reading Virgil in the original Latin. And it meant doing the work to be able to do that.

    That’s one interesting tidbit I learned reading Anne of Green Gables, set in rural Canada about 1900. You needed a reading knowledge of Latin to even get into a teacher’s college. Anne and her friends spend an extra hour after every day preparing for that entrance exam. They worked and worked hard. Does any student today, planning to major in education, do that? I think not.

    Contrast that to this video, made a Pennsylvania universities, of current day public school graduates. They know virtually no geography or history. They’re so clueless, they have trouble placing WWII in history. And they’re not stupid. They simply haven’t been taught. As the video maker notes, they went to public schools.


    Heck, I saw that myself recently when I asked an intelligent recent high school graduate I know who was the VP of the U.S. He was exactly like those in that Youtube video. He didn’t know but somehow realized that he probably should know.


    ATTENTION: If you’re a recent high school graduate, could you please tell me what you’re school did in all those thousands of hours when it wasn’t teaching history, politics or geography. What were you doing?


    I also completely disagree with that “no fear” mindset. Every student should be placed into an educational environment that forces them to stretch their abilities. He or she needs to fear failure to learn to face and overcome it.

    I had precisely that as an engineering major. I took a host of math and science courses where some 2/3 of the class failed on their first try. Do that and you develop the confidence to take on tough, intellectual tasks. Be spared of that by the “precious little snowflake” ideology that dominates education today, and you become an emotional and intellectual cripple who’ll spend the rest of your life whining that every challenge is just too much for you. You’ll want safe spaces, to use the contemporary lingo. You’ll want trigger warnings.

    I’ll spare you what I think is the source of this foulness except to note that it lies in our “ed….ion sch…ls.” It is from there that the rot emanates.

    Nor do I think making these demands is too much for today’s youth. In Seattle I attended a not-dumbed down Shakespeare play done by high school students. Afterward, they commented on how much they enjoyed Shakespeare’s marvelous language. Expect much, and you get much. Our schools expect almost nothing, hence this dumbed down Shakespeare and “no fear” guides to literature that previous generations mastered without being treated as mental cripples. Fear of failure is good. It teaches us how to succeed.


    If you want, you can find the text and an audiobook version of Anne of Green Gables here:


    Read or listen to it if you want to understand why today’s students are getting cheated badly by our lazified and dumbed-down schools. And keep in mind who Anne is. As the story begins, she’s an eleven-year-old orphan who has spent her life bouncing between crowded orphanages and indifferent foster homes. That doesn’t alter what adults expect of her. They expected excellence and they got it.

    Today’s schools expect almost nothing of students but an insipid sort of inoffensive passivity.

    –Mike Perry

  2. While Shakespeare translations into modern English do make me itch violently, at least this version retains the original language and allows the student to see the meaning of anything they’re not getting. I’d prefer side-by-side notes that explain the archaic terminology to a straight-up modern version, since it makes it possible for students to simply read the one that’s easiest and miss the glory of the language and the brilliance of the poetry. And of course Shakespeare is for the ear–outer as well as inner, so a live performance or live reading is always going to be one of the best ways to bring The Bard home. If students were taught how to perform Shakespeare, much would become clear to them, I think.

    • Bridget: It’s hard to appreciate “brilliance” in anything you’re forced to read for school. I’m given to understand many people love Jane Eyre, but I didn’t see anything remotely interesting in it when I was forced to gnaw my way through it in high school, and haven’t revisited it (or anything else by the Brontosaurus—I mean, Bronte sisters) since. And it was even written in words I could understand! Expecting kids to appreciate something in language that doesn’t even make sense to them because they have to read it is a losing game. At least this way they can get the meaning, and do so in far more detail than just reading the Cliff’s Notes.

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