Shakespeare and sign language

Gallaudet University has been selected as a host site for the Folger Shakespeare Library's travelling exhibition of the First Folio (the full story is available here). Gallaudet is the world's only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students. The university's exhibit, entitled Eyes on Shakespeare, will show how 'the deaf community adds a broader appreciation for the rich visual elements of the Bard’s work'. This announcement led me to think about how Shakespeare might be enriched through the perspective of this community, and I came across several interesting examples.

In a recent collection of essays entitled Shakespeare Expressed: Page, Stage, and Classroom in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 2013), Lezlie C. Cross reflects on the casting of a deaf actor, Howie Seago, as the elder Hamlet in a 2010 production of Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This choice, she suggests, enabled the production 'to emphasize the themes of hearing, listening, and eavesdropping' (p. 7). Cross adds:

Seago's translations of Shakespeare are not simply literal translations of English into American Sign Language [ASL], but lyrical transfigurations of verbal poetry into kinetic poetry. (p. 8)

Cross calls this transformation of written text to physical expression 'kinetic textuality'.

The ASL Shakespeare Project, which began in 1999 at Yale University, is another example of translating (or transforming) Shakespeare into ASL. This project translates entire Shakespeare plays for ASL performance. The project refers to the ASL language used for the stage as 'stage ASL', a mix of word/sign play, transformational signs, rhyme and cultural reference. The ASL Shakespeare Project adds that 'Stage ASL enhances the beauty of both written (Shakespearean) English and elevates the sophistication of ASL.' You can view scenes of their Twelfth Night and find out more about this project on their website.

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival also interprets its summer productions into ASL performances. This program, called Signing Shakespeare, can be found on YouTube.

If you have come across other interesting examples of Shakespeare and sign language, please let us know.