Shakespeare is stupid!

Okay, not really, but I couldn’t resist the clickbait link title.  That said, I really don’t care for Shakespeare much at all.  Why?  Because it is written in a similar, but distinct, language, Early Modern English, from my own.  The idea that we have to preserve the original words is as absurd as not translating Tolstoy from Russian into English.  Do you lose something from the original Russian?  I’m sure you do (though Pevear and Volokhonsky do a hell of a job), but what you gain is the ability to fully understand the amazing characters and insight into the human condition that Tolstoy provides.  Whatever insight is to be gained from Shakespeare is far too easily lost because he was writing in literally a different language.  If you really want to understand Shakespeare in all his nuance, you need to be a native speaker of 16th century English.

So, I bring this up because my son is currently reading Hamlet in high school (and I promised him I would write this blog post– here you go, David, at least give me a comment).  I have not much to offer him but sympathy and frustration.  I’m sure you lose some of Shakespeare’s wonderful prose, rhythm, turns-of-phrase, etc., when you translate to modern English, but what you gain is actually the ability to understand what he is saying!  That needs to be worth more.  I was recently talking to a Russian friend who told me he is quite a fan of Shakespeare.  And I realized that he surely read translations into 20th century, rather than 16th century, Russian.  I imagine that helps immensely.    My favorite linguist, John McWhorter, has been writing about this for years.  Here’s a nice TNR piece from a while back.

“Iconoclastic” as I am thought to be on race, I have been struck by how equally unexpected one view of mine has been considered: that much of Shakespeare’s language is impossible to comprehend meaningfully in real time, so much so that most first-time viewers of a Shakespeare play are understanding grievously less of the meaning than they are aware…

First, however, I should dispel two possible misimpressions. I am not arguing that Shakespeare’s language can be too “dense” or “poetic,” but that it can be simply incomprehensible because of the passage of time…

The problem is words’ changing meanings. This was especially problematic with Touchstone’s lines. Here he is in his scene with Audrey the goatherd (Act III, Scene III). After some cynical whimsy about the nature of honesty, beauty, “sluttishness,” and the best synergy between them, I fell off a cliff when Touchstone launched into this passage about entering into marriage with Audrey:

A man may, if he were of a fearful heart,
stagger in this attempt; for here we have no temple
but the wood, no assembly but horn-beasts. But what
though? Courage! As horns are odious, they are
necessary. It is said, ‘many a man knows no end of
his goods:’ right; many a man has good horns, and
knows no end of them. Well, that is the dowry of
his wife; ‘tis none of his own getting. Horns?
Even so. Poor men alone? No, no; the noblest deer
hath them as huge as the rascal. Is the single man
therefore blessed? No: as a walled town is more
worthier than a village, so is the forehead of a
married man more honourable than the bare brow of a
bachelor; and by how much defence is better than no
skill, by so much is a horn more precious than to want.

One may know that horns refer to cuckoldry, and even that Elizabethans found cuckoldry especially hilarious. Yet I could glean no real meaning from this passage, heard for the first time through the ear. I had to simply enjoy the visual and aural pleasure the actors lent. “Many a man knows no end of his goods?” This is not said in my era, and I could not grasp what it meant in real time—which meant losing the meaning of the rest of that sentence about men who have “good horns.”

McWhorter has a great podcast, Lexicon Valley, and one of his key ongoing themes is simple– words change.  And many of them change a lot in the 500+ years since Shakespeare wrote his plays.  It is absolutely absurd to expect a 21st century audience to fully appreciate any literary work written in 16th century English.  Far too many words now mean entirely different things.  David, was gobsmacked when I informed him that Shakespeare was perfectly well understood by the commoners of the time who enjoyed his plays.  We have this crazy idea now that Shakespeare is elitist and should be work to understand.  Enough people love Shakespeare that I’ll take their words for it that he really does have a universal and insightful understanding of human nature (a key to most all great literary works of art, in my book), but I was never able to glean that at all because there are simply far too many words I don’ t know.  And that’s a shame.  Long past time for a change.

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