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.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

8 Responses to Shakespeare is stupid!

  1. Nicole K. says:

    I could not agree with you more. I’m not trying to brag, but I have very, very strong verbal skills and superior reading comprehension skills. However, Shakespeare in the original English is completely lost on me. As you said, it’s written in a language I don’t intrinsically understand.

    I remember being in high school and how much I hated to read stuff like Shakespeare, The Canterbury Tales, and my all-time least favorite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I could never understand what we were supposed to get out of trying to read stuff like this in its original, or close to original, form. The only way these works were understandable were using stuff like Spark Notes or just waiting for my English teacher to explain what the significant aspects of the work were.

    I pretty quickly bailed on actually independently reading the assigned texts in the original form. I stuck to summaries and commentary that were in English that made sense to me. My grades in English didn’t seem to suffer from making that decision. They actually probably improved significantly because I was able to actually talk intelligently about the plot, and the summaries provided more than enough information to pass any accountability reading quizzes that my English teacher decided to give our class. By the time I had to write essays on the works, my English teacher would have provided more than enough information through lecture for me to be able to point out quotes for my papers.

    I can tell you one thing, trying to watch Shakespeare with undiagnosed narcolepsy doesn’t work. My English teacher senior year arranged for our class to watch a live production in DC. Within five minutes of it starting, I was asleep. Similarly he showed us a BBC version of Hamlet, and I slept through all of that. Even when he made us watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I was asleep within 5 minutes of him pressing play. The dialogue was more or less equivalent to white noise to me.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    There are two separate issues – the literal meaning and the poetry. Shakespeare’s contemporary audience could understand the totality of his works. Modern audiences may need to understand both the poetry and the literal to get some of it but may never be able to grasp the totality.

    • Nicole K. says:

      Poetry has always been lost on me. I am Aphantasic. That means I can’t form mental pictures, so language that’s supposed to create some kind of imagery in my mind doesn’t really mean much to me. It also means that I have no visual sense of direction and would never find anything if GPS hadn’t been invented. I also mix up left and right if I don’t pay attention, and I failed art in elementary school. However, I have excellent verbal skills, provided it doesn’t require seeing an imaginary picture in my mind. So I can write analytical papers all day long, but I can’t write fiction or poetry that’s worth anything. So language that doesn’t make sense may be very poetic, but I’ll never appreciate it.

      • R. Jenrette says:

        Creating a mental picture in the reader is only one aspect of poetry, There is also appreciation for the actual choices of words the poet makes. There’s the sound and flow of the poetry when read aloud.
        Some read poems for the story if it’s that kind of poetry.
        It’s a big universe. No one can appreciate everything. Some people can’t appreciate much at all.

  3. David Greene says:

    Some how I missed this post when it came out! The title expresses my thoughts perfectly, as well as the rest of the post!

  4. Nicole K. says:

    I thought about this post today, I’m transcribing / editing a live performance of part 2 of Henry IV. It’s a good thing the text is in the public domain or this would be an impossible task. That said, if the job wasn’t paying $250, then I would not be doing it. Mark Twain called The Book of Mormon chloroform in print, but I think that also very much applies to Shakespeare.

    • Nicole K. says:

      What’s funny is that although nobody except English professors will understand what’s being said anyway, they did decide to make the language gender neutral, removed most references to God, and removed all the “fun” words like whoreson etc. I mean, if you are going to make me sit through a Shakespeare play, at least leave in phrases like “the whoreson smoothy-pates do now wear nothing but high shoes and bunches of keys at their girdles.”

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