Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Facelift for Shakespeare

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will announce next week that it has commissioned translations of all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years. Yes, translations—because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension.

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.

In “Hamlet,” when Polonius famously advises Laertes to “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” much of what he says before that point reaches our modern ears in a fragmentary state at best. In the lines, “These few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character,” look means “make sure that,” and character is a verb, meaning “to write.” Polonius is telling Laertes, in short, “Note these things well.”

He goes on to say: “Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment,” which seems to mean that you should let other people criticize you but refrain from judging them—strange advice. But by “take censure” Shakespeare meant “evaluate,” so that Polonius is really saying “assess” other men but don’t jump to conclusions about them.

We can piece these meanings together, of course, by reading the play and consulting stacks of footnotes. But Shakespeare didn’t intend for us to do that. He wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time.

That’s hard when we run up against a passage like this one from “King Lear,” when Edmund is dismissing those who look down on him for his low origins:

Why “bastard”? Wherefore “base”?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue?

Isn’t it odd for someone to present being “well compact” as a selling point? But for Shakespeare, compact meant “constructed.” And why would Edmund defend himself against the charge of illegitimacy by noting his generosity? Because in Shakespeare’s day, generous could mean “noble.” Nor did madam then have the shady connotation that it does today.

Understanding generous to mean “noble” is not a matter of appreciating elevated language: We cannot reach up to a meaning that is no longer available to us. Nor is there anything poetic in knowing that character was once a verb meaning “to write”: In 2015, that usage is simply opaque, and being British doesn’t help matters.

The idea of translating Shakespeare into modern English has elicited predictable resistance in the past. To prove that the centuries were not so formidable a divide, the actor and author Ben Crystal has documented that only about 10% of the words that Shakespeare uses are incomprehensible in modern English. But that argument is easy to turn on its head. When every 10th word makes no sense—it’s no accident that the word decimate started as meaning “to reduce by a 10th” and later came to mean “to destroy”—a playgoer’s experience is vastly diluted.

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

by John H. McWhorter, WSJ |  Read more:
Image: Pep Montserrat