Friday, January 19, 2007

Post 600: Permission to Not Understand Shakespeare

I would like to thank linguist John McWhorter for his permission to not understand Shakespeare, and will pass it on to you. McWhorter has far better credentials than mine, and he doesn't get it either.

The plays of Shakespeare, performed in their original Early Modern English, are not understandable on first hearing. Or second hearing. By anyone. If they weren’t also in iambic pentameter, which makes them even less conversational in tone, some few of us might have a shot at it. Even if one has read and studied a dozen of his works, it is likely that an unfamiliar work will throw you off. It is not that you will understand none of it – most of us can get some idea what is transpiring on stage. Okay, he seems to be wanting to trick the old guy. I think because he wants that girl over there in the green. She seems to be a princess or other nobility. Her maid seems to be making a lot of sexual jokes that they giggle about. Those other guys are his friends, and one of them never has any money. The old guy a jerk, but a smart jerk. But truth is, you can get a lot of that if you’re watching a play in a foreign language, too.

We understand some of what is said, or think we do, and try to figure out the whole scene from those sparse clues. And there are certainly phrases – whole sentences – that we understand.

“First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
(Henry VI, Part 2 – Do you have any way to keep those Henry plays straight?) That seems clear enough. But look what follows:

Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

We can make something of this. Laws or contracts or something written on parchment have enormous power over us. But with the lambs and the bees in there, it’s tough sledding. It’s worse when you’re hearing it rather than reading it, too.

It’s worse than a foreign language, because we don’t even understand what we think we do. It turns out we don’t even understand that “kill all the lawyers” line. It is often reported that this is actually a compliment to lawyers. The speech is uttered by a criminal, and this interpretation suggests that it is only lawyers that stand between comity and criminals taking over. But even that tortured explanation turns out to be wrong. One character says that when he’s ruler of all, everyone will have plenty of food and drink – it will be heaven. The criminal suggests that it will really be heaven if they can get rid of the lawyers. Sort of like Woody Guthrie telling the hoboes there will be no police in heaven.

Had enough? Of course you haven’t.

“O sweet my mother, cast me not away! Delay this marriage for a month, a week;”
(Romeo and Juliet)

Okay, that we understand. This Juliet doesn’t want to marry somebody her mother wants her to. But she clearly wants to marry this Romeo character we just saw a minute ago. I think I’m getting it. Not so fast. Read how she begins her next speech.

“My husband is on earth, my faith in heaven;
How shall that faith return again to earth,
Unless that husband send it me from heaven
By leaving earth?”

Ben points out that this nonsense starts right away in Romeo and Juliet:

Sampson: Gregory, o’ my word we’ll not carry coals.

Gregory: No, for then we should be colliers.

That was a joke. A big laugh line. Get it? Neither do I.

I was long embarrassed at my inability to understand The Bard. I was a theater major. I studied Old English, Middle English, and History of the English Language. I can still fight my way through Chaucer – even Beowulf in simpler sections. I can read the KJV. I can read pilgrim diaries and the Geneva Psalter. But I can’t get Shakespeare without notes and explanations. I did three scenes from King Lear in acting lab every evening for six weeks in rehearsal. At the end, I still had no idea what was going on except that Lear was losing his mind. Which I knew anyway. I really like Shakespeare when someone explains it to me. I should have suspected that something was up, because right after college I went to a production of Shakespeare and laughed at some jokes that no one else got. But I still couldn’t figure out the action onstage.

Thus, it was a great relief when McWhorter acknowledged he doesn’t get it either. I should be a purist, insisting that Shakespeare be preserved in its original for performance, because no one could possibly translate the text into Modern English with sufficient strength of poetry. Yeah, that’s true, no one could. And it does seem that every time someone tries to do a modern interpretation of Shakespeare, it just stinks. I recall the head of the theater department at W&M, an immensely talented but aging alcoholic queen pronouncing with dripping disdain “The Toronto Shakespeare Festival. Last year they did Hamlet in motorcycle leathers. The year before that Macbeth ended up with his head down a well or some such. Revolting.”

But the other choice is to not understand it at all. Maybe my idea of Macbeth done on schoolyard playground equipment wasn’t so bad after all.


Mike Austin said...

At last somebody has said it. I can hardly understand the Bard either. Thank you AVI. I thought I was alone. I wonder how many out there claim to understand Shakespeare but are as clueless as I?

terri said...

Shakespeare is great! However, it requires so much contextual information, to really "get" the language that it really must be studied through the lens of history. They should teach about Elizabethean history as a prerequisite to any Shakespeare class.

As with foreign languages, you can understand all the words and still not get the joke. Cultural context is always the key to humor. That's why when I watch Sabado Gigante I hardly ever laugh though thousands of the Latino audience are falling off their chairs.

Giacomo said...

I've gotten through several works - Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Lear, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy - oh, no, wait, that last one was Woody Allen.

At any rate, I agree. They're dense reads, often obtuse unless you have a Ph.D. in Elizabethan England. Or, maybe it's just me that's dense.

Ymarsakar said...

It gets easier once I get the context of what is going on, meaning more phrases. Just one passage won't do it for me. I'll have to reread it, look at the action, try and see what the characters are thinking and doing. Then I can do some reverse engineering on the meanings of some passages. It really is like reading advanced technical, physics, or philosophical works when you don't understand the formulas and vocabulary used.

Without a proper understanding of what the words mean, in an etymological fashion, comprehension will be difficult. You will have to plod through material word by word, inch by inch, and you might still not get it because you've spent so long look at it word by word, instead of wording it entire.

Lee said...

For understandable Shakespeare, try Henry V. "Du haaande, du faingurs, du aaarrm,". Lawrence Olivier version is OK, but I prefer Kenneth Brannaugh.

p.t. fogger said...

It takes practice, it's true. While back I decided I was going to read every Shakespeare play. I had already read a bunch of them (English Major), but I decided to read them all and re-read the ones I had read already.

I still have my copy of the "Riverside Shakespeare", and I set to it. The Riverside contains all of Shakespeare's plays, sonnets, and other known works. Each play is prefaced by a helpful introductory essay, and the text of the plays is heavily footnoted for word definitions, explanations of word meanings that differ from contemporary usage, etc.

After a while I become sensitized to hearing Shakespeare's words more or less as his audience was expected to. I internalized repeated metaphorical tropes, syntax, word meanings etc. Anyway, it gets easier an a much greater pleasure to read, and you don't necessarily have to be a scholar to do it. Just takes work.

And, of course, except where he's writing in prose (usually for comedic passages or by characters of a base character), it's all in verse, which was artificial even in his day. People didn't go around in Shakespeare's time declaiming like that. And though Shakespeare was working within established dramatic and metrical convention, he was making stuff up and improvising all the time, so even his audiences probably found much of his work surprising and unusual.

Anyway. I think Shakespeare is way cool.