Should We Have To Read The Bard Before Hearing Him? More On...

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JOHN MCWHORTER MAY 24, 2009

Should We Have To Read The Bard Before Hearing Him? More On Shakespeare

The responses to my post on Shakespeare have been interesting, and deserve response. Despite the predictable component of, shall we say, disagreement, most seem to agree on one thing: Shakespeare's language requires, at this distance from Elizabethan times, considerable effort to process in real time during performance.

No one would expect modern English speakers to rise to the "challenge" of Beowulf (Old English) or Chaucer (Earlyish Middle). On the other hand, we figure that if the language of a Congreve play of 1700 is somewhat formal and dense at times for modern tastes, it is hardly unreasonable to expect people to just listen closely. Shakespeare is an intermediate case.

Many take as a given that the solution for this intermediate case is simply that one should have read the text beforehand. Certainly, reading, which is slow and allows backtracking and checking helpful notes, allows comprehension of the language.

However, the idea that English speakers ought be expected to read Shakespeare before seeing the plays performed is not a truth but an opinion - a reasonable one, but an opinion, and one with which I disagree.

Opinions, as opinions, will differ. However, I consider a situation where it is expected that all audience members at a production of a Shakespeare play have sat down and pored over the text beforehand unrealistic.

I have read Shakespeare before seeing a production. Yes, it's crucial. The first time I saw Macbeth, I got little out of it for the simple reason that I couldn't catch what was being said most of the time (and as a linguist, and one who has done a fair amount of work on the history of the language, as well as a theatre fan, I was not precisely ill-equipped to "rise to the challenge"). I read the text, and the next time I saw it (that BAM production last year) I was fine.

In the old days it was common for anyone with even pretensions of literacy to regularly peruse Shakespeare editions - Abraham Lincoln's fondness for such is often adduced. However, these are different times. We recede ever more from serious engagement with print / text. It is unclear that this powerful trend can be retarded.

As such, an expectation that one has read a Shakespeare play before seeing it will result, it would seem, in the current situation unchanged: a select few who pride themselves on having done their homework, while the majority sit through the plays genuflectively.

Because Shakespeare is such imperishable material - something I am well familiar with despite the impression some seem to have that I must be deaf to poetry or unable to appreciate challenging writing - I see this as unfortunate, and perhaps even elitist. Countless Americans do not have access to the quality of education that allows previous readings of Shakespeare plays. Is Shakespeare only to be available to the hyperliterate?

I sincerely understand if some would say, perhaps ruefully, yes. However, my preference is that Shakespeare be more widely cherished than that, and that as such, the language be "translated" into the one we speak - available in assorted translations just as Beowulf and Chaucer are. As to Lawrence Levine's chronicle of the treatment of Shakespeare before the late nineteenth century in Highbrow/Lowbrow, a great book, note that in this era Shakespeare was presented not just abridged but reworded, even to the point of changing the plots (the latter which I would not recommend a revival of, but still).

There seems to be an idea that the issue is merely one of "poetry," and perhaps my using August Wilson as an example doesn't make my case. That is poetry of a "spoken" substrate; despite that whole evenings of it wear out many viewers, it may not seem formally intricate enough to compare to the challenge that Shakespeare presents.

Here is perhaps a better example of "poetry," and challenging to boot, that is still comprehensible to we moderns for the simple reason that we know what the words mean - which too often we do not, and can not, in Shakespeare's language.

David Hirson’s La Bête of 1991 was set in seventeenth-century France and composed entirely in elegant, overeducated verse. In this scene, Prince Conti has just passingly coined the term tête-à-tête-à-tête based on tête-à-tête, and the following dialogue ensues from the reaction of the unctuous pseudointellectual Valere:

VALERE:A “TÊTE-À-TÊTE-À-TÊTE”!!
MY LORD, YOU'RE BRILLIANT!!
There’s not a wit more nimble or resilient
Than that which you possess! Not now or ever!
A “tête-à-tête-à-tête”:
(Laughing and applauding.)

PRINCE: O, very clever!

Bravo, my Sovereign! Daunting is the ease
With which you weave linguistic tapestries!
Astounding is your skill at verbal play: Each sentence seems an intricate ballet
Where pronouns leap, and gerunds pirouette!
That phrase, again...?

PRINCE: A tête-à-tête-à-tête...

VALERE:A “TÊTE-À-TÊTE-À-TÊTE"! IT'S TOO DELICIOUS!
My Lord, thou art so...

(Searching his mind for the perfect word.) ..what? ...so...

(Positively blurting it out.) ... LOVALITIOUS!!...
A word I’ve just created on the fly!
For “LOVALITIOUS” seems to typify
(As common metaphors would fail to do)
The deep-down ... LOVALITIOUSNESS of you.
Yet were I bound by ordinary speech,
Thy every phrase I’d liken to a peach
Which thou hast coaxed (no mortal can say how)
To ripeness on the philologic bough;
Yes, like a shepherd to linguistic herds,
Thou hast -- in short, my liege -- a way with words.

Like Shakespearean dialogue, this language is replete with recherché references (tête-à-tête, gerunds, philologic), inverted syntax (“Thy every phrase I'd liken to a peach”), and archaic word forms like thou hast.

Two-and-a-half hours of this type of dialogue certainly requires a close attention which Neil Simon does not--there is a challenge to be risen to. When I saw this play I had to sit at the edge of my seat the whole time. But the effort paid off in complete comprehension. The problem with Shakespeare runs much deeper than the fact that it is poetry.

I know: Hirson’s language is hardly intended to limn eternal truths or stand as aesthetically profound. The structural difference between La Bête and our colloquial language is similar to that between Shakespeare’s dramatic syntax and how people spoke on the streets in his time, but then, with Shakespeare there are also words’ meanings and the synergy of their conglomeration.

Upon which there remains the simple problem that so much of Shakespeare’s poetry is unavailable to us not because it’s “challenging” but because it’s not in the language we speak – the words’ meanings have changed in ways that bar us from understanding.

In Twelfth Night, Viola observes:

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool; And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labour as a wise man’s art:
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.

A natural assumption is that Viola is talking about wit in the sense that we know: Noel Coward, Hepburn and Tracy. However, in Shakespeare’s day, wit simply meant wisdom or knowledge, and what Viola is pointing out is the irony that playing the fool can sometimes require one to be knowledgeable. After all, Shakespeare wouldn’t be much of a genius if he were simply telling us that playing the fool means being funny, would he? Similarly, in the last line, Shakespeare is pointing up the fact that wise men can have lapses of wisdom, surely a more interesting observation than that smart men often aren’t funny!

The story of wit is an ordinary one of language change. Witan meant “to know” but cnawan was a competitor and happened to win out, today surviving as know, leaving witan and its relations like wit by the wayside. The meaning of wit atrophied from “knowledge” into today’s meaning of “humor informed by cleverness (i.e. a kind of knowledge).”

Yes, some might say, but the “knowledge” meaning of wit isn’t completely lost to us today. Not only does it survive in the frozen expression to wit, but also in the old expression mother wit, which refers to innate common sense, not a mother who glides around quoting Oscar Wilde. Nor does keep your wits about you mean to retain a stock of quotations from 30 Rock.

But today, this is the peripheral meaning of the word -- not one person in five thousand, asked what wit was, would say “knowledge” rather than “humor.” And as Viola makes this speech we don’t have time to search our mental archives for archaic layers of meaning, nor do we bring a dictionary to check.

Say that audiences should come to a performance of Twelfth Night having learned the archaeology of the word wit from the footnotes of a printed edition – plus that of hundreds of other words used in the play (what’s a haggard? what does Viola mean by fit?) – and I say that you have presented an opinion, and only that.

A second opinion is that there should be versions of these plays couched in English comprehensible without engagement in junior scholarship.

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posted in: john mcwhorter, person career, abraham lincoln, conti, david hirson, lawrence levine, linguist, prince

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