JOHN MCWHORTER MAY 19, 2009
Reading the deserved critical huzzahs for the current production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone has me thinking about a bee always in my bonnet. Critics swoon over the "poetry" of Wilson's language--but Shakespearean language is equally poetic, and yet I suspect his poetry reaches far fewer of us across an entire evening than Wilson's can, and the reason is language change and how hard a time we have dealing with it.
One writer beautifully captures the mood of most audiences at Shakespeare performances as "reverently unreceptive," "gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go." One need only take a look at the faces in the lobby as the audience files out--the gray-haired gent's polite grin, the thirty-something couple's set jaws, the adolescent girl's petulant weariness - with general interest oriented suspiciously more towards getting to the rest room and planning where to go for a bite than in discussing the play. I last noticed this at BAM's Macbeth last year, as interesting a production as it was.
It's not that the Brits are somehow better at rendering Shakespeare than we are (the BAM production's Patrick Stewart is British, after all). This idea is largely due to the American delight in the British accent - those people even sound to us good saying "Would you like mustard with that?" America has spawned a great many Shakespearean actors of the highest possible caliber, such as Edwin Booth and John Barrymore.
The problem is whether Shakespeare's English is the language we speak at all. English of the late 1500s presents us with a tricky question: At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists?
There is indeed just such a gap. Shakespeare lovers of all kinds miss much more of Shakespeare's basic meanings than they tend to suspect. Way back in 1898, Mark H. Liddell made this point in the Atlantic, taking as an example Polonius' farewell to Laertes in Hamlet. The speech is full of hidden deceptions, often leaving little more understanding of what Shakespeare said than we would of a Jamaican saying goodbye to his son in patois.
"And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character"--we might take this as "And as for these few precepts in thy memory, look, you rascal you!" Actually, look used to be an interjection roughly equivalent to "see that you do it well." Those of us who have a certain feel for archaic language might guess that character means something like "to evaluate," but this isn't even close--to Shakespeare, character here meant "to write"! Granted, good acting might convey that look is an interjection, but no matter how charismatic and fine-tuned the acting, thou character is beyond comprehension to any but the occasional philologist in the audience.
Then, "Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion'd thought his act." First of all, thought to Shakespeare meant "plan," not just mental activity. Thus "Give thy thoughts no tongue" meant "Don't show your hand," not just "button up." "Nor any unproportion'd thought his act" - whose act? Who does the his refer to? To a modern listener this is the sort of opaque little splotch we must just let by, which in combination with the thousands of others over three hours leaves us yearning for a drink or a pillow. Actually, his could refer to things as well as men in earlier English. And act meant "execution": the phrase meant "Do not act on your intentions until they are well proportioned, i.e. completely thought out," not just "Don't be a silly-billy."
At the end, the famous "Neither a borrower or a lender be, / "For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." Did Shakespeare suppose that the reason one shouldn't borrow is because it interferes with the raising of livestock? Actually, husbandry meant "thrift" at the time. It will say that in the footnotes of a Hamlet book; but at the theatre, you don't have that with you.
All Shakespeare plays are shot through with this kind of thing. The foremost writer in the English language is little more than a symbol in the actual thinking lives of most of us for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying. Listen to even ordinary Russians quoting Pushkin to get a sense of how far from our Bard we really are.
I submit--in full understanding of the actual fury I have evoked in some to whom I have ventured this suggestion--that Shakespeare be performed in translations into modern English. I do not mean the utilitarian running translations in textbooks, but richly considered ones, executed by artists equipped to channel Shakespeare to the modern listener with passion, respect and care. Kent Richmond gets this and has actually been realizing the dream; take a look and reassess whether my modest proposal is completely insane.
"Settling"--no: we are already settling, in allowing an impractical, reflexive canonization of the English of five hundred years ago to bar the English-speaking public from anything but the dimmest appreciation of the work of the language's premier artist. "But it wouldn't be Shakespeare!"-- technically not, but the translations of The Canterbury Tales we read (beyond the famous first stanza) are "not Chaucer" either, but who among us thinks we should just "rise to the challenge of" passages like:
At Alisandre he was whan it was wonne
Ful ofte time he hadde the boord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in Pruce
In Lettou had he reised, and in Ruce
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree
In Gernade at the sege eek hadde he be...
Original Shakespeare should occupy the place original Chaucer does today: engaged by scholars and hard-core aficionados. However, to require intensive and largely unfeasible decoding in full three-hour live performances is to condemn us to ignorance of something that makes life worth living. As Liddell put it, for a people to genuinely possess, rather than merely genuflect, to a literature, its words "must convey expression not to one man only, but to thousands."
If theatre companies began presenting Shakespeare in modern translations, the literati would insist that the public need simply "rise to the challenge," likely isolating those Shakespeare passages that happen to still be comprehensible with minimal effort. However, especially if translations were included in season ticket packages, audiences would begin to attend performances of Shakespeare in, well, English. Some of the people of letters who insisted on sitting through Shakespeare in the original would begin writing puckish pieces describing how, dragged by a friend or daughter to see Shakespeare in English, they actually had a pretty good time. The critical juncture would be when a whole generation had grown up watching Shakespeare in the English they speak, with the fact that up through the twentieth century, American audiences were required to sit through entire performances of Shakespeare in an English only half-comprehensible to anyone but academic specialists a historical curiosity akin to corsets.
The irony is that people in foreign countries often possess Shakespeare to a greater extent than we do, since they get to enjoy Shakespeare in the language that they speak. Shakespeare is translated into rich, poetic varieties of these languages, to be sure, but since it is the rich, poetic modern varieties of the languages, the typical spectator in Paris or Moscow can attend a production of Hamlet and enjoy a play rather than an exercise. A friend of mine has told me that first time he truly understood more than the gist of what was going on in a Shakespeare play was when he saw one in French!
"I don't want to be worshipped! I want to be loved!", Tracy Lord begs of her stiff-backed fiancé in Phillip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story. I’ll bet Shakespeare would have felt similarly, and as Tracy chooses the honest, full-blooded passion of Dexter, we should reject the polite relationship the English-speaking public now has with Shakespeare in favor of more intimate, charged one which both the public and the plays deserve.