Disputations: Is This Thing On?

by John McWhorter | July 14, 2009

Cimolino assumes that my argument is that Shakespeare's language is too rich to expect people to be able to understand it easily, and needs to be translated to be made clearer. The result is a beautiful exposition about the allusiveness and complexity of Shakespearean text and how to make it clearer would be to destroy the art. Okay--but Cimolino has not responded to the actual argument in my post, which was that in many cases, words’ meanings have so evolved since Shakespeare’s day that comprehension now is not merely challenging, but impossible. In the post I predicted that responses would include isolated Shakespearean phrases that happen to still remain comprehensible, and Cimolino’s response bears that out. But meanwhile, the sad fact still remains that no one today but a scholar can know what Viola means by wit in Twelfth Night when watching the play performed in real time--which is how Shakespeare intended his work to be experienced. I also suggest that interested readers consult the follow-up post I wrote on this subject a short while later, which Cimolino appears not to have known about, but which highlights that the issue here is not a matter of rising to a challenge, but a question as to what decides that we translate The Canterbury Tales but not Shakespeare. It is a rich issue lending itself to a wide range of conclusions--and Cimolino's response, in all of its articulateness, doesn't even begin to address it.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books-and-arts/disputations-thing