The Real Shakespearean Tragedy

It's been 400-plus years. Is it time to translate the Bard into understandable English?

By John McWhorter

It's a Thursday evening and you've gotten home early to eat a quick dinner with your spouse before driving downtown for a night of theatre. A friend has given you tickets for King Lear. Freshly showered and nicely dressed, you slip on your coats, have a nice twilight drive, park, glide into the theatre and take your seats. The lights dim, the audience quiets down, you squeeze your partner's hand, and up goes the curtain.

The actors playing the Earls of Kent and Gloucester and Gloucester's son Edmund stride on in vigorous conversation, and you savor the finery of the costumes, the rich voices of the performers, the beauty of the set. And ah, the language, the language. We churls bumble around butchering the language with our Billy and mes and hopefullys and Who did I see?s, but here at last is the language at its most sublime. We have to remember to thank Maria for the tickets.

What a difference 20 minutes can make. Lear has made his first appearance and exited, and now his three daughters are discussing him. Goneril advises that:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look to receive from his age, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

Regan replies:

Such unconstant starts are we like to have from him as this of Kent's banishment.

Goneril continues:

There is further compliment of leave-taking between France and him. Pray you, let's hit together.

Isn't it great to be here at the theatre enjoying some of the mightiest drama civilization has to offer? Yet it has been a long day. It's going to take some concentration to follow this, well, to be sure, gorgeous and profound, but, if we may, rather dense language. It seems like we get thrown little curveballs every second line. What does engraffed mean? How about therewithal? Well, forget it—the line has passed. "Starts are we like to have from him as this of Kent's banishment"? Oh, she means "starts" like shocks, with the banishment being an example, I guess. "There is further compliment of leave-taking"? What compliment? What are they all going to "hit" together? And this is only three ordinary lines. Shakespeare!

We all esteem Shakespeare, but how many of us actually dig him? In 1955, Alfred Harbage beautifully captured the mood of most audiences at Shakespeare performances as "reverently unreceptive," "gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go." One is not supposed to say such things in polite company, but it is an open secret in America that frankly, for most people Shakespeare is boring. I, for one, as an avid theatre fan, will openly admit that while I have enjoyed the occasional Shakespeare performance and film, most of them have been among the dreariest, most exhausting evenings of my life.

It may be an overstatement to say that every member of a Shakespearean audience is wishing they had brought a magazine. But most of the people who truly get the same spontaneous pleasure and stimulation from Shakespeare that they would from a performance of a play by Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams or David Mamet are members of certain small subsets of the general population: people of letters (literature professors, English teachers, writers and Shakespeare buffs) and "theatre people" (actors, directors, producers, dramaturgs and playwrights). For the rest, the language of Shakespeare remains lovely in snippets, but downright tiresome as the vehicle of an evening-length presentation.

In response to this, many argue that Shakespeare's language merely requires well-honed acting technique. While it is true that inflection and gesture can clarify some of the blurry points in a Shakespearean passage, what emphasis, flick of the head or swoop of the arm could indicate to us what Goneril's "further compliment of leave-taking" means? No amount of raised eyebrows, bell-jingling or trained pigeons could coax, for instance, "The cod-piece that will house / Before the head has any, / The head and he shall louse; / So beggars marry many" any further from the Hungarian that it is to us today, and I have graciously giggled along with many an audience in utter bafflement at such witticisms from Shakespearean Fools.

It is true that Shakespeare's comedies are in general somewhat less of a chore than the tragedies. This, however, is in spite of the language, not because of it. Because comedy lends itself to boffo physical pratfalls, outrageous costumes, funny voices and stock situations, an evening of Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors is usually easier on the derrière than one at Julius Caesar or Henry V. However, a great deal of the language remains equally distant to us, and even the comedies would be infinitely richer experiences if we had more than a vague understanding of what the characters were actually saying while climbing all over each other and popping out from behind doors.

The common consensus seems to be that what makes Shakespearean language so challenging is that the language is highly "literary" or "poetic," and that understanding the plays is simply a matter of putting forth a certain "effort." Shakespearean language is indeed poetry, but it is not this which bars us from more than a surface comprehension of so much of the dialogue in any Shakespearean play. Many of our best playwrights, such as Eugene O'Neill, David Mamet, Tony Kushner and August Wilson, put prose poetry in the mouths of their characters, and yet we do not leave performances of Long Day's Journey into Night, Glengarry Glen Ross or Joe Turner's Come and Gone glassy-eyed and exhausted.

Some might be uncomfortable with an implication that the most challenge that should be expected of an audience is the language of the aforementioned playwrights, since after all, Shakespeare presents us with the extra processing load of unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure. But stage poetry can challenge us without being as dimly meaningful as Shakespearean language so often is to us. A fine example is David Hirson's La Bête (see American Theatre, June '91), set in 17th-century France and composed entirely in elegant, overeducated verse. Two-and-a-half hours of this certainly requires a close attention which Neil Simon does not—there is a challenge to be risen to here. Yet it is utterly delightful because the effort pays off in complete comprehension.

No, froufrou words and syntax, and the artificiality of meter, are not in themselves what makes Shakespeare such an approximate experience for most of us. The problem with Shakespeare for modern audiences is that English since Shakespeare's time has changed not only in terms of a few exotic vocabulary items, but in the very meaning of thousands of basic words and in scores of fundamental sentence structures. For this reason, we are faced with a language which, while clearly recognizable as the English we speak, is different to an extent which makes partial comprehension a challenge, and anything approaching full comprehension utterly impossible for even the educated theatregoer who doesn't happen to be a trained expert in Shakespearean language.

No one today would assign their students Beowulf in Old English—it is hopelessly obvious that Old English is a different language to us. On the other hand, the English of William Congreve's comedy The Way of the World in 1700 presents us no serious challenge, and is easily enjoyable even full of food after a long day. The English of the late 1500s, on the other hand, lies at a point between Beowulf and Congreve, which presents us with a tricky question. Language change is a gradual process with no discrete boundaries—there are no trumpet fanfares or ending credits in the sky as Old English passes into Middle English, as Middle English passes into Shakespeare's English, or as Shakespeare's English passes into ours. Thus our question is: How far back on a language's timeline can we consider the language to be the one modern audiences speak? 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?

Many readers may feel I am exaggerating the difficulty of Shakespearean language. However, I respectfully submit that Shakespeare lovers of all kinds, including actors and those supposing that Shakespeare simply requires a bit of extra concentration, miss much, much more of Shakespeare's very basic meanings than they have ever suspected, far beyond the most obvious head-scratchers.

In October 1898, Mark H. Liddell's essay "Botching Shakespeare" made a similar point similar to mine—that English has changed so deeply since Shakespeare's time that today we are incapable of catching much more than the basic gist of a great deal of his writing, although the similarity of the forms of the words to ours tricks us into thinking otherwise. Liddell took as an example Polonius's farewell to Laertes in Hamlet, which begins:

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!", conveying a gruff paternal affection for Laertes. Actually, however, look used to be an interjection roughly equivalent to "see that you do it well." And character—if he isn't telling Laertes that he's full of the dickens, then what other definition of character might he mean? We might guess that this means something like "to assess the worth of" or "to evaluate." But this isn't even close—to Shakespeare, character here meant "to write"! This meaning has long fallen by the wayside, just as thousands of other English words' earlier meanings have. Thus "And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character" means "See that you write these things in your memory." Good acting might convey that look is an interjection, but no matter how charismatic and fine-tuned the performance, thou character is beyond comprehension to any but the two or three people who happen to have recently read an annotated edition of the play (and bothered to make their way through the notes).

Polonius tells his son to "Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in / Bear't, that the opposed may beware of thee." We assume he is saying "Avoid getting into arguments, but once you're in one, endure it." In fact, bear't meant "make sure that"—in other words, Polonius is not giving the rather oblique advice that the best thing to do in a argument is to "cope," but to make sure to do it well.

"Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement." Turn the other cheek? No—to take a man's censure meant "to evaluate." Polonius is advising his son to view people with insight but refrain from moralizing. "The French are of a most select and generous chief"? Another blob we have to let go by with a guess. Chief here is a fossilized remnant of sheaf, a case of arrows—which doesn't really help us unless we are told in footnotes that sheaf was used idiomatically to mean "quality" or "rank," as in "gentlemen of the best sheaf."

And finally we get to the famous line, "Neither a borrower or a lender be." Have you ever wondered why the following line is less famous—the reasons why one shouldn't borrow or lend? "For loan oft loses both itself and friend / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." So the reason one shouldn't borrow is because it interferes with the raising of livestock? Actually, husbandry meant "thrift" at the time. It does not anymore, because the language is always changing.

Polonius's speech is by no means extraordinary in terms of pitfalls like these. Indeed, almost any page of Shakespeare is as far from our modern language as this one. So shouldn't one simply read a Shakespeare play beforehand in order to prepare oneself to take in the language spoken? The fact is that one cannot simply "read" this speech without constant reference to annotations. How realistic or even charitable is it to expect that anyone but specialists, theatre folk and buffs will have the patience to read more than a prescribed dose of Shakespeare under these conditions? And ultimately a play is written to be performed, not read, and certainly not deciphered. A play that cannot communicate effectively to the listener in spoken form is no longer a play, and thus no longer lives.

The tragedy of this is that the foremost writer in the English language, the most precious legacy of the English-speaking world, is little more than a symbol in our actual thinking lives, for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying. Shakespeare is not a drag because we are lazy, because we are poorly educated, or because he wrote in poetic language. Shakespeare is a drag because he wrote in a language which, as a natural consequence of the mighty eternal process of language change, 500 years later we effectively no longer speak.

Is there anything we might do about this? I submit that here as we enter the Shakespearean canon's sixth century in existence, Shakespeare begin to be performed in translations into modern English readily comprehensible to the modern spectator. Make no mistake—I do not mean the utilitarian running translations which younger students are (blissfully) often provided in textbooks. The translations ought to be richly considered, executed by artists of the highest caliber well-steeped in the language of Shakespeare's era, thus equipped to channel the Bard to the modern listener with the passion, respect and care which is his due. (Kent Richmond, a professor at California State University—Long Beach, has been quietly doing just this with his Shakespeare Translation Project.)

"But translated Shakespeare wouldn't be Shakespeare!" one might object. To which the answer is, to an extent, yes. However, we would never complain a translation of Beowulf "isn't Beowulf"—of course it isn't, in the strict sense, but we know that without translation, we would not have access to Beowulf at all.

I predict that if theatre companies began presenting Shakespeare in elegant modern translations, a great many people would at first scorn such productions on the grounds that Shakespeare had been "cheapened" or "defiled," and that it was a symptom of the cultural backwardness of our society and our declining educational standards. However, especially if they were included in season ticket packages, audiences would begin to attend performances of Shakespeare in translation. Younger critics would gradually join the bandwagon. Pretty soon the almighty dollar would determine the flow of events—Shakespeare in the original would play to critical huzzahs but half-empty houses, while people would be lining up around the block to see Shakespeare in English the way Russians do to see an Uncle Vanya.

Then would come the critical juncture: A whole generation would grow up having only experienced Shakespeare in the English they speak, and what a generation they would be! This generation would be the vanguard of an American public who truly loved Shakespeare, who cherished Lear and Olivia and Polonius and Falstaff and Lady Macbeth and Cassius and Richard III as living, breathing icons like Henry Higgins, Blanche DuBois, Big Daddy, George and Martha and Willy Loman, rather than as hallowed but waxen figurines like the signers of the Constitution frozen in a gloomy painting.

No longer would producers have to trick Shakespeare up in increasingly desperate, semi-motivated changes of setting to attract audiences—A Midsummer Night's Dream in colonial Brazil, Romeo and Juliet shouted over rock music in a 90-minute MTV video, Two Gentlemen of Verona on motorcycles, Twelfth Night at a 7-Eleven. Producers do this to "make Shakespeare relevant to modern audiences," but the very assumption here that the public needs to be reminded of this relevance is telling, especially since the assumption is so sadly accurate. A more effective way to make Shakespeare relevant to us is simply to present it in the English we speak.

Indeed, the irony today is that the Russians, the French and other people in foreign countries possess Shakespeare to a much greater extent than we do, for the simple reason that unlike us, they get to enjoy Shakespeare in the language 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, Moscow or Berlin can attend a production of Hamlet and enjoy a play rather than an exercise. In Japan, new editions of Shakespeare in Japanese are regularly best-sellers—utterly unimaginable here, since, like the Japanese, we prefer to experience literature in the language we speak, and a new edition of original Shakespeare no longer fits this definition. In an illuminating twist on this, one friend of mine—and a very cultured, literate one at that—has told me that the first time they truly understood more than the gist of what was going on in a Shakespeare play was when they saw one in French!

The glory of Shakespeare's original language is manifest. We must preserve it for posterity. However, we must not err in equating the preservation of the language with the preservation of the art. Perhaps such an equation would be the ideal—Shakespeare through the ages in his exact words. In a universe where language never changed, such an equation would be unobjectionable. In the world we live in, however, this equation is allowing blind faith to deprive the public of a monumental treasure.

We must 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. To ask a population to rise to the challenge of taking literature to heart in a language they do not speak is as unreasonable as it is futile. The challenge we must rise to is to shed our fear of language change and give Shakespeare his due—restoration to the English-speaking world.

John McWhorter is a linguist and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His books include Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and Word on the Street, from which this piece is excerpted.