As I was reading through this (new to me) book, one passage relating to Shakespeare-related events during the Nineteenth Century caught my attention.
With the rise of the middle classes and the growth in popular education during
the nineteenth century the gap between legitimate and popular theatre in
England widened. Audiences seeking social and educational advancement
encouraged the development of productions that were more earnest, more
decorous, more pictorially instructive, and more professedly educational
(emphasis added by RSB). Perhaps inevitably they were also less exciting.
Stanley Wells – Shakespeare for All Time
While Wells’ point deals specifically with productions, it got me to thinking about the general reaction which I have encountered many times relating not just to productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but towards the plays, themselves. While it may be changing somewhat in more recent times, I have often encountered the idea that these plays are “too old” to have much relevance today; that the language is “too hard to understand,” (so we need “modern language” editions in order to understand them); and, that they are (the MAJOR death knell in modern times) “boring.” While I have to disagree with virtually all of these ideas, it got me to wondering if Wells wasn’t implying that some people set out to create the idea that Shakespeare was “good for us” and that educational motive didn’t mean that these works were “supposed” to be difficult?
Now, I do have to admit that the plays are old, over 400 years old, to be precise. Of course, virtually all of the major religious texts (the holy books of the major religions) are FAR older, although they aren’t considered “too old to be relevant,” but I don’t want to get into that. Still, I find it hard to accept that plays (stories) which relate to the nature of love and relationships; the desire for power and the evil which that desire can create; the qualities which make a person a good leader (king, in many, but not all, cases); the relationships between political leaders and their people; the nature of forgiveness and mercy; and the myriad of other topics which are touched on in these plays not relevant today. Personally, I think that it is still of some interest to view the rise of power of a Macbeth, for instance, or a Richard III, or the post-Caesar triumvirate in the light of the current political scene. And, it seems to me that there are many other “relevant” ideas in these plays. If others don’t see this, I think it’s their loss.
It is also true that we don’t use Elizabethan/Jacobean English as common speech today, which does mean that we may have to put some effort into understanding the language, especially when we read it. Of course, there are people (myself included) who are rather fond of the King James version of the Bible, which uses exactly the same language as Shakespeare uses (Early Modern English) as this Bible was written in England during Shakespeare’s life. Personally, I find much of this “language confusion” cleared up a good deal when the words are spoken by intelligent, well-trained and well-directed actors. After all, these are PLAYS intended for live performance, not novels and stories intended to be read, in much the same way that a good minister can help resolve difficulties with the KJV. It is true that all too often (especially in schools) we are required to read the plays, which has given rise to the “Shakespeare in Modern Language” editions which one can find almost everywhere. What they seem to contain, in the cases I have looked at, is the simplest, most straightforward possible translation into current, contemporary usage. Hence, these are, in fact, “predigested interpretations” which may, or may not, provide much insight into the variety of interpretational possibilities, to say nothing of lacking the style and “flavor” of Early Modern English, which I have come to enjoy.
I find these “Modern Language” editions somewhat dangerous to really understanding the plays NOT in their attempt to make the plays easier to understand, but that in trying to do so, they tend to ignore the fact that Shakespeare wrote them at a time when the language was still changing and was something of a plaything. Wit was highly valued, puns were frequent, multiple meanings of a single word helped to give the language texture and color, as well as to add interesting insights into character. The use of “nunnery” in the famous scene in Hamlet is a case in point, as the word “nunnery” was used to refer both to a convent and a brothel at that time. The word “nothing” which shows up in many places (and in many plays) can refer to the absence of matter, the taking of notes, or female genitals. Obviously, the use of these (and many other words) don’t always lend themselves to a simple, “predigested” interpretation. This “dumbing down,” in my opinion, may well contribute to making the plays less interesting.
Of course, some of the difficulty over Shakespeare’s language may well arise from the fact that for a long period of history, the plays were presented (and published) in versions where the language (and even the structure) was altered to suit the tastes of the times. That meant “fixing” the “many errors” which Shakespeare made in creating his plays. Not only were scenic descriptions inserted in many plays to suit the use of 17th & 18th Century scenery, the plays were rewritten (at least partially) to suit the desires and taste of the leading actors. Even more offensive, at least to me, the plays were often rewritten to suit the stated morality of the times. Since it was simply accepted (during the Age of Reason) that the innocent would never be allowed to suffer. Hence, Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet all live; as does Cordelia, although Lear, himself, is allowed to die because he is old. That’s only a couple of examples, but there is, indeed, a long history of reworking the plays to suit the tastes of the actor and the public.
That doesn’t mean that people haven’t been aware of “issues” with Shakespeare’s language for a long time. But, as Wells pointed out, “Audiences seeking social and educational advancement encouraged the development of productions that were more earnest, more decorous, more pictorially instructive, and more professedly educational.” That meant that something had to be done about Shakespeare’s use of language which later ages did not approve of, especially, on the stage, or in the schools or family. This led to such things as the editions of Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler (which led to the creation of the term “Bowdlerize”) which simply removed those words and lines which were not considered appropriate for women and children and the Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb which reduced a number of the plays to versions in which the story of the play is told, but in the form of a plot outline, hence removing the “difficult” language and making the book suitable (especially) for children.
I should point out that this long-standing “concern” for young people’s exposure to “non age-appropriate language” lasted well into the Twentieth Century, so it wasn’t just an “old-fashioned” phenomenon. When I attended high school (1958-1962) at a relatively highly respected high school (Evanston Twp. High School, Evanston, IL), we read a Shakespeare play every year in English class. I remember reading Merchant, Caesar, Dream, and Hamlet (although I’m not sure which year we read which). However, the edition we used was Shakespeare's 6 Most Popular Plays, (intended for high school students) which had been edited by a former Principal and a former English teacher from ETHS published in 1937 (I still have it!). I just looked at it, and, as I had remembered, certain (usually fairly brief) sections (like Hamlet’s byplay with Ophelia during the play scene) were not included in the text, probably as they were considered “inappropriate” for high schoolers. It’s also worth noting (I think) that the included Notes related to specific words in the text are quite limited and certainly don’t touch on those words which might be considered “questionable.” I do not know how long after I graduated that this text was still in use, but I hope it has disappeared by now.
In more recent times, of course, there has been serious (no humor intended) study of what we might call “popular” language which might not be considered appropriate for all occasions. I refer, specifically, to Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy, first published in 1947, which I first encountered in grad school (as I remember it). This book did a lot to demystify much of the bawdry which (I think) makes Shakespeare fun (and helps to explain a lot, I also think) by providing some understanding of the sexual humor and slang of Shakespeare’s times, which certainly appears to be relevant. Pauline Kiernan’s Filthy Shakespeare published in 2006, is quite an extensive study of Will’s use of sexual puns. I confess that I think it’s possible that she may be working just a little too hard to interpret every possible case as sexual punditry, but her book does provide possible insight into how the language may have been used, which I think is useful both for production and for reading.
Of course, the ultimate word to damn Shakespeare these days is to suggest that he is “boring.” Here, I think, the issue is that too many of us have been poisoned by English teachers (even professors) and some critics (literary AND theatre) into thinking that we, average people, are simply incapable of understanding the great “art” of Shakespeare, who was writing, after all, for highly intelligent, well educated, upper class people who could appreciate his work properly (i.e. English teachers and critics). To quote Delores Umbridge, “This… is… a… lie.” It takes no great effort to discover that Shakespeare wrote for the popular theatre which was NOT exclusively supported by the “upper” classes, but attracted large audiences from among the working class, even apprentices. Yes, some members of the Court did attend with some frequency, and the players did travel to the Court to perform for the Monarch, but the theatre could not have survived just performing for an aristocratic elite. So how did they attract these audiences in spite of the readily available appeals of bear and bull baiting, whoring, drinking, etc.? They told whopping good stories!
Shakespeare (as is widely known) took the best stories he could find from history, from novels, older plays and poems, and from the classical past (Yes, he, basically, stole the storylines from a variety of sources) and made them into plays about (mostly) interesting people doing (mostly) interesting things. The plays are filled with battles, loves, betrayals, political shenanigans, songs, dances, drinking, whoring; all the stuff of soap operas, Game of Thrones, and a good deal of popular entertainment for centuries. If this is “boring,” why is it all over our TV and movies? If you don’t see these plays as good stories, you really haven’t seen, or read, Shakespeare. I would agree that not every one of his plays works really well today (some apparently didn’t work so well even at the time of their writing), but I’d urge you to give them a try as written. They really aren’t all that tough a read, even if they do take a bit more effort than Twitter. And, you just might like them, even if they may be “good for you!”