Yeah, We're Gonna Need Those Names.

Back to the subject of Huck Finn for the moment, we have this NPR story that drags Shakespeare into the mix. Not to censor him, but to update him:

Now and then I have proposed that Shakespearean language, when spoken, is often nearly impossible to understand by someone who hasn’t read it beforehand, and that there should be editions that substitute modern words for ones that now require footnoting. The response each time is predictable: Shakespeare fans tear me to ribbons in public venues (while a bunch of people quietly write to me privately, saying that they agree with me!).

Yeah….we’re gonna need the names of that latter group, they have to turn in their membership cards.
For the umptymillionth time, Shakespeare is both poetry and literature. It is the Schrodinger’s Cat of words on a page. The minute you lock it down in either category, you destroy it in the other. If you think you’re allowed to change it, then you’re basically saying that it’s not poetry. You’re painting clothes on Botticelli’s Venus. It just don’t work.
To anybody that feels the need to get a modern translation of Shakespeare, I say help yourself to West Side Story, Lion King, and Ten Things I Hate About You. Because those clearly say “Shakespeare was all about the plot, so we’ll take that and then go off and do our own thing.” When you want Shakespeare for what it is meant to be, you have only one choice (and by choice I mean “privilege”), and that is to read the original.
I just don’t understand this “It’s too hard to understand, so we have to dumb it down” argument. Anyone reading this could, I’m sure, list 10 works of literature that are beyond the understanding of your average joe – anything from Stephen Hawking’s work on black holes, to Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia – where you can’t go down to the local bookstore and flip through half a dozen different “for Dummies” versions. Why is that? Why is it that we feel the need to destroy Shakespeare?
I think that’s the very great irony – it’s because we so desperately still *want* to understand him. Most people will go through their entire lives without a second thought to Stephen Hawking or Richard Feynman. But not read Shakespeare? What what? Tragedy! If Shakespeare gets in the way of you understanding Shakespeare, then we must *change Shakespeare*!
That hurts my brain.

9 thoughts on “Yeah, We're Gonna Need Those Names.

  1. Arrrgggggghhhh!

    I hate hate hate hate HATE this increasingly prevalent idea that Shakespeare needs to be "translated" for modern folk to understand it. People only believe Shakespeare is hard because people like this guy on NPR give them permission to believe that and reinforce their fears. If they'd just stop, and read (or better yet, see a play in production — beyond being poetry and literature, as you say, Shakespeare's plays are first and foremost theatre), they'd find out that, oh, no, it's not that difficult after all, I can do this. And isn't that empowering?

    98.5% of his words are still words we use today. What's harder than the vocabulary is often the syntax — but that's not any different from any other poet, or, y'know, modern songwriters. Our brains are, in fact, clever enough to understand what's going on when words come in an unexpected order.

    It's just so insulting, I feel, to the general populace, to assume that they're *not* bright enough to get it. I'd much rather assume they are and then help them conquer the fear that's (the only thing) standing in their way.

  2. I think one of the reasons people are so convinced that Shakespeare's writing is "impossible" to understand without a word by word explanation is that so few people nowadays have actually SEEN a play by Shakespeare. Of course it's harder to understand when you're just reading it. Like all plays, and most poetry, it's ten times better (and more clear) aloud.

    Thanks to a totally literature based approach to Shakespeare in schools, the life of the plays is being sucked out of them.

    Jersey Shore would be strange and confusing if read off a page, too. (Not that the two are actually equivalent.)

  3. Which is a shame, because the history's good stuff — One of my favorite segments of the study guides I produce is the section which links the world of the play, Shakespeare's world, and the students' modern world. If you don't know the history, you can't see the connections, and they're often not only fascinating but can really offer insight into our own society.

  4. You're both right, and it was a mistake for me to separate Shakespeare into only poetry and literature. I knew there was a third, that'd we'd discussed, but surprisingly theatre escaped me :). I kept thinking "history? No, history's not what I mean…"

    So Shakespeare's really 4 things : poetry, literature, drama, and history. We almost always drop the history bit – we set the plays in times that are relevant to us to make statements about our own political climate, we don't discuss what Shakespeare was trying to say about his own.

  5. In the picture book, visual, quick fix society in which we live, there will always be those ready to capitalize. Mr. Mc Whorter also happens to be the champion of Prof. Kent Richmond, a gentleman who has decided that he will be the one to save everyone from the "nuisance" of the language by 'translating' Shakespeare into 'easy to read' editions. He feels justified, among other reasons, in that he invents his own 'modern English' iambic pentameter. I had a run-in with Mr. Richmond a while back. You want to get really pissed about how far this "movement" has progressed? Check these out: (I'm "Willshill" on the Bardblog thread)

  6. Not to be picky, and I do understand what you mean, but isn't poetry a subset of literature already?

    I've taught and directed Shakespeare with children, so I know that anyone can understand the language. Seeing it performed really is the key.

    To be fair though, I have let kids look at translations and at heavily annotated versions. When we do that, we use them with the original as a tool for better understanding; translations should never replace the original.

  7. True, Darren, about the poetry/literature thing. The reason I made the distinction is because when I say "Shakespeare as literature" I imagine somebody just running off and doing like this novelization of one of his stories. Same characters, same relationships, same plot, maybe even some of the same dialogue – but no attempt to keep any of the poetry. This is essentially how I've introduced the plays to my kids, by telling them as stories. I compare it to seeing Disney's version of Cinderella, versus reading the original. There is something to be said for introducing people to a subject, rather than just throwing them in headfirst.

    My approach has been that if you're going to do that, then do *that*. Don't mess around and swap out a word here and there. Either focus on the story and chuck the poetry (until later), or put the effort in to learn the poetry. But learn the poetry, don't butcher the poetry in a lame attempt to keep as much of it as possible. That makes things harder, because people are left scratching their heads and saying "Why would Shakespeare write that? It sounds stupid." Because there's a reason that he wrote "To be or not to be, that is the question" and not "I wonder whether I should continue to exist or not."

  8. Darren wrote:
    "…we use them with the original as a tool for better understanding; translations should never replace the original."

    I totally agree.
    I see nothing wrong with employing 'translations' as a tool geared toward understanding. But I draw the line when the idea is that 'Shakespeare' is ultimately just too hard and the translation is meant as a wholesale replacement. The gentleman of whom I spoke above quite literally regards his 'translations' in the same way one would view a translation of a piece of literature from another language. In fact, high school productions have already happened using his totally re-written versions, calling it "Shakespeare".
    My question is exactly when and where does actual 'Shakespeare' enter into the equation. Prof. Richmond would not (apparently could not or did not want to) answer that question.
    When such practices are being sanctioned at the highest levels of academia, I think it's time we sit up and take notice.

  9. My take on the whole need to translate Shakespeare thing is that because his themes are so universal, people think that it's okay to just go with those and jettison the actual works as being old-fashioned and irrelevant. This angers me exceedingly. As you say, Shakespeare is poetry and literature, and the text must be respected.

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