When my 6yr old spots a word he does not understand, he asks me what it means. No context, just the word. He then inserts my definition into the original sentence and tries to work it out. Two actual examples:
<watching “Despicable Me”> “Daddy, what does despicable mean?”
“It means the bad guy.”
“So….The Bad Guy Me?”
<wandering through Home Depot> “Daddy, what does depot mean?”
“Actually it’s the place where the train stops.”
“Oh, so Home Place Where The Train Stops?”
This is what I fear happens when students – particularly those that have already come into Shakespeare with that “I have no idea what this means and I never will” confusion – are given the text and a glossary and told to get started. You point one at “Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow…” and he pages and flips and goes back and forth and comes up with “Not a small amount. We defy interpretation of omens. There’s special protection of God in the fall of a sparrow.”
Is this helpful? Sure, he’s a little closer to understanding what’s going on. And, remember, I’m not talking about the students who already get this stuff who are deliberately using the glossary to aid in their understanding. I’m talking about the first timer who’s been handed a text with a glossary.
I don’t think that this method ever generates the “Aha!” moment you need, where you finally realize that Shakespeare’s not speaking in a different language and doesn’t need to be deciphered. You need to step back from individually understanding it a word at a time and look at the big picture. And then you end up with Hamlet saying to his friend, “Don’t worry about it! I don’t pay attention to that superstitious nonsense. God’s got a controlling hand in even the most trivial thing, like a dying bird.”
The “line by line translation into modern English” is hardly any better. You’re just doing the work for them and saving the page flipping. You destroy the poetry, and end up with text that makes little sense because it has none of the natural flow you started with.
Shakespeare is not something to be “decoded” like a foreign language. You don’t swap out one phrase for another, repeatedly, and expect the new version to make sense, anymore than you can do that with English into French back into English.
(For fun, I took that last paragraph and “babelfished” it, piping it through Google’s English->French->Spanish->English translator, and got this:
Shakespeare is not something that is “decoded” as a foreign language. You do not have to re-word the other, on several occasions, and wait for the new version to make sense, nor can with English to French to English again.
I imagine that this is a little like what Shakespeare ends up sounding like to first timers relying too heavily on the glossary. Sure, it kind of makes sense? But it’s more awkward than necessary.)
This year’s Shakespeare Day Celebration is sponsored in part by Shakespeare Is Universal: Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and nothing demonstrates that sentiment better than his most famous quote of all, translated here into languages from around the world. In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, show that you believe his works are just as relevant, powerful and important as they’ve ever been!