To celebrate Shakespeare's birthday, we're featuring some of our favorite archival pieces about his life and work. This one was first published in April 2010. Happy Birthday, Bill!
The other day, I received a letter from a friend who wrote, "Unfortunately, I find him almost impossible to understand.... Is there a secret to comprehending Shakespeare? I'd really like to read him, and any hints would be appreciated."
My friend is not a philistine but a well-read woman who struggled through the major plays in school and has seen various theatrical productions and film versions of them. She obviously respects and values the immortal words of William Shakespeare and would like to join ranks with the many who enjoy reading him. So I was distressed by her candid admission of having such difficulty with his language. I am sure that many of you will sympathize with her and agree in a knee-jerk fashion that, yes, Shakespeare is indeed impossible to understand. But I think the problem is not with William Shakespeare but with you. Before you take offense, let me explain.
The first thing you have to do when confronting Shakespeare is break down the wall of resistance that has been constructed between you and him by a cultural atmosphere fraught with willful misunderstanding. For instance, how many times have you heard someone say that Shakespeare wrote in Old English or Middle English? That right there might be enough to put you off. But both of those claims are patently false. I'll show you. Here is a passage from Beowulf, which is written in Old English:
baet hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesibas, bonne wig cume,
leode gelaesten; lofdaedum sceal
in maegba gehwaere man gebeon.
And here is a passage from The Canterbury Tales in Middle English:
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte theseus;
Of atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Now here are a few famous lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.
Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, the same language that we speak today. There is not one word in the above passage from Hamlet with which you are unfamiliar. Your problem with understanding Shakespeare is due to his language being poetic. Most of your everyday discourse has become so pedestrian that your ears have become unable to tune in to language that aspires to greater heights. This may or may not be your fault. We all are aware that the state of education in this country is woefully bleak. But why submit to the prevailing philistine attitude without a fight?
After I received my friend's letter, I serendipitously began reading The Selfish Gene, a popular book on genetics by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As I was grappling with some of the more technical passages that contained words like allele, nucleotide, cistron, and mitosis, I was sometimes tempted to close the book and give up. Yet with a little extra effort, I was able to push through the difficult passages and come away with at least a general understanding of what Dawkins was getting at. And, since I do not aspire to be an expert in the field of biology, a general understanding was all I was hoping to attain.
Then somewhere along the way, a thought struck me: This often frustrating feeling of wrestling with words to wrench out their meaning is what my friend might be experiencing when she picks up a play by William Shakespeare -- and ditto for my community college English students whom I have been known to annoy on occasion by assigning King Lear, Othello, or Twelfth Night. If you cannot understand Shakespeare, how can you enjoy him? But, as with me and biology, unless you are striving to be a Shakespearean scholar, a general understanding of a play is all that is needed.
In his wonderful movie Looking for Richard, his valiant attempt to bring Shakespeare's Richard III to the daunted public, Al Pacino said, "You shouldn't have to understand every single word. Why? Do you understand every ... ? I mean, it's not important. It doesn't matter. As long as you get the gist of it. Just trust it. You'll get it." Here are a few tips that I hope will help you trust it and eventually get it:
The English language, like everything else on this planet, has evolved. It changes in subtle ways gradually over the years. So, occasionally, a word that Shakespeare uses will be unfamiliar to you, or it will be a familiar word that had a different meaning in the Elizabethan Age. For example, take the verb "doubt." Today it means to feel uncertain about something, as in "I doubt his sincerity." In Shakespeare's day, it also meant to fear something. Take these lines from a short speech by Hamlet:
My father's spirit in arms! all is not well;
I doubt some foul play: would the night were come!
The Prince of Denmark is not using the word "doubt" to convey that he feels uncertain that foul play has occurred; rather, he means that he fears that foul play has occurred. He is afraid that someone has murdered his father. What can make understanding Shakespeare even more tricky is that sometimes he uses the same word within a speech to mean two different things. This is from a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia:
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
The first two times Hamlet uses the word "doubt," he means feel uncertain. The third time he means fear, and the last time he again means feel uncertain. Shakespeare keeps you on your toes, and this kind of wordplay is a wonderful aspect of his work.
Sometimes as simple a word as "an" can present a challenge. Take these lines spoken by Bianca in Othello:
An you'll come to supper to-night, you may; an you
will not, come when you are next prepared for.
When Bianca uses the word "an," she means "if":
If you'll come to supper to-night, you may; if you
will not, come when you are next prepared for.
Once your ear becomes attuned to a few archaic anomalies such as these, the sailing will be a lot smoother. To help you adjust to this, I suggest you read Shakespeare's plays in the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of the individual plays. These inexpensive paperbacks offer Shakespeare's text on the right hand page and "explanatory notes designed to help make Shakespeare's language clearer to a modern reader ... on the page facing the text that they explain." But whatever else you do, be sure to avoid such abominations as the "No Fear Shakespeare" and the "Shakespeare Made Easy" series, both of which should be more aptly titled "The Reader Made Stupid" series.
In everyday speech and writing, we usually put the subject of a sentence before the verb. Shakespeare very often did the opposite for reasons concerning poetic rhythm and meter. Take this line from Romeo and Juliet:
Never was seen so black a day as this.
The subject of that sentence is "day"; the verb is "was seen." We would usually write the sentence like this:
A day so black as this was never seen.
But Shakespeare chose a more poetic way to say it. After all, finding poetic ways to say things was his forte. He often played around with word placement, so be on the lookout for it.
By now, you must be thinking that all this sounds more like hard work than the enjoyment promised in the title of this essay. Well, remember the old saying: Nothing worth having comes easily. The enjoyment kicks in when you really start to get it, when you finally meet William Shakespeare on his own turf and his language begins to open new doors in your consciousness.