Entry from September 30, 2011

A Letter to the Editor of The Times of London (pay wall) yesterday from one Graham Cox of Hothfield, Kent, complained about the difficulty of understanding Shakespeare’s language today:

According to Ben Macintyre, “You can do almost anything to Shakespeare, and he always bounces back” (Sept 27), commenting about performances at the Globe in 37 languages. Well, here is a modest request. Let’s have one of the works in today’s English; just as the Bard wrote in the English of Elizabethan times. Shakespeare has become elitist in the country of his birth, whereas the lucky people who speak the 37 languages get it in their own tongue. A translation of a play into modern English by a skilled poet-playwright should be capable of producing the same verbal colour and frissons as the original. Sam Wanamaker, the Globe’s creator, promised me this on moving ahead with the building project in the early 1990s (just before his untimely exit); so he was not averse to the idea.

There is nothing very remarkable about Mr Cox’s failure to understand here that the “verbal colour and frissons” he so admires are not just the adventitious effects of the language as written — and therefore also reproducible by some alternative formulation — but built into that language and inseparable from it. In short, like all language they are time- and place-specific. Truly to understand anything written requires an understanding of when and where and by whom it was written, since meaning always and everywhere depends on context. But, like a schoolboy reaching for his Cliff’s Notes, this would-be Shakespearean is looking for a short-cut to understanding, and is therefore happy to make do with an approximation — namely the same it that “the lucky people who speak the 37 languages” are getting each in his own tongue (though of course they’re all getting different its.

More surprising is the fact that, if Mr Cox is to be believed, the late Sam Wanamaker was another of those who don’t understand that the real luck belongs to those who, speaking English as their native tongue, are privileged to be able to appreciate, with a little study, real Shakespeare rather than approximate Shakespeare. How ironic that Wanamaker, who devoted so much of his life and energies to reproducing in authentic detail Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, should have taken such a slapdash attitude towards the authenticity of Shakespeare’s language. I am reminded of the production of Troilus and Cressida I saw at the Globe in 2005 which presented the play in what purported to be the authentic Elizabethan pronunciation of its language but then cast women in the roles of several of the Greek warriors at Troy — as if the absence of the most basic sexual authenticity was or ought to have been beneath the notice of the audience.

Yet that kind of thing is very much taken for granted today, both in the custom of Shakespearean production and in that of Shakespearean scholarship. Authenticity is up for grabs when so much of Shakespeare, like the Bible, as it has been historically understood is inconsistent with feminist or otherwise politically correct beliefs about the world. Among these are the anti-“elitist” strictures to which Mr Cox’s letter gives voice. And there’s another splendid irony for you — in the suggestion that Shakespeare himself could not have been an elitist “in the country of his birth” by using words that any English speaker could not readily have understood at the time. A careful reading of him could hardly leave such a belief intact — unless, of course, one were reading him not to experience his verbal universe as he created it but only to have one’s own beliefs about the world confirmed.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts