Or as Shakespeare more simply put it when one of his characters had trouble understanding a speaker, “Those that understood him smil’d at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” As this example shows, Shakespeare can be perfectly clear--in part because he so largely shaped the language we speak today. Countless expressions that he coined have become our “household words.”
There are indeed archaisms in Shakespeare’s lexicon (we no longer say “mine own part”), but most of the difficulty we face in comprehending his dialogue has less to do with the passage of time than with the fact that these plays are not exercises in conversational English but dense, complex, and profoundly non-naturalistic dramatic poems.
Imagery, allusion, metaphor, and ambiguity are the poet’s stock-in-trade, so it shouldn’t surprise us to find that Shakespeare often seems to say more than one thing at a time. Our challenge today is not that we don’t receive meaning from his words, but that we receive several meanings, some of them intentionally contradictory.
Ambiguity is at the very root of Shakespeare’s poetic power--and one of the reasons for his enduring appeal is that you can’t absorb all he has to offer at a single sitting. Our understanding and appreciation of what he’s saying grows not only with repeated hearing, but also as we grow older and our understanding of life’s journey deepens. Hearing King Lear as a teenager is a very different experience from doing so as an octogenarian. Seemingly new meanings emerge from the same words we heard decades before.
Still, everyone has to start somewhere--hence McWhorter’s suggestion that Shakespeare’s plays be adapted in some way to help audiences achieve more immediate comprehension.
Shakespeare himself, of course, was a great adapter: All but four of his 36 plays are, to a greater or lesser degree, adaptations of existing works. Far from simplifying his source materials, though, he brilliantly transformed them, adding complexity, tension, and insight in infinitely greater measure than existed before. And thank God he did.
Shakespeare took the mundane and made it extraordinary. Time after time, in adapting or paraphrasing his plays, we do the reverse.
But it’s not just a question of finding good enough adaptors to do the job well. Rather, the very idea of trying to achieve a greater degree of “clarity” by adapting Shakespeare is fundamentally wrong-headed. By trying to nail down meaning, we reduce it.
An adapter of the sort proposed by McWhorter must decide on a “clearer” meaning for each word and phrase in the original. He or she must then assign a new word in place of the one Shakespeare wrote. McWhorter cites as one candidate for clarification the speech in Hamlet in which Polonius offers fatherly advice to his son Laertes as the latter prepares to depart for university: “And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character.” McWhorter suggests that modern audiences, who don’t realize that the word character is being used here as a verb meaning “write,” would interpret the latter half of this as an exclamation: something like “Look, you rascal you!”
Frankly, I’m unconvinced. I can’t honestly imagine that anyone hearing even a halfway competent actor deliver those words in performance (as opposed to encountering them on the page) would have much doubt that it means something like “These few bits of advice / Mind you remember.” The exact syntax of the line might be unfamiliar to modern ears, but the general meaning is going to be clear just from the cadence of the delivery.
But why not just change the word and eliminate the possibility of misunderstanding altogether? Well, let’s remember that Hamlet is in part the story of a young man--a bereaved son--who must grow up and find himself amidst intrigue and horror. It is about the moulding of character. The first words spoken on stage are “Who’s there?” and we spend the rest of the play finding out.
In this context, Shakespeare’s choice of the word character opens the door to a whole other layer of meaning. It’s a word he consistently used to mean the outward manifestation of inner qualities. So “Look thou character” can also be interpreted as a father urging his son to exhibit new behaviors--or, as a modern actor would say, to “characterize.” That single word sets up a resonance between this scene and the main action of the play.
In that same speech, Polonius goes on to say, “Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.” McWhorter correctly points out that the word act means “execution.” But act has other meanings too--including deliberate performance, as in “putting on an act,” which has a certain aptness in view of Polonius’s less-than-honest character. To substitute the word execution is to eliminate that connotation, to say nothing of introducing others that are completely alien to Shakespeare’s intentions.
Shakespeare’s genius created new words and new meanings for old words. He predated dictionaries. He wrote for the stage, and he knew that context and intuition would carry his audiences through his more difficult passages. He helps us by creating a web of words and images that reflect upon one another and develop over the course of a play.
In the example above, the word act is part of a meta-theatrical web that extends throughout Hamlet: a constant use of allusions to the theatre and the art of acting, most famously expressed in Hamlet’s line “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” An experienced Shakespearean actor will find these associations between key words and use them to help reveal some of the overall meanings of the play.
But this kind of large-scale explication, which evolves during rehearsal and performance, is defeated if we start changing individual words and phrases: if we make decisions in advance about what Shakespeare did or did not mean. The fact is that Shakespeare’s singular genius enabled him to impart many meanings to the language he used, and try as we might, we cannot (to paraphrase Hamlet) pluck out the heart of his mystery.
Rather than allowing this to frustrate us and make us yearn to replace his plays with simpler ones, we should be patient, enjoy what we can, and return again and again to this inexhaustible well of meaning. These plays merit--and richly reward--a lifetime of study. Revealing more of their treasures with each encounter, they have an endless capacity to thrill us and delight us; they may even transform our lives.
The words that Shakespeare left us are an inheritance that enriches us every time we hear them; in changing them we squander our birthright. Shakespeare’s language--the language to which our own is so heavily indebted--is the “real McCoy.” Accept no substitute.Antoni Cimolino is the general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
By Antoni Cimolino