It’s a sad reality, but English-speakers understand Shakespeare less than anyone else. That’s because foreigners regularly translate the bard’s plays — into German, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. — so they’re free to use language they understand. But English-language productions usually refuse to translate or even to edit Shakespeare. So audiences have to wrap their heads around 400-plus years of language change.
Most Shakespearean confusion results from semantic drift: changes in the meaning of words. Juliet says, “Romeo, oh Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” To us, it seems Juliet asks, “where are you, Romeo?” (That would actually make some sense for the scene on the balcony.) But “wherefore” meant “why” in Shakespeare’s time. So Juliet asks (rhetorically), “why are you Romeo?” Why does her new boyfriend have a name that ties him to an enemy family?
Hamlet throws us off over and over. In Act 3, King Claudius plans a meeting between his nephew and the girl, Ophelia. “For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither, That he, as twere by accident, may here Affront Ophelia.” The king certainly doesn’t want Hamlet to insult or offend Ophelia (though that’s what happens, more or less). In Shakespeare’s time, “affront” just meant “meet.”
Also in Hamlet, the courtier (and moron) Polonius offers one of my favorite adages: “Brevity is the sole of wit.” Polonius seems to offer advice for comedians, but in Shakespeare’s time, “wit” meant intelligence. The same word leaves leaves Twelfth Night audiences confused too. Viola displays her own fine wit (under either definition) when she says: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit ….”
A Light Line Edit
In my humble opinion, 400 years of fealty is enough. I think theatrical productions should make Shakespeare more accessible by translating him into modern English … a little. I’m not suggesting that we abandon the magic of Shakespeare’s language. We’d need only a few updates here and there. How about: “we have closely sent for Hamlet, That he, as t’were by accident, may here meet Ophelia”? Even Juliet could update her query: “Romeo, oh Romeo, why art thou Romeo?”
I’m not the first to suggest this sacrilege. The movies have often updated Shakespeare, probably because they already have to edit his work. It’s time for more stage productions to do the same. Western Civilization would not come crashing down.
© 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.