Those of us who write historical romance tend to be familiar with old-fashioned language, although we have to be circumspect about making it understandable to readers. Thus it is with productions of Shakespeare which often seek to shift the scenario to a modern day equivalent in hopes of making the Bard more accessible.
My epiphany with Shakespeare came when I was at drama school, because now I had to be able to work with the language and make it emotionally real to an audience.
I remember the exact speech where I made the breakthrough. Claudio in Measure for Measure, talking to his sister of his fear of death.
“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where…” I recall vividly the sudden realisation when the concept in the words began to strike me: his living body to turn to earth in “This sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod…” and where his spirit might roam in “To bathe in fiery floods… to be imprisoned in the viewless winds, and blown with restless violence round about this pendent world…”
All at once Shakepeare ceased to be strange phrasing and weird words. The ideas leapt out at me, couched in rhythmic and beautifully descriptive language. From that point on, I grew to understand and love Shakespeare and could read it, understand it, and, later on when I began to direct and teach drama (especially at A level) to inculcate that same understanding and love of Shakespeare in my students.
For the uninitiated, there are two things to remember about Shakespeare. Firstly, the reason his plays have lasted for 500 years is that he knew what makes people tick. Secondly, if he was missing the precise word to express what he wanted, he made one up. He added hundreds of words to the language and many of his phrases have become idioms and sayings in common English, used by us all.
If you want to tackle Shakespeare, the first thing is to hit the glossary, or better still, a Shakespeare dictionary. Don’t get too hung up on poetic and old-fashioned common words like thee, thou, yon, whither, wherefore, thus, doth, dost (both from “do”), nay, ay, wouldst, couldst etc. It doesn’t take long to get a handle on them as they pop up all the time.
Once you know what the words mean, you can get to grips with the construction of the language. Since most of Shakespeare’s plays use blank verse form, you need to forget about straightforward English and expect to find topsy-turvy sentence structure to accommodate the rhythms of the text.
With “Call you me fair?” we might now say “Are you calling me fair?” The word “fair” here means beautiful, so a modern idiomatic sentence might be “Are you saying I’m beautiful?”
It always pays to take time to turn the old man’s words into idiomatic modern speech, because once you understand what is being said, the old-fashioned words and constructions become meaningful. For this you need to ignore the rhythms and the verse structure, and concentrate on the punctuation which may well roll into the next verse line in order to make sense.
“O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’s heart.”
Simply put, this means: “I wish you would show me what feminine tricks you’re using to make Demetrius fall in love with you.” (Understood here is the idea of “how you look” meaning “the way you look at him”.)
“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?”
He’s saying here: “Have I come on to you? Am I nice to you? No, I’m perfectly honest with you when I tell you I don’t and can’t love you.” (Fair here means “nicely” rather than “beautiful”.)
I once had my students do a scene from Richard III in modern speech, immediately followed by the same scene in the original Shakespeare. The audience were thus able to get the archaic language because they already understood the scene, which made for a better appreciation of the beauty of Shakespeare’s version.
Immediately you make the connection with modern idiom, you also discover how the emotions of Shakespearian characters are no different from ours. The situations may be different since his world is often peopled by kings, queens and princes. But the essential human conflict might have come straight out of Eastenders.
Shakespeare deals in the common problems of life and the difficult emotional battles we deal with every day: doubt, fear, pain, grief, love and hate, wrapped up in themes we all recognise and understand. Jealousy, betrayal, honour, faithfulness or faithlessness, ambition, greed, sorrow, joy, triumph, winning and losing - you name it, Shakespeare has written about it.
The key to understanding the Bard is not to be intimidated or fooled by the language. Don’t allow the reverence to make it sacrosanct. Treating Shakespeare like everyday speech is the surest route to appreciating his genius. After all, he was writing for an audience of ordinary people, mostly illiterate, who came to the theatre to be entertained, and Shakespeare gave them in full measure all the emotional highs and lows we expect from any drama on TV.