Thursday, March 30, 2017

Coping with Shakespeare

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.

Elizabeth Bailey 


Unknown said...

I loved this, Elizabeth! You explain it beautifully. It's such a joy when a student suddenly 'gets' Shakespeare. I have never forgotten teaching 'As You Like It' an adult A level one year crash course, and one of students - an Iranian doctor - coming up to me after we'd been discussing Shakespeare's use of assonance and alliteration to get across emotion and saying, with a huge smile, '"Around his neck a green and gilded snake had wreathed itself". Shakespeare is wonderful!'

I knew he'd fled Iran and was making a new life for himself in the UK, and that things had been very difficult for him. I thought: Shakespeare is one of the best things this country has to offer. He now thinks Shakespeare is wonderful, and I think he'd be OK. I'm happy to say that he got his A level.

Nicola Cornick said...

What a fantastic blog, Liz. I love Shakespeare's language both in terms of how vivid it is and the deep emotions it conveys. A true master and well worth studying. But also such fun!

Elizabeth Bailey said...

Wow, Elizabeth, what a lovely story! And thank you. I agree, it really does give you a fillip when they get it and how wonderful to give of our culture this particular gem and genius. Thanks for that.

Nicola, thank you. It is fabulous stuff, isn't it? As writers, we can learn so much from his understanding of human nature.

Beth Elliott said...

A wonderful article, Liz. You have really contributed a lot to helping people learn to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. I can't imagine what it would be like to live without seeing and enjoying his plays - and the marvellous actors who interpret the roles. My first contact with the Bard came via Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, so that I knew the stories before actually reading or seeing the plays. It helped a lot, and once begun, I was and still am, hooked - but on Shakespeare's own words, not modern variants.

Elizabeth Bailey said...

Thank you, Beth. Completely agree about being hooked on Shakespeare's own words. The modern variant is really just a way in. We can't possibly say it as well as he put it. I too can't imagine life without Shakespeare. People all over the world agree with us.

Lori said...

Well said, Elizabeth! I began reading Shakespeare when I was 12 and could, for the most part, understand what I was reading. I have always loved WORDS, and although a lot of what was written did go over my head, I still fell in love with the way he used words. As I got older and re-read the plays, my understanding grew better as well, of course. After I married I was able to share my love of Shakespeare with my husband, quite often translating a phrase or passage into modern idioms, as you say, to make sure he got the meaning. He loves going to plays with me now or watching big screen version with me, and I've found that he can quite often do the translating himself.