Thursday, September 6, 2012

Shakespeare--Therein Lies the Confusion

I've been thinking a lot about why Shakespeare is so hard to understand.

It's not just the words themselves that confuse the reader, though they're often treacherous.  Example:  I was reading Macbeth and came to a sentence that seemed to make no sense.  "The greatest is behind," it said.  However, Macbeth was speaking of his belief that he would soon be king, and was happy about the prospect.  So why did he say the greatest was behind?  Then I looked at the footnotes.  There it said:  "117 behind to come."  Okay, so "behind" means "in front of."  Why didn't I think of that?  And what on earth is our crazy language doing, changing meanings in such diametrically confusing ways? 

The unfamiliar words aren't so bad, because our brain warns us to beware.  Then we can look at the footnotes and figure it out.  The words we think we know but don't are the worst, such as these examples, all from Macbeth (Bantam Classic 1980).  Owed = owned, limited = appointed, make love = ask for aid, scorched = cut or slashed, encounter = respond to, close = secret, minions = darlings.  The list goes on and on.

There are also many words whose meanings have slid, and thus are likely to kill nuances:    sensible =  perceivable with the senses (sensed), amazed = bewildered,  wasteful = destructive, offend = make worse, speculation = power of sight,  overcome = come over.

If it were only the words, it wouldn't be such a problem, but even when I understand the words, the long sentences often disguise their own verbs, and the odd constructions present themselves as riddles.  Poetry and obscure analogies further confuse the issue.    The quotes we hear—the beautiful, well-expressed, profound observations—are couched in seas of words, words, words. 

I know Shakespeare had to write these fast.  I know he didn't have a computer to copy and paste and edit 27 times.  He didn't even have a good pen and cheap paper.  But couldn't he have edited a couple of times to cut down on all the unnecessary stuff?  After all, brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet).     

Much of this confusion is the small matter of 400 years of language change that separates us from the Bard.  His fans will say those who don't understand are just lazy or stupid.  But I cannot count the times I've heard that good writing is clear writing.  I can't count the articles and authors' presentations and critique group discussions that center around how to make your writing concise.  And I can't deny that I simply enjoy stories more when I know what's happening. 

More on Shakespeare Month:  It's Okay Not To Like Shakespeare

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