by Sarah E. Skwire

At the Garrick Club in London, W. S. Gilbert [one half of Gilbert and Sullivan] was once baiting a group of Shakespeare admirers. ‘Take this passage, for example,’ he said. ‘I would as lief be thrust into a quickset hedge, As cry ‘Plosh’ to a callow throstle.’ One of the group at once sprang to Shakespeare’s defense: ‘That’s perfectly clear. It just means that the speaker would prefer to be scratched all over in a thorny bush rather than disturb the bird’s song. Er–what play is that from?’ Gilbert smiled triumphantly. ‘No play,’ he said. ‘I made it up–and jolly good Shakespeare it is, too!’

–Clifton Fadiman, The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes

The complexity of Shakespeare’s language is a well-known and easily mocked feature of his works. While some find it a bar to understanding, others find it a reason to love the plays all the more. So, Russ Roberts and John McWhorter’s extremely interesting discussion about language as an evolving order offers lots of food for thought, particularly for lovers of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is, as McWhorter suggests, an amazing source for people who are interested in the ways that language evolves. In Act 5, scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the rustic actor playing the part of Moonshine refers to the “lanthorn” that he carries. Any mildly curious student of language will do a little dictionary work and discover that “lanthorn” is, indeed, an archaic word for “lantern” and that the glass panels that are now found in lanterns were once made from translucent sheets of horn. In Shakespeare’s play Moonshine’s reference to his lanthorn provides the excuse for a series of mildly naughty puns on the subject of horns. (Language evolutionists may like to consider that the notion of a horn as a sexual metaphor is so common today that “horny” is considered simple description, and no longer really a pun at all.)

The point is that the “lanthorn” as used in this scene isn’t just a quaint version of the word “lantern.” It’s also doing poetic work in the scene. Later lines rely on the word “lanthorn” in order to enrich their meaning. McWhorter may be right to suggest that some very artful updating of Shakespeare’s vocabulary in performance may increase the ease with which audiences are able to understand what is being said. But, given that there are no solutions, only trade-offs, I think it’s important to worry about what might be lost as well.

McWhorter says (6:45):

There is an argument that there be two versions of each Shakespeare play. You can have the original, for those who desire the original, and optimally those who have read it beforehand and can actually take it in as a serious piece of theater instead of as a kind of spectacle of poetry. Which is not what Shakespeare meant. Then, there should be another version, where only the words that we can no longer understand without scratching our heads and doing some philology are replaced by some word–optimally with the same rhythm–this is quietly done. …I firmly believe that if Shakespeare were with us today and we asked him whether or not he would prefer that we do that instead of having the plays be what he wrote, if he understood how language changes, I’m sure he would say, ‘Oh, yeah. Go ahead. Fiddle with it. Because I want people to understand what I said, not to think of it as just poetry washing over their heads.

I think most Shakespeare scholars would agree with McWhorter that Shakespeare would have been a fan of performances that got people into the theater and made money for the writers, actors, and investors involved. I’m less certain that we can be sure that he would be thrilled with the idea of having his verse “fiddled with” in order to avoid the sensation of poetry “washing over” the heads of the audience.

Part of what makes me doubt such a claim is that Shakespeare is fairly merciless about the importance of good writing and good speech. His mockery of the poetry and speech of the rustic actors in Midsummer and of malapropic fools like Sir Toby Belch and Constable Dogberry in Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, conveys a sensitivity to the precisions of language that might not be best pleased by having carefully chosen words replaced by close synonyms “optimally with the same rhythm.”

But Shakespeare is dead, of course, and we may not need to be worried about offending his shade. What we may be more worried about is the loss of linguistic richness and play for which Shakespeare is so well known. Shakespeare’s plays contain the largest collection of nonce words [words created by an author and used only once by that author] in English literature. Many of those words were instantly grokked as so cromulent that they entered the lexicon and remain in use today. Others have faded into obscurity. The point is, however, that Shakespeare was having a grand time experimenting with old words, inventing new words, and using every word he could to add richness and a sense of play to his work.

Russ Roberts suggests that if Shakespeare “peppered his plays with Italian” we would naturally translate those parts of the plays. In general, though, when Shakespeare does pepper his plays with foreign languages (most often French rather than Italian) even modern performances leave that language untranslated. This isn’t because modern directors don’t want their audiences to understand the play. It’s because when Shakespeare gives us a scene filled with non-English terms, his English characters are presented as having trouble understanding them as well. We non-French-speakers in the audience are meant to be as confused as they are.

The best example of this is in Henry V, Act V, scene ii, where the English speaking King Henry V and the French speaking Katherine struggle to understand one another well enough to woo. An earlier scene where Katherine tries to learn English before he arrives is not only comic relief but also a reminder that Katherine’s country is being conquered and the welfare of her people may rest on her ability to understand and charm the English king. While French speakers may be better placed to get the puns that Shakespeare makes between French and English false cognates, translation of these scenes into English would render them linguistically clear, but emotionally incomprehensible.

It would be, I suggest, almost impossibly difficult to provide a contemporary translation of Shakespeare that would convey the fun that Shakespeare has with language, the tricks he can make it do, and the attention he pays to how it makes us feel.

That said, I am aware that–early modern specialist that I am–I am thoroughly biased in this argument. So I want to close by noting that almost any translation/modernization effort is better than the idea of losing Shakespeare to future generations. I think that’s what Mark Twain meant when he had a character in Huckleberry Finn mangle Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy. And I think it’s what Emily St. John Mandel meant her in post-apolcalyptic novel Station Eleven when a few survivors come together as a roving theatrical troupe, performing whatever they can remember of Shakespeare’s plays:

WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.

Sarah Skwire is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., and the co-author of the college writing textbook, Writing with a Thesis, which is in its 12th edition. Sarah has published a range of academic articles on subjects from Shakespeare to zombies and the broken window fallacy. She writes regularly for FEE and blogs occasionally for the Fraser Institute and Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Sarah’s work on literature and economics has also appeared in Newsweek, The Freeman, and in Cato Unbound, and she lectures for IHS, SFL, and other organizations.