Slim Shakespeare

Lose text now! Ask me how!

When performing Shakespeare today theatres around the world will cut words, lines, and scenes out of the show. The Shakespeare Blog raises quite a few questions about the effects of editing down one of the Bard’s plays.

Cutting one of the plays is a difficult task. Length of the show obviously needs to be considered. But duration, contrary to popular belief, isn’t the only thing in question. The director (possibly in conjunction with a dramaturge or other) has to decide how much to cut, what information needs to stay in, what can be done without, and other considerations. If length was the only issue the actors could just go faster, which isn’t a bad idea. Lots of productions are too slow… but I digress. I’ll rant about that at a later time.

Speeding up won’t solve everything. Even at a faster pace the script may still be too much for the show the director has in mind. The cuts that are made really have to do a lot with what the director’s concept of the show is. If a director wants to make Julius Caesar more focused on the main conflict, he or she can cut out the various extra politicians who in their opinion “slow down the story.” Or if the director decides to show the King’s ship crashing on the island in The Tempest from a different point of view, the entire first scene can easily be cut.

What’s great about using works in the public domain is that their are no copyright laws on it so you can hack it and change it as much as you want. A director can easily whittle away text so that the script fits their concept of the show. Their are some lines that are often taken out just because they’re more or less unintelligible. If a modern audience won’t get it why should they listen to it?

Some aren’t so happy about cutting Shakespeare’s plays left and right. They may claim that the work is “genius, and should remain unaltered!” And maybe perhaps say “You wouldn’t cut anything out of Einstein’s work, why Shakespeare’s?” Well most people aren’t going to pay to see Einstein’s work onstage for 2 hours.

If the reason to cut is because a producer knows that an audience won’t sit through a 3 hour production, or because the director needs to let go of a few speeches to fit the setting they decided on, or they want to change the ending, so be it. The fact is that it’s art. Live art. Think of it as Jazz music. Old tunes are picked up, things taken out, things put in, other things changed. It’s art: you don’t have to like it.

When I’m sitting through a production and I recognize that certain parts are cut, I ask myself: does it work? If I find justification for leaving it out — it didn’t fit in the concept, the portrayal of the character, it was an obscure reference, confusing text, or didn’t move the plot forward — then it worked. If I find myself questioning the director’s choice and it takes me out of the action and into my head it probably didn’t work so well. The best is when I don’t notice anything missing at all because I’m so engrossed in a great show. That always works for me.

Puzzles The Will

While browsing the net, I came across a post on the Shakespeare Blog that had a piece that related to my recent post about translated Shakespeare editions.

The author, a teacher, mentions that she doesn’t use translations at all. That giving one to them is telling students that

…they cannot possibly understand Shakespeare without having it “translated” for them. [. . .] Second, you’re confirming in their minds that Shakespeare really didn’t write in English…

Some say they don’t know how to read old English. I’m sure they mean “English that is old.” Looking to linguistics and a history of our language, Old English was way before Shakespeare. Middle English was also before Shakespeare. During the Elizabethan era the people wrote and spoke Early Modern English. The language has continued to evolve, but is not so different from Shakespeare’s day to today as it was to Old English – which is almost completely unrecognizable as English.

Shakespeare’s language is a puzzle. A scavenger hunt. The fun is in solving it! When I work on a piece of Shakespeare on of my favorite parts is the text analysis and making sense of it. Looking up the words, making sense of the text, researching the history, mythology, characters, looking at the First Folio for the original punctuation and other clues on how to speak the text… and more. It’s fun! It is really like putting a literary puzzle together and that’s just the first step in creating a performance.

Try putting together the puzzle sometime. I have a feeling that you will enjoy yourself. And if you end up doing this work for a performance the experience will be much more fulfilling because of all the work you did. You’re audience will understand and appreciate you much more too!

“Translated” Shakespeare

Over the last several years editions of Shakespeare’s plays such No Fear Shakespeare have become increasingly popular among everyone under the sun who picks up Shakespeare to read. People love the simplicity of being able to read a “translated” Shakespeare play. These have been created to combat Bardophobia. But are these convenient little volumes the solution to heal the masses of their inability to understand Shakespeare?

It seems like a little bit of a double-edged sword to me.

Translations into a different language always lose something, you can never say exactly what is meant in another language. One problem with “translating” Shakespeare’s text is that it isn’t another language, it’s still English! Any time you substitute words for other words the meaning is not going to be the same. Yes, the English isn’t modern and can be hard to understand but the language didn’t evolve to give a modern substitute for everything. When you change the words, the meaning is changed. Each word has a distinct meaning, sounds, feeling. Accept no substitutes.

Now I’m not saying that there is no merit in these books. I am saying that the translation is not a substitute for reading the play. The modern English is there as tool, not a crutch. When one ignore’s Shakespeare’s text in favor of the modern you aren’t reading Shakespeare. Often Shakespeare’s words have a double meaning. That doesn’t happen when the words are changed. Sometimes footnotes in other editions are more useful in this respect. In other places, the translation may not be the most accurate words to use in place of the text.

Again, the modern is to be used as a tool to help you understand what is being said when it is tough. In that respect these books can be a GREAT help. Some passages in Shakespeare just are too weird to comprehend right away and looking it up in one of these is a wonderful and painless way to get an “Aha! So THAT’S what that means” moment.

No Fear Shakespeare doesn’t solve the problem of getting people to understand Shakespeare and overcome a fear of it. If used alone it is only a cover for the effects, not the problem.

If you like these versions, great! If you teach using these books, awesome! There is nothing wrong with using them. But whatever you do don’t fall into the trap of taking the “easier path” of looking at only the modern text. Shakespeare’s text isn’t simple without some experience first, but if you take the time it is a much more rewarding experience. Try to read the play in its original form as much as possible and glance over to the translation when you need it. In general when you want a short passage in modern English, spend a little time and try to do it yourself. Look up some words, spend some time with it. When you put Shakespeare in your own words you will understand it better, you’ll connect to it more easily, you’ll enjoy it more. When you need a quick answer use the translation, but don’t cheat yourself. It’s a puzzle – and always more rewarding when you piece it together yourself.

WOTD: Diadem

I don’t know exactly what it is about this word, but it’s one of my favorites.

diadem (n.) IPA Pronunciation: Diadem

A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket!
- Hamlet (III.iv)

The word just has such a regal sound about it. Crown sounds authoritative, but diadem is royal.

Where To Start With Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s language can be challenging. You and everyone else already know this fact. I’ll try not to say it again. Since it can be so challenging (whoops!) some people try to avoid it. When avoiding it for so long doesn’t work and people realize that they have to work on something Shakespearean, for whatever reason, they’re a bit lost on where to start.

This is a tough question to answer. Shakespeare did so much and everyone’s needs are different how can one recommend one starting place? Very carefully. Some might suggest picking up a copy of a play with Shakespeare’s text on one side and a modern “translation” on the other. This isn’t a horrible idea, but I have mixed feelings about those books.

Theatre and English classes alike will usually start their Shakespeare unit with a day or two of biography and history. Great info, but a history lesson isn’t usually the best way to get excited about a piece of text for reading or performing.

If you really want a fun, engaging and relatively easy way to jump into Shakespeare’s text I would recommend The Sonnets. Even if you’re about to work on a play? Yes, even then. The Sonnets make for a great activity for anyone first entering the vast fields of Shakespeare’s writings: from students to teachers to the average person who just wants to start working with Shakespeare’s text.

First off, a Sonnet is only 14 lines long. That’s not a lot of text, so it will be easy to dive into all aspects of the verse without being overloaded with so much to work with. Each sonnet is written in iambic pentameter which will allow the first time student to see how the meter of the verse works right away. Rhyme is used in these poems, one can see the effects that has on the verse, and that some words don’t rhyme anymore. The reader will also have to make sense of the grammatical structure that the authors used. Again, since there are 14 lines, it’s not so much that you can’t make sense of with a little help from a teacher, friend, or book. If you’re lost for what something means you can ask me too and I’ll do my best to help. Have a dictionary handy to see what some words mean, but with some time and thought you’ll be able to make sense of what the Sonnet is saying. It only gets easier with practice too!

With 154 different sonnets to choose from, I guarantee that you’ll find one that you can relate to somehow. When you decide to work on a sonnet choose one that speaks to you. This is another advantage of working with the Sonnets. When you have a piece of text that you connect with emotionally you will understand it, memorize it, and enjoy it better and faster.

Now go out there and pick up a sonnet and go to work fun!

WOTD: Hoise

Bring in da hoise, brink in da funk. Wait, you can’t bring in a verb. That makes no grammatical sense but it sounds cool, right? Shakespeare could probably pull it off. I’m no Shakespeare.
hoise (v.) IPA Pronunciation: hoise
hoist, remove

And all together, with the Duke of Suffolk,
We’ll quickly hoise Duke Humphrey from his seat.
- Henry VI, Part 2 (I.i)

When this word is used in the above context it’s fun to say. Think about the seriousness of the action and what the sound of the word does to its meaning instead of saying “remove Duke Humphrey from his seat.” Hoise has more poise. Maybe. I just wanted to make that rhyme. You decide for yourself.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Mr. William Shakespeare is not just famous for writing plays to be performed – he wrote poetry as well. In 1592 there was an outbreak of plague in London and so the theaters were shut down for two years. During this time Shakespeare decided to put his talents to use by writing poetry that wasn’t for the stage. At least some of his sonnets were written during this time along with a few other poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix and the Turtle, A Lover’s Complaint, and The Passionate Pilgrim.

Sometime in the 1590s (and maybe after, too) Shakespeare completed 154 sonnets. Unlike the number of plays he wrote, we’re pretty darn certain about the number of sonnets. One very helpful reason is that they were all published – also unlike the plays – during his lifetime (1609) in a volume called Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

You may be asking… What is a sonnet anyway? A sonnet is a certain structure of a poem that was very popular during this time. Over a thousand sonnets from various authors have survived from the late 16th century. A sonnet consists of 14 lines with a three rhyming quatrains followed by a couplet. Or in plainer terms, the rhyme scheme is as follows: A – B – A – B. C – D – C -D. E – F – E – F. G – G. Each line is written in Iambic Pentameter, 10 syllables per line. Much like Shakespeare’s verse in his plays, sometimes these rules are broken. He will play with the meter to create deviant rhythms to add some drama to the verse. Some lines here and there have an extra syllable. What else would you expect from The Bard? Sonnet 99 even breaks the line limit and has 15 lines. Shakespeare never really liked to stick to the rules.

No one can be sure to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed, if anyone, but there are many theories. More on that some other time. The sonnets are great to just sit down with and speak aloud. I’m sure you’ll find one that really speaks to you. They’re not all about “flowery love” like some think. With 154 of them I think you will find a sonnet for any occasion.

WOTD: Mickle

Anything that rhymes with ‘pickle’ is worth mentioning. Especially in Shakespeare.

mickle (adj.) IPA Pronunciation: /mIkl/
great, much, large

O villain! thou hast stolen both mine office and my name.
The one ne’er got me credit, the other mickle blame.
- Comedy of Errors (III.i)

I’ll give you a nickel and tickle for that mickle pickle. Cool sentence, huh? Shakespeare wrote that sentence. So it’s not stupid. It’s in that one play…

Note the difference in the above quote between saying “much blame” and “mickle blame.” The latter has a very different feel when spoken, almost a more piercing quality with the more forward vowel.