How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

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dulcinea
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How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by dulcinea » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:50 pm

The Spanish of WS's contemporaries such as Cervantes and Lope is still quite easy to read, as long as you have notes to explain words that are rarely used today.
How would you describe the English of Shakespeare and contemporaries such as Marlowe and Spenser?
Incidentally, the ,,Old English'' that is spoken in movies about King Arthur is actually a modern English not much different from the one that Big S spoke.
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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:14 pm

Funny you would ask. I caught the Jude Law Hamlet when I was in New York; it had very little in the way of cuts. It was not, of course, my first exposure to the play, but I found that there was only one speech that I could not follow in real time, and that, oddly enough, was the one near the beginning of the play when Horatio explains to Marcellus the background of the political alliance between Denmark and Norway. It's remarkable how accessible the play really is.

It's a fine thing that a modern English speaker can read Shakespeare (and Chaucer too, if more people would give him a chance), but I'm told that speakers of modern Greek can read Homer about as well as we read Chaucer, and that is remarkable.

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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by lmpower » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:42 pm

I don't have much trouble reading Shakespeare other than looking up a few obsolete words.

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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by Corlyss_D » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:44 pm

I can understand the spoken much more easily than I can the written. The language gets so flowery I sometimes have to do what I used to do with Latin and German: read the sentence, then find the likeliest word for the subject, and then find the verb, and then fill in with the color. I don't have a lot of patience for that sort of drill any more. The notion of "blank verse" completely mystifies me. I never broke the code and do a lot better if I can forget it's supposed to be poetry and think of it as prose.
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Brendan

Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by Brendan » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:54 pm

Corlyss is correct in that the plays are meant to be heard rather than read. Nevertheless, having read and adored Shakespeare (and Marlowe, Johnson and Spenser) since childhood I don't have much issue with it. Reading the King James and the Elizabethan (1559) edition of The Book of Common Prayer may also help. I learned to read Chaucer back at The Hampton School, and have continued to do so ever since. To have two such overwhelming geniuses of the language is rare.

But I've always found the poetry fairly easy to read (I'm not saying they lack depth or sophistication).

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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by dulcinea » Tue Oct 27, 2009 7:28 pm

lmpower wrote:I don't have much trouble reading Shakespeare other than looking up a few obsolete words.
Those obsolete words can play havoc with the process of understanding the Big S! WHEREFORE ART THOU ROMEO? does not mean WHERE are you, Romeo?, but rather WHY are you Romeo?--that is, why do you have the name of the enemies of my family?
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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by Brendan » Tue Oct 27, 2009 7:38 pm

Actually, the meaning is perfectly obvious in context:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Oct 27, 2009 8:23 pm

Brendan wrote:Actually, the meaning is perfectly obvious in context:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
I guess "Yip" Harburg (author of the lyrics of "If I Only Had a Heart") didn't know the play. :)

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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by dulcinea » Tue Oct 27, 2009 10:05 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
Brendan wrote:Actually, the meaning is perfectly obvious in context:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
I guess "Yip" Harburg (author of the lyrics of "If I Only Had a Heart") didn't know the play. :)
What does that lyric say that misunderstands Juliet?
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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Oct 27, 2009 10:24 pm

dulcinea wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:
Brendan wrote:Actually, the meaning is perfectly obvious in context:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
I guess "Yip" Harburg (author of the lyrics of "If I Only Had a Heart") didn't know the play. :)
What does that lyric say that misunderstands Juliet?
The little voice off in the distance says "Wherefore art thou [pause], Romeo?"

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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by living_stradivarius » Tue Oct 27, 2009 10:49 pm

I absolutely love reading Shakespeare and watching productions of his plays. However, I find that reading his works opens up a whole new world of understanding and interpretation (much easier to draw parallels/associations and notice word choice when looking at text). Part of the beauty for the modern reader in fact rests in not understanding context-specific words; they force you to draw your interpretations first while reading and then let you compare them with academic analyses/debates.

As for Cervantes, reading him in English just doesn't do him justice, even if the work is introduced by Harold Bloom.
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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by John F » Wed Oct 28, 2009 4:22 am

Shakespeare used an enormous vocabulary, and in his late plays his style can get very knotty and compressed. I expect there may have been lots of people in his own audience who didn't get everything - and they liked spoken rhetoric better, and were better schooled in it, than most moderns are. They also loved puns and these can be challenging to moderns - I've heard that punning is one of the hardest things to do well in a language not your own. But with skilled actors to put the words across, and the music of the verse to control emphasis and inflection, you can get what you need in performance. And of course when reading you have as much time as you like to go deeper.

And deeper is what makes Shakespeare special - I'm not talking about profundity of subject matter or characterization, but of artistic creation. When Romeo and Juliet meet, their conversation is not only a dialogue but a sonnet - a Shakespearean sonnet, of course - on a complex metaphor of religious pilgrimage:

R: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

J: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss.

R: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
J: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
R: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
J: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
R: Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

He kisses her, then begins another sonnet:

R: Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
J: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
R: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
[Kisses her.]
J: You kiss by th' book.

And then the nurse comes in to break it up, but Juliet has already brought Romeo up short, in two ways, and completed the rhyme into the bargain. I love it.

The only word whose meaning has changed in the last 400 years or so is "palmer," and many can guess from the context that it's a synonym for "pilgrim." The complexity is in the metaphor - the association of physical love with religious devotion was a common trope back then, but certainly not now - and following the meaning, the thought, through the poetic form is more challenging for us. (Everyone wrote sonnets back then, by the dozen; who does today?)

But if we don't, it really doesn't matter. If we're quick-witted enough to notice before too many lines that Romeo and Juliet are improvising a joint sonnet, each picking up the other's cue and turning the meaning this way and that, Romeo pressing forward and Juliet deflecting and finally deflating him - and if we catch on that this is all about kissing before the actual kiss - we haven't missed much.

It lasts about a minute.
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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by Ralph » Wed Oct 28, 2009 10:32 am

I am reading Lear now with a friend. I haven't read it in ages. I got two copies of the Folger edition with words defined on pages facing the text. Helps a lot.

But certainly seeing a play, whether live or on film, makes comprehension much easier.
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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by karlhenning » Wed Oct 28, 2009 11:03 am

jbuck919 wrote:Funny you would ask. I caught the Jude Law Hamlet when I was in New York; it had very little in the way of cuts.
How did he do? Has he got the chops? And how long did the not-many-cuts production last by the clock?

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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Oct 28, 2009 11:14 am

karlhenning wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:Funny you would ask. I caught the Jude Law Hamlet when I was in New York; it had very little in the way of cuts.
How did he do? Has he got the chops? And how long did the not-many-cuts production last by the clock?

Cheers,
~Karl
It was 3.5 hours. I can think of a couple of lines I was expecting to hear that were not there, so I know it was not literally uncut, but a truly uncut production takes maybe four hours, so on that basis....

Having said that, I found the pace in spots curiously rushed, as though they were trying to squeeze everything into that time frame and were afraid of the consequences of making people sit any longer. (To me, it did not seem like a long time. Phantom of the Opera--the movie--now that seemed at 2:45 like it would never end). The best acting was from the Claudius; the Ophelia had the virtue of having a nice singing voice. And as for Law, he was adequate. He crafted a consistent and believable Hamlet, but not a terribly admirable one, and I like my Hamlets admirable. It was a very kinetic performance, with too much of a mannered, almost cartoonish way of moving about on stage (he was playing up the notion that he's putting on some sort of act not for us but for his fellow players).

It got a most annoying standing ovation, which I'm told is a tourist thing.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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Re: How Well Do You Read the English of Shakespeare?

Post by karlhenning » Wed Oct 28, 2009 11:31 am

No, a good uncut Hamlet does not seem too long to me, either.

Cheers,
~Karl
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