Monday, December 01, 2008

I don’t like Shakespeare

I’ve never been a Shakie fan. How can one help but feel defensive saying that when we all know Shakespeare is the reason we are lucky to speak English? The language in which Shakespeare wrote! Shakespeare, the bard, the literary giant more looked up to than Jesus. (OK, Jesus got out some tart parables but he’s pretty much left out of lit class.) “We all esteem Shakespeare,” says linguist John McWhorter. Anything less and “one’s refinement [is] put … into question. … [A]s an avid theater fan [I] can say that while I have enjoyed the occasional Shakespeare performance and film, most of them have been among the dreariest, most exhausting evenings of my life …”

So what’s with me and McWhorter? Are we philistines? Merely honest? Iconoclasts? Insufficiently educated?

“Shakespeare’s comedies are in general somewhat less of a chore than the tragedies,” McWhorter continues. “This, however, is in spite of the language, not because of it. Because comedy lends itself to boffo physical pratfalls, outrageous costumes, funny voices and stock situations, an evening of Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors is usually easier on the derriere than one at Julius Ceasar or Henry V. However, … even the comedies would be infinitely richer experiences if we had more than a vague understanding of what the characters were actually saying …”

Though Shakespeare’s plays were often performed in early America it wasn’t until “the late 1800s [that] the development of a ‘high culture’ intended for the ‘refined’ segment of society rather than the ‘masses,’ [required] the ‘sacralization’ of Shakespeare.” Up to then Shakespeare’s texts were considered suggestions or treasure chests to be looted for the shiniest bits – the language that had since Shakie’s time become incomprehensible was ignored (as were the unhappy endings). But for culture’s sake Shakespeare had to be unfunned – had to be pure, original, authentic, educational. “Shakespeare presents us with the extra processing load of unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure.” Isn’t that good for us? Makes the brain work, don’t it?

“No, the problem with Shakespeare for modern audiences is not that the language is simply highbrow. … English since Shakespeare’s time has changed not only in terms of a few exotic vocabulary items, but also in the very meaning of thousands of basic words and in scores of fundamental sentence structures. For this reason, we are faced with a language that, while clearly recognizable as the English we speak, is different to an extent that makes partial comprehension a challenge, and anything approaching full comprehension utterly impossible even for the educated theatergoer who doesn’t happen to be a trained expert in Shakespearean language.”

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter

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