Beginning of December I excerpted some comments by John McWhorter about the extent the language has changed since Shakespeare wrote. Perhaps it’s that I don’t understand his words – perhaps that’s why I don’t like Shakespeare.
Inspired himself by McWhorter’s discussion of Shakespeare, Kent Richmond has been translating Shakespeare plays into contemporary English. A nearby library has one of them, King Lear, so I requested it. I’d never read King Lear so it would be wholly fresh for me. Yes, I knew a bit of the plot – Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters but they betray him and he ends up wandering the moors raving, accompanied by his sharp-tongued fool (jester). Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a version of King Lear and I liked that all right, except for the fool who was just annoying.
So? Now that I’ve read Shakespeare in fully comprehensible English? Well, Richmond uses contemporary vocabulary but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to figure out what’s being said, so it’s maybe not fully comprehensible, but close enough, you know, if it’s good stuff. Is it good stuff?
It’s a tragedy, right? Everybody – just about – comes to a bad end. So you gotta expect that going in.
But, you know, in order for it really to be tragic, you gotta feel like the miseries are undeserved. When we meet Lear in the very first scene he’s a total asshole, ordering his daughters to outbid each other in dishonest praise of himself. When one balks (she’s got integrity!), he abrupty disinherits her and banishes her from the kingdom – and she, supposedly, is his favorite! Even allowing that the old guy is going senile, and he seldom makes a sensible decision throughout, this behavior is pretty egregious. When the daughters who buttered him up start cutting back on his allowance and he acts like he’s been stabbed in the heart, it’s darn hard to feel sorry for him. You disinherited your daughter and threw her out of the kingdom on pain of death and now you’re sobbing about being denied a few retainers? Dude, you deserve whatever you’re going to get. And I hope it’s bad.
Sadly, it’s bad. Bad as in ridiculous. I could see staging this thing as a comedy but as a tragedy? Two different characters hide in plain sight by changing clothes. One joins Lear and the fool in a mad rave-fest on the stormy moor. Presumably the language isn’t supposed to make sense in these scenes so the original is missed because it sounded exotic not just huh? (Or so I want to allow.)
One character or another tells us Lear is a great guy, yet the assertion is contradicted by his actions. Maybe if one of his character witnesses said something like, “This is so unlike Lear! Remember when he saved the little girl from drowning? Or what about when he opened the royal granaries the year of the famine?” With this Lear it’d be easy to imagine him having a starving mother dragged in and strapped to a chair so she could watch him eat ice cream and throw darts at her bawling infant.
Kent has wondered if maybe I’m being too harsh on Shakes.
To which my reply is: one cannot be too harsh on Shakespeare. His reputation is godlike. Nothing I say will disturb it. Nor is it incumbent upon me to contort myself and betray my brain in order to love him, or tolerate him, for that matter.