The Balcony Scene
Tuesday, 17 October 2017 00:11

Making Sense of Shakespeare

Published in Theatre

In Part Two of his series, Professor Gabriel Egan considers how the sense of words and phrases shifts across time and cultures, and how we can still have a meanigful conversation with Shakespeare.


Do we really understand Shakespeare the way his contemporaries did? There are plenty of opportunities for the modern reader to misunderstand what Shakespeare's characters are saying. One problem is what linguists call the 'false friend' word: we think we understand it but in fact the modern sense is quite different from the sense used in Shakespeare's time.

Marcellus and Horatio try to stop Hamlet from following the ghost of Hamlet's father, which seems to beckon him away for a private conference that they fear could be dangerous. Hamlet violently rebuffs their efforts to restrain him, crying "By heav'n, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me" (1.4). The word lets seems quite wrong here: surely he means he'll make a ghost of anyone who won't let him follow and talk to his father's spirit. The verb to let has reversed in meaning since Shakespeare's time: it used to mean preventing something rather than permitting it. British passports still use the word in Hamlet's sense, requiring foreigners to "allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance".

Perhaps the most widely misunderstood Shakespeare word is wherefore, as in "O Romeo, | Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" (2.1). The dramatic context of a young woman looking out from her bedroom balcony encourages readers to suppose that she wonders where her lover is, but wherefore actually means why. This is odd. She is asking why he is called Romeo rather than something else that would not be an obstacle to their love: "Deny thy father and refuse thy name, | Or . . . I'll no longer be a Capulet". It would make more sense (and scan just as well) if the second and/or third Romeo were Montague.

Less well-known but more egregious is the misunderstanding of Shakespeare that is widely reproduced on posters depicting beautiful views of the countryside: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" (Troilus and Cressida 3.3). Far from being the source of goodness that unites diverse human cultures, by touch of nature Ulysses here means a weakness shared by all humankind: a taste for novel delights over things of true value.

Any competent specialist on Shakespeare's language can correct readers' mistakes regarding the meaning of his words - often it only takes a glance at the dramatic context. But should we conclude, then, that all of his meanings are available to us today so long as we take the trouble to recover them? Marxists are not the only intellectuals who harbour serious doubts that we can make the past so easily accessible to readers in the present. What if the underlying habits of thought and unspoken assumptions from Shakespeare's time are just so different to ours that we make similar 'false friend' errors regarding whole categories and concepts?

Take the barely suppressed homosexual desire between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, which no-one noticed until W. H. Auden pointed it out in 1947. Attitudes towards this desire were different in Shakespeare's time from those of today, and indeed were quite different even in Auden's time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. In what sense can we think of Shakespeare's universal appeal when notions of moral behaviour have so radically changed?

And it's not only sexual morality. Attitudes towards how societies should govern themselves have been revolutionized since Shakespeare's time by the rise of democracy. To understand what Richard II's contemporaries think he has done wrong, in his play, one needs more than a merely factual account of the idea of the divine right of kings. With rights, we often say today, come responsibilities, but this is not at all the view of those like Richard who believe in monarchial divine right. The Homily Against Disobedience preached from Elizabethan pulpits made it quite clear that even a bad king must not be resisted by his people, since only God could make and unmake rulers.

Yet it is also clear that in other matters Elizabethans saw rights and responsibilities as mutually reciprocal. In the New Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works to be published later this year, the editors have (with some regret, in my case) modernized a number of occurrences of the word owe to own. Shakespeare uses owe to mean possess, as in Roderigo's remark "What a full fortune does the thicklips owe | If he can carry't thus", meaning that Othello is a made man if he can marry and keep the desirable Desdemona (Othello 1.1). Linguistically there is no editorial defence for retaining owe in such cases: the notion is of ownership, not of debt, and hence the modern word is own. But the spelling owe for the notion of possession does pleasingly, to a Marxist, suggest that for Elizabethans the principle of possession necessarily entailed its opposite, a reciprocal obligation to give things away.

Editing Shakespeare involves making his works meaningful to modern readers, for example by modernizing his spelling (as in owe > own), but this does not imply that the plays' meanings were stored away by him 400 years ago and have only to be carefully unwrapped by us now to be fully appreciated. Marxist cultural criticism rightly rejects the idea that literary meaning is transhistorical, transcultural and simply embedded in writing from the past.

Rather, meaning is generated at the point of consumption by modern readers. In the opening words of his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley observed that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" and – to shift geographical metaphors only slightly – watching, studying, writing about, criticizing, and editing Shakespeare can be seen as building a bridge to span the historical chasm that separates his time from ours. But this is only a metaphorical chasm, made merely of changes in how humans think, speak, and behave.

A more apt analogy would be conversation, in which we neither speak past one another as though using different languages nor entirely adopt one another's ideas as self-evident. Rather we speak to contest meanings, to reflect upon those differences of opinion we can grasp and, unless we have given up altogether the point of talking, to modify our views accordingly. That is the kind of conversation we can still have with Shakespeare.