Monthly Archives: March 2015

Macbeth, drunken hope, and the problem with No Fear Shakespeare

This is a longer post than usual, because it’s an issue I’ve been thinking about for years, every time I teach Shakespeare to students who are unfamiliar with the plays: why I don’t recommend No Fear Shakespeare editions to students who might be finding Shakespeare’s language more difficult, and why I discourage students from using them when they’ve sheepishly admitted to me that they’ve used them from time to time.

For one thing, I think that such editions traffic in making Shakespeare seem harder than it is – implicitly telling students that Shakespeare, on its own, is something that should be approached with fear. They wouldn’t be able to do this if the culture at large didn’t support them in it, of course; even the most well-meaning Shakespeare guides are apt to stress the difficulty of Shakespeare’s language, and the centuries that have elapsed between him and us, rather than the many similarities between Early Modern English (the official designation of “Shakespeare’s English”; note the “modern” part of that phrase) and ours – which inadvertently sets readers up to believe that Shakespeare is largely incomprehensible, and you either understand it or you don’t. If that’s what you’ve been taught to believe, then why wouldn’t you reach for a translation the first time you hit a line you didn’t understand? Why wouldn’t you buy one for your son or daughter when he or she is starting a Shakespeare unit at school?

But because much of Shakespeare’s language is the same as or similar to modern English, buying one of these translations often means that you’re paying for the privilege of being told that “I never had a brother” means “I never had a brother,” or that “The world must be peopled” means “The world needs to be populated.” And if that weren’t enough, the translations often don’t work. At times they’re just inaccurate, leaving out key parts of what a character is actually saying. If you’re a student who’s new to Shakespeare, though, even if you notice the discrepancies between the original text and the translation, whom are you more likely to trust to be right: yourself, or the official-looking “study guide” that’s supposed to be helping you?

An even more fundamental problem with No Fear Shakespeare editions goes beyond their inaccuracies. The idea behind them is that every line can and should be translated into straightforward, everyday English, and that every line has a single, clear meaning. This means, of course, that No Fear Shakespeare is terrible at dealing with puns, which work by meaning two or more things at once: Mercutio’s famous “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,” for example, becomes “Ask for me tomorrow, and you’ll find me in a grave.” [1] I think we can all agree that this translation rather misses the point – and that telling a student that this is what the line means, no more or less, is just plain wrong. (It’s also another example of the way these translations play up the “difficulty” of Shakespeare’s language by rewriting lines that aren’t hard to understand.)

And if Mercutio’s single punning word presents a problem, what on earth do you do with a passage like this one from Macbeth, which sees Macbeth hesitate on the eve of the murder, and Lady Macbeth chastise him?

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Romeo and rhetoric; or, why I care about anadiplosis

At long last – at least from my students’ point of view – we’ve finished up with Romeo and Juliet, so I’m in the process of saying goodbye to my beloved play for another year. I suppose it’s only fair to do so by looking at how Romeo begins his goodbyes to Juliet in his final soliloquy. After he has mortally wounded Paris (not knowing, at first, who he is), Romeo honors his promise to bury Paris with Juliet:

I’ll bury thee in a triumphant grave.

A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth;

For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes

This vault a feasting presence full of light.     (5.3.83-6)

There are many things about these lines that I find heartbreaking and hard to read, even now – from Romeo’s final depiction of Juliet as a source of light (a theme he begins with “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”), to the fact that “Here lies Juliet” sounds painfully like an epitaph. But this time around, my attention was caught by the use of a particular rhetorical device: anadiplosis, the repetition of a word at the end of one line and the beginning of the subsequent line. In this case, we see anadiplosis in Romeo’s use of “grave” in lines 83 and 84.

I spend a fair amount of time on rhetorical devices when I teach Shakespeare. For one thing, I think it levels the playing field: even students who think they don’t “get” Shakespeare can spot examples of devices like anaphora or epistrophe, once they know what those things are. And I like to think that it takes away some of the intimidation students sometimes feel when studying poetry; even if my students don’t remember the specific names of these devices, they’ll have learned that they are capable of noticing and talking about them, and these poetic features won’t be alien to them when mentioned by other teachers or professors in the future.

But the most important reason for focusing on rhetorical devices when teaching Shakespeare is that Shakespeare focused on them. Early modern writers knew their rhetoric, and put it to good use. After I read Renaissance authors like George Puttenham and Thomas Wilson and Angel Day, who wrote and compiled detailed rhetoric manuals for people of varying levels of society, and as I read modern scholars who detailed how crucial rhetoric was to early modern thought, it no longer made sense to me that we so often avoid this subject when teaching Shakespeare, simply because the terms can be unfamiliar. After all, if Shakespeare uses these rhetorical devices to draw his characters more fully, then it can only help us – as students, as audience members, or as actors – to pay attention to what it is he’s doing with them. And we can only do that if we know enough to look for them, when they’re there.

Which brings us back to Romeo, and his repetition of “grave.” One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that he shows us characters listening to the last thing they said and interrogating it, changing their minds about it. You see it quite a bit – as when Richard II declares that he and his followers should “choose executors, and talk of wills; / And yet not so, for what can we bequeath, / Save our deposed bodies to the ground?” And Hamlet famously does this just as he’s on the cusp of killing Claudius and freeing himself from the terrible debt his father’s ghost has placed him under: “And now I’ll do’t; and so he goes to heaven, / And so am I revenged. That would be scanned”. Watching a character thinking his way through something – not just declaiming the results of his decision, but considering it at the moment of speech – is one of those little things that make characters seem more vivid, less static and unchanging; the more so because those moments are usually “unnecessary.” Romeo could simply start this speech by saying that Juliet’s beauty makes the tomb a feasting presence full of light, and we wouldn’t lose any of the sense of the passage. Juliet would still be beautiful enough, even in her presumed death, to light up the grave. But without that moment when he calls the tomb a grave, and then stops, and hears himself, and changes his mind – “A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth” – we would lose the moment when he notices Juliet’s beauty, as if anew, and by noticing it in the moment, shares the discovery with us.

Text: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition, G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Cambridge UP, 2012.