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?


We will proceed no further in this business.

He hath honored me of late, and I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

Not cast aside so soon.

Lady Macbeth

Was the hope drunk

Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?

And wakes it now to look so green and pale

At what it did so freely? From this time

Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard

To be the same in thine own act and valor

As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that

Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,

And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”

Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?                        (1.7.31-45)

Well, here’s what No Fear Shakespeare does with it:


We can’t go on with this plan. The king has just honored me, and I have earned the good opinion of all sorts of people. I want to enjoy these honors while the feeling is fresh and not throw them away so soon.

Lady Macbeth

Were you drunk when you seemed so hopeful before? Have you gone to sleep and woken up green and pale in fear of this idea? From now on this is what I’ll think of your love. Are you afraid to act the way you desire? Will you take the crown you want so badly, or will you live as a coward, always saying “I can’t” after you say “I want to”? You’re like the poor cat in the old story.

This passage demonstrates several weaknesses of the No Fear Shakespeare approach. One of the simplest is that “the poor cat in the old story” really isn’t any clearer than “the poor cat i’ th’ adage”; the reason this line is confusing in context is that we don’t know the adage. It’s a difficulty of allusion, not language – so what would actually help a student reader here is a good footnote. (If you’re curious, the Pelican edition notes on page 22, “the adage says, ‘The cat would eat fish but will not wet her feet.’ ”) There are also a couple of smaller slippery substitutions that aren’t quite right; “We will proceed no further in this business,” thanks to that modal verb “will,” is a lot more commanding and definite than “We can’t go on with this plan,” for example. (Modal verbs are so important in this passage – but if I start talking about them, this post will run completely off the rails. What I will say here is that it’s a tone-deaf change to make, when “We won’t go on with this plan” or “We’re not going on with this plan” would be just as simple and closer to the original expression of intent.) And changing Lady Macbeth’s mocking “I dare not” into “I can’t” just sits badly with me, since “dare” is the spur that pricks Macbeth to anger here: “I dare do all that may become a man. / Who dares do more is none” (1.7.46-7).

But the real problem is that the No Fear insistence on the idea of simplicity is a genuine liability when the language is meant to be elusive. The No Fear Shakespeare translation suggests equivalence with its facing-page format; the language might be different, but the meaning is supposedly the same. And yet, the translation doesn’t “just” simplify the language so that it’s easier to understand; it changes the sense entirely with additions to the text. The passage draws much of its energy from confusion; the translation rewrites that confusion so that it’s easy to skip over a crucial aspect of the scene. Lady Macbeth, crucially, doesn’t say, “Will you take the crown you want so badly?” She says, instead, “Wouldst thou have / That which thou esteem’st the ornament of life” (1.7.41-2). She could have specified “crown” – but instead she turns the specific object, the point of it all, into a nebulous relative clause. Only context implies that she’s talking about kingship; “the ornament of life” could be anything at all. This is habitual with these two; they’re always talking about “the deed” or “the business” or even just “it” (“If it were done when ‘tis done…”), instead of using the bald, unflinching word “murder” – at least until that word explodes from Macbeth after the fact, three times in only twenty lines (2.2.25-45).

You’ll notice here that Macbeth doesn’t say “the king,” either, as the translation tells us he does; there’s just that vague pronoun “he.” The Macbeths are contemplating something so terrible that not naming it outright is the only way for them to be able to move forward. Oddly, Macbeth even goes on to keep himself separate from himself; he may have bought those “golden opinions,” but slips into passive voice – they would be worn – rather than declaring that he wants to enjoy them (as the translation suggests). It’s not a choice he’s making, he seems to be suggesting; it’s just the natural state of these honors – they just have to be worn now, and there’s nothing Macbeth can do about it. It’s as if he can’t articulate the desire to commit murder, but he can’t admit the desire not to want to do it, either. “Clarifying” all of this does the reader a disservice, because it makes it too easy to miss what they’re not saying.

The part of the passage that is the most deliberately confusing, though, is the beginning of Lady Macbeth’s reply. And it’s there that the translation does the most violence to the text in claiming to render it faithfully. Lady Macbeth is not declaring that Macbeth must have been drunk; she’s doing something far stranger. She argues instead that Macbeth’s hope was drunk – and then, without waiting for the oddness of that image to subside, makes that drunken hope a thing that Macbeth had dressed himself in. Either image on its own would be a surprise, but manageable; you could personify hope by making it something that could become intoxicated, or you could make hope a material object by making it something that could be worn. But to do both at the same time? That’s just bizarre. And it’s amazing.

She keeps going, toggling back to hope as a being: “Hath it slept since? / And wakes it now to look so green and pale / At what it did so freely?” All of these are natural enough consequences of a night of drinking – except that, again, they describe an inanimate concept, an emotion. They take something intangible and turn it into something concrete, even as it flickers between states (is it a person, or a thing?). The translation attributes all of that drunkenness and its aftermath to Macbeth, as well as cutting out the image of hope as a garment entirely, because the only way it can render this passage is to mis-render it. There is no way to translate this passage for its single sense, because its whole point is the way that different senses crash into each other unexpectedly. And this is where I always find myself asking the same questions: are these translations ever really helpful, even to students who struggle more with Shakespeare’s language than others? Or do they simply provide a false sense of security at best?

Text: Macbeth, ed. Stephen Orgel (Pelican Shakespeare, 2000). Various No Fear Shakespeare translations from the website at Accessed 22 March 2015.

[1] (Here begins a long aside about puns, which didn’t fit into the body of the post.) To be fair, the No Fear text does try to capture some of the punning at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet – “Gregory, on my word, we’ll not carry coals.” / “No, for then we should be colliers” – by having Sampson say, “We won’t take their garbage,” and having Gregory reply, “No, because then we’d be garbagemen.” The problem, though, is that the sustained punning of the exchange only works with the word “coals,” because it’s about sound as well as sense: “coals” leads to “colliers,” which leads to “choler,” which in turn transforms into “collar.” There’s also the chiastic play on “draw” and “choler/collar” that really can’t be captured in the translation: “I mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw.” / “Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.” The translation of the next two lines falls flat for similar reasons; “I strike quickly, being moved.” / “But thou art not quickly moved to strike” is rendered as “I hit hard when I’m angry.” / “But it’s hard to make you angry.” There’s clearly an attempt to pun on the word “hard,” but ending both lines with “angry” that way renders the exchange leaden, and you lose the playfulness of the way that Gregory turns all three of the major words of Sampson’s sentence inside-out and against him.


7 responses to “Macbeth, drunken hope, and the problem with No Fear Shakespeare

  1. I agree: Shakespeare IS the language, not the purloined plots, and where there are difficulties, ambiguities and contradictions, this is because they are intended to be there, since life tends to be like that, and theatre crystalises lived experience.
    I agree, too, that ‘modernisations not only simplify Shakespeare but flatten it, and alter it. To preserve the quality of the original whilst using modern English is a task that very few writers, if any, would be capable of. More to the point, as you show, these changes often involve assumptions that seriously narrow down and distort the range of meanings in the text.
    The vast majority of the diction of Shakespeare is still perfectly understandable to us, and if we are struggling to make sense of the nuances of their staged interplay we need to improve our education systems so that all people grow up attuned to the richly heightened nature of literary language and want to share it with others.

    • Thank you for your comment! I think the last thing you mention is really a large part of the problem: many students and audience members aren’t as familiar with literary language – longer sentences, elaborate metaphors, etc. I see many of the same issues while teaching nineteenth-century novels; they’re not specific to Shakespeare, because they’re largely not about early modern language itself.

  2. I appreciate this post so much, it is at the heart of what we at The American Shakespeare Center Education department hold to be true. Students miss character, acting, playing clues when we remove the text from them. I also get (a little) hung up on some editions, though. I feel that over-glossed texts can also communicate “you aren’t smart enough to figure this out on your own.” What we miss in so many classrooms is an approach of interpretation through the lens of both What Shakespeare’s Actors Knew (WSAK–I think I’ll make bracelets) and the possibilities for play in the text. Its fair that they are rarely exposed to those things, as so few teachers are comfortable with exploring the possibility of performance, but it is do-able. At least, I like to think so. Thanks so much for writing about this. Well done.

    • Thank you so much for your comment – I really appreciate it!

      Footnotes and glosses are a tricky business; you’re right that too many can send the wrong message as well. I tend to stress the fact that many of the notes in the editions we use are meant for scholars doing a different kind of work (so my students don’t need to worry too much about them, but can use them for help when they need to). As for performance, I’m still working at how to incorporate that into our classroom discussions; I can talk about rhetoric and character, which is part of the picture, but not the whole.

      • Rikita, we specialize in introducing ways of thinking about and trying performance into English classrooms–with rhetoric and character considerations. Email me at and I will send you some of our materials–better yet, come see us at the Blackfriars and we will put you through your courses!

  3. the problem is that 99% of english speakers are taught modern english (and/or urban english, not ancient english) It’s super awesome that you all are able to extrapolate modern english meanings from ancient english without being taught ancient english first! no seriously, the 90% of us who don’t get it, (and as a result: HATE shakespeare) are SUPER jealous! maybe to understand what the majority is going through, (since you dont seem to understand our plight) you could grab a book written in German and try to read it (don’t look up any translations: that’s cheating!) and just work your way through the WHOLE book: line by line til you understand and can appreciate everything the authors were trying to communicate! Remember: German and English are awfully similar, anyone should get it! if you don’t get it, then it’s simply indicative of your education obviously, you weren’t taught the proper way to critique german literature…. oh wait…. that’s the point: we’re not taught ancient english but told we’re uneducated because we cant understand a book written in it.

    • Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your frustration, but you seem to have misunderstood my post! At no point did I say that people who don’t get Shakespeare are uneducated, or that students should just be able to pick up a copy of a Shakespeare play and never have a moment’s problem with it. My point here is that No Fear Shakespeare editions, which a lot of people turn to for help, are actually unhelpful: they’re inaccurate and they frequently change the actual meaning of the text in claiming to simplify it. Of course there are going to be parts of Shakespeare that students don’t understand; there are parts that *I* don’t understand, and I’ve studied Shakespeare for years! But “No Fear Shakespeare” makes students think that they need a translation for every line, that they just can’t possibly figure out the language without one, and that’s not true.

      As for “ancient English” – Shakespeare isn’t written in ancient English. It just isn’t, because if it were, we wouldn’t be able to read it. Unlike German and English in your example, which are two totally different languages, Early Modern English and Modern English are mostly the same. I promise. Look at Macbeth’s line above, “We will proceed no further in this business.” That’s Modern English. There are a few differences between our current form of English and the English that Shakespeare used (things like “thou” as a second form of “you,” for example), and it’s absolutely my job to explain those things to my students when I teach Shakespeare, but they are really, really a relatively small part of a Shakespeare text, and it’s possible to learn them and get used to them pretty quickly. Shakespeare’s grammar and even most of the words he uses are still, by and large, modern English.

      The thing that trips us up most is that Shakespeare uses longer, more elaborate sentences than we’re often used to, and references that we don’t immediately know if we haven’t learned much classical mythology. For example, Juliet starts one of her soliloquies by saying, “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, toward Phoebus’ lodging; such a waggoner as Phaeton would whip you to the west and bring in cloudy night immediately.” (I’ve taken out the line breaks but haven’t otherwise changed the text.) This is complicated language, but not because it’s a *different* language; the grammar is recognizably modern. It’s complicated – and potentially confusing – because Juliet is talking about mythological figures like Phoebus and Phaeton that we might not know. But this is where the footnotes come in (I’m a big fan of footnotes)! Once we *do* know that these are figures related to the sun, and who are both associated with driving the sun across the sky in a chariot, we can see that what she’s saying is, “Gallop apace (= quickly), you fiery-footed steeds (of the sun), toward the lodging of the sun god; a waggoner (presumably, someone who rides a “wagon” or chariot) like Phaeton would whip you to the west and bring in cloudy night immediately.” There really isn’t much you can do here to make Juliet’s grammar simpler, because it’s already pretty basic; the confusion comes from the allusion that she’s making. There are certainly places where Shakespeare’s language gets more obscure, but it’s often because he’s trying to do something with that language. If you’re interested, here’s a post by Cass Morris that does a nice job of explaining this:

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