Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Cumberbatch Hamlet and the missing rogue’s gallery

Like many, many other people (judging from buzz and cinema ticket sales), on Thursday night I went to see the Barbican’s recent production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, courtesy of NT Live. While I thought that Cumberbatch himself performed well enough under the circumstances, I wasn’t at all impressed with the production. In fact, it’s safe to say that it lost me from the opening moments: in this production, the play opens with Hamlet sitting alone on the floor, listening to old records (his father’s?) and weeping. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, you’ll remember that this isn’t how the play begins; it actually opens with two soldiers on watch, jumpy and afraid, waiting for another sighting of the ghost they’ve seen before. It’s always mattered very much to me that Hamlet doesn’t begin with Hamlet: that no matter the intensity of Hamlet’s own concerns, there is a whole world beyond him and outside him. It matters to me that in the original text, we meet Horatio as his own person before we see him as Hamlet’s friend. It matters to me that we first see Hamlet in conversation with other people, not brooding by himself. When you cut the first scene entirely, and open with Hamlet alone, you lose all that – and a production that doubles down on the idea of Hamlet as isolated loner just isn’t one that I would ever be interested in.

This sense of intensified isolation carried into the director’s decision to move up several of the soliloquies into the midst of ongoing action, with the other actors suddenly reduced to frozen figures in a shadowed background, while Benedict Cumberbatch was ringed in spotlight. The other characters were shoved into murky insignificance; nothing and no one else, the production kept insisting, is as real as Hamlet is. And this Hamlet didn’t even appeal more to the audience instead; for the most part, the soliloquies were for himself and himself alone.

Then there were the peculiar cuts and changes to the text. I could probably write an entire blog post on those all by themselves, but I’d like to focus on one cut in particular: one small example of the production’s continued focus on Hamlet’s solitariness, and why that focus isn’t necessarily a good thing. In the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet asked, “Who calls me villain?” then stood quietly for a few beats and wearily continued, “I should take it”: a vague and anemic hypothetical, hardly capable of catching his imagination. But here’s Hamlet in the original text, with the cut lines in bold (I’m quoting a bit beyond that point, because I’d like to take a look at the longer passage):

…Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by th’ nose? gives me the lie i’ th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

Ha? Why, I should take it: for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this,

I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal…         (2.2, TLN 1611-1620)

What gets lost, with these cuts, is Hamlet’s febrile, obsessive imagining of exactly how, and in what variety of ways, the outside world might call him villain. Other people, and how they see him, matter intensely to the Hamlet of this soliloquy; he pictures them heaping scorn on him, over and over and in the strongest ways possible. They don’t just give him the lie; they do it “as deep as to the lungs,” as if they’re shouting it from the rooftops. They’re jostling into his space, assaulting him physically – hitting him over the head, plucking at his beard, tweaking his nose – while he can only stand there and take these indignities. This isn’t a Hamlet who is safe in his own private bubble of thought, only seeing others as shadowy abstractions; other people are in there with him, challenging him, calling him to account.

One of the trickiest things about cutting Shakespeare is that you don’t just lose the general sense of the lines you take out: you lose their specificity and sound, too. Take a look at the intensity of those verbs in those cut lines: breaks, plucks, blows, tweaks, all aggressive, active words to go along with Hamlet’s aggressive questioning and choppy lines. (The cut lines are also full of caesurae, or pauses in the middle of lines: Who calls me villain? || breaks my pate across? These often indicate short phrases, and possibly thinking made less orderly by some strong emotion.) Then listen to their sound: do you hear the sharp ‘k’ at the end of “break,” “pluck” and “tweak”? That ‘k’ sound is what’s known as a plosive: a consonant sound in which the air is stopped by our lips or tongue when we make it. We sometimes call these “hard” sounds, and these verbs are full of them: the ‘b’ of breaks and blows, the ‘p’ of plucks, and the ‘t’ of tweaks are all plosives too. Say “Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face” out loud, and you can hear how those sounds practically explode out of your mouth, full of energy and anger; it sounds totally different from a line like Romeo’s “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand,” where the dominant repeated sound is that sighing “ee.”

If you look at the passage again, you see that it’s full of plosives. And what’s remarkable is that so many of them also fall within stressed positions in the lines, so the actor is putting even more emphasis on them when he says them aloud. Below, the bolded syllables are stressed and the underlined sounds are plosives; you can see how often the two coincide:

…Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by th’ nose? gives me the lie i’ th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

Ha? Why, I should take it, for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this,

I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal…

(That Shakespeare. He really knew what he was doing.)

You still get some of the plosives in the version of the speech that Benedict Cumberbatch gave, but the highest concentration, especially of initial plosives, is found in the lines that were cut. And that’s a lot of energy for an actor to lose out on.

People often suggest that we should “revere” Shakespeare’s verse without explaining why, or suggest that it shouldn’t be cut because it’s somehow sacrilege to do so – as though Shakespeare is simply precious in some empty, undefined way. And that attitude can understandably make people want to knock Shakespeare off of this perceived perch, or declare that the language doesn’t matter nearly as much as story and character. But language and verse are character: all of Hamlet’s intensity is there in the sound and structure of what he says, and the vividness of those verbs, even if modern listeners are a bit hazy on exactly what it means to give someone the lie. And this is why I teach Shakespeare the way that I do: inching through texts at what can seem like a snail’s pace, making my students pay attention to scansion and caesurae and consonant sounds in a way that some might see as arid or merely academic. Because when it works, and they finally get why they’re looking for all of these things, this is the payoff: there is so much to be learned about how a character feels by training a magnifying glass on the way he speaks.

Text: Since the textual history of Hamlet is so complicated, I’ve quoted here from the Folio text at the Internet Shakespeare Editions site, hosted by the University of Victoria, and modernized the spelling and punctuation slightly. See <;. Accessed 17 October 2015.


Want a really authentic Shakespeare experience? Try not understanding some words!

At our recent Back-to-School Night, the parent of a former student wanted to know what I thought of a recent article he’d read about whether Shakespeare’s language should be translated “into English.” I hadn’t read the article (though that didn’t stop me from having an opinion about it!), but a day or two later I found the article in question: John McWhorter’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, in support of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent announcement that it planned to commission modern English translations of Shakespeare’s plays.

(If you haven’t seen it, the article is here: )

McWhorter begins with an assertion that he ought to know is simply untrue from a grammatical standpoint – that Shakespeare’s English is too far removed from today’s English to be understood – and goes on to make much hay from fairly minor examples. I think most people can imagine how a mind might be described as “generous” even if they aren’t experts in early modern nuance, for example, and his worry that modern listeners can’t make the association between the word “character” and writing seems misplaced in the age of Twitter, where many people strive daily to contain their thoughts in 140 characters. McWhorter also spends a fair amount of time attempting to demonstrate that Macbeth’s soliloquy debating the murder of Duncan is so arcane that it requires translation to mean anything to an audience – but perhaps not so coincidentally, my last post on this subject was about this very scene, and the same thing I said then holds true here: that complexity and confusion are part of the point. Macbeth can’t express clearly what he cannot see clearly in the first place.

This round of arguing in favor of Shakespeare translations seems to be particularly focused on individual words: the idea that not knowing the early modern meaning of “generous” or “faculties” or “taking-off” prevents audience members (and, to a lesser extent, readers) from being able to grasp what’s happening. (McWhorter also seems very concerned about “faculties,” which Shakespeare uses a total of nine times across all of his plays. That’s about nine seconds of possible confusion in all of Shakespeare.) The suggestion seems to be that so many words have changed their meanings that Shakespeare is rapidly becoming impossible to understand (though there are far more words that haven’t changed their meanings). Behind this idea, though, lies a false assumption: that audiences in Shakespeare’s day understood every word of the plays, so we – in order to have the same kind of experience the original audiences had – have to change the text to make up for all of those differences. But in Shakespeare’s day, new words were being imported and created all the time. The flip side of the frequent assertion that Shakespeare invented many new words [1] is that such words must have been unfamiliar to the people hearing them for the first time – probably even more unfamiliar to them than to us, since many of those words have since been adopted into the English language! Early modern dramatists, Shakespeare included, were writing at the cutting edge of the English language, and coining new words when the old ones wouldn’t do. So how might audiences have coped with so much unfamiliarity?

Let’s take a look at two words that I’ve seen suggested as words that are too difficult for many people in a modern audience to understand: prorogued (in Romeo and Juliet) and abatement (in Twelfth Night). The thing that’s important to note is that these two words were considered difficult in Shakespeare’s day as well – at least according to Robert Cawdrey, the creator of what is often called the first English dictionary: A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604. Unlike modern dictionaries, however, Cawdrey’s only includes what he calls “hard English words, which [people] shall hear or read in Scriptures, sermons, or elsewhere.” The fact that “prorogue” (‘put off, prolong, defer’) and “abatement” (‘taking from, lessening’) are both in this book tells us that even in 1604, several years after the composition of both Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, these words were still thought of as “hard” and unfamiliar to a sizable part of the population. So it’s likely that quite a few people in the audience at the Globe would have heard them and not known what they meant. Those people could simply have passed over those words, of course; that’s always an option. But perhaps there’s something about the text itself that can help an audience member to understand what a word must mean even if he or she doesn’t actually know what it means.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo responds to Juliet’s worry about her kinsmen (“If they do see thee, they will murder thee”) by exuberantly declaring,

And but [=unless] thou love me, let them find me here;

My life were better ended by their hate,

Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love. (2.2.76-8)

Out of context, “prorogued” could mean practically anything. But in context, where it is part of a claim that Romeo would rather die than experience whatever “death prorogued” is without Juliet’s love, it becomes clear that “death prorogued” – even if we still have no idea what “prorogued” means – has to be the opposite of death: that is, life. If we stopped to break this down further, we could probably therefore deduce that “prorogued” itself has to mean something like “avoided” or “put off,” but in the theater, that level of detail isn’t necessary as long as you understand the general sentiment. (In English class you might be required to know what “prorogued” meant, after you’d figured all of this out; but then, in English class you’d just look down at the footnotes.)

Shakespeare’s use of abatement at the beginning of Twelfth Night is similar. After Orsino’s famous pronouncement that music might be “the food of love,” he demands an “excess” of that music, then describes the spirit of love as being so capacious that it takes in everything that comes its way and still remains unsatisfied:

…Naught enters there

Of what validity and pitch soe’er

But falls into abatement and low price

Even in a minute. (1.1.11-14)

This is a complex passage, because Orsino is trying to express a complicated idea; Keir Elam, the editor of the Arden third series edition of the play, refers in the footnotes to “Orsino’s baroque conceit” (162). But we still don’t need to know what all of the words mean in order to make sense of it. “Pitch,” for example, is a term from falconry; I certainly did not know this the first time I read the play! However, if you keep his larger point in mind, “validity” and “pitch” must be the opposite of “low price,” that is, “value”: no matter how valuable something is, its worth will fall off sharply. (This entire image makes a lot more sense in the moment because it comes after Orsino’s much simpler exclamation that the music he just finished praising is “not so sweet now as it was before”; he’s now trying to figure out why and how such a change could happen so quickly. Context really is everything in Shakespeare; you should always use it to help you understand what’s happening, rather than trying to take each word or line on an individual basis.)

But what about “abatement”? Here, Shakespeare helps us by doing something that he often does: using a more elevated, potentially foreign word and then following it with its more ordinary definition. You can see this when Macbeth says that his bloody hands will “The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” If you don’t know what “incarnadine” means, you only need to wait a few seconds to find out. In Twelfth Night, “abatement” might be a new word for the audience, but “low price” is everyday. And it’s the “and” between the two – “abatement and low price” – that signals to us that these two terms must be more or less the same thing.

So, you may be thinking, if you don’t actually need to understand a word like “abatement,” why not just go ahead and translate it? Because even if you could find a replacement word that preserved the meter and rhythm of the original line, and even if you found one that preserved important sound patterns like alliteration, and even if you examined the entire text to make sure you weren’t disrupting any thematic patterns by changing the original word – because the idea of things “falling into abatement” echoes throughout Twelfth Night – you’d still lose the character information that comes with that word. Orsino is the kind of character who comes up with baroque conceits and uses words like “abatement” when “low price” will do, just as Macbeth feels that he needs grandiose words and phrases like “all great Neptune’s ocean,” “multitudinous,” and “incarnadine” to express the magnitude of the horror of the deed he’s just committed. And saying “abatement and low price” instead of just “low price” is perfect for a passage that is all about excess. Shakespeare chose those words (or invented them, sometimes) because he wanted them for something; it’s worth keeping them because they can still tell us what that “something” is, even today.

Nevertheless, not knowing a word like “incarnadine” is not a deal-breaker, in part because Shakespeare was writing for an audience who didn’t know every word he was using, either. It turns out that we actually don’t need to do anything to make our experience of Shakespeare more like that of the original audience, at least as far as individual words are concerned. If words like “abatement” and “prorogued” are unfamiliar or confusing to us, we have hundreds of years of company. And those unfamiliar words shouldn’t make us think that we can’t understand Shakespeare, or stop us from enjoying it. After all, they didn’t stop audiences in 1604.


[1] For a discussion of how large Shakespeare’s vocabulary actually was in comparison to other dramatists of the period, see Hugh Craig, “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality.” Shakespeare Quarterly 62:1 (2011): 53-74.

Texts: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition (G. Blakemore Evans, ed., reprinted 2012).

Twelfth Night, Arden third series (Keir Elam, ed., 2008).