Tag Archives: modal verbs

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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How not to introduce your children to strangers

Last week’s meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, as always, inspired me: I saw old friends and met new ones, and saw and heard much that will fuel my thinking and teaching for some time to come. In particular, two stimulating talks on the weight of greetings in Shakespeare, by Lynne Magnusson and David Hillman, have made me want to revisit the very beginning of King Lear, and the way Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, is introduced to us in the play. He enters with Gloucester and Kent, but we don’t know how he might be related to either of the two men until Kent hazards, “Is not this your son, my lord?” (1.1.7). A perfect opening for an introduction and a greeting – and yet Gloucester completely fails to take it, instead forcing Edmund to stand by while he makes bawdy jokes about Edmund’s conception and illegitimacy. Kent tries again to get the script back on track with an awkward return to Edmund’s actual presence – “I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper” (1.1.16-17) – but Gloucester again dodges his social responsibility, talking instead about his elder (and legitimate) son Edgar, then cracking yet more jokes about Edmund, until finally arriving at the tactless segue, “…and the whoreson must be acknowledged. Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?” (1.1.22-24). (Really, I shudder to think what Gloucester would be like at parties.)

The brief interaction between the three men, even after such unpromising beginnings, is perfectly decorous, but also revealing:

EDMUND                  No, my lord.

GLOUCESTER          My lord of Kent: remember him hereafter, as my honourable friend.

EDMUND                  My services to your lordship.

KENT                         I must love you, and sue to know you better.

EDMUND                  Sir, I shall study deserving.                (1.1.25-30)

The modal verb in Kent’s gracious reply (“I must love you, and sue to know you better”) speaks eloquently – as the rest of the scene, with Lear’s love test, will go on to do – of the ways in which love is a social obligation: not just a fickle, fleeting passion, but part of the bedrock of interaction. Love is a duty, not a mere feeling – a concept that might be foreign to many of us raised on the idea that love should always be based in individual, private feeling. We should love because we want to, not because we have to. [1] But this exchange of compliments attempts, at least, to create a different kind of love – one that will bring Edmund in out of the cold and into the community’s fold, as Kent tries to solidify Edmund’s status as Gloucester’s son, however inappropriately he might have come into the world.

That moment of community, however, is all too brief, as Gloucester dismisses Edmund as perfunctorily as he introduced him, telling Kent, “He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again” (1.1.31-2). Edmund is by no means one of my favorite Shakespeare characters, or even my favorite of Gloucester’s two sons (my heart belongs to Edgar, thanks to that stunning soliloquy of his), but that sentence still reads to me like a slap in the face, every time. Gloucester seems not even to care where Edmund has been, or where he’ll return to, sparing only the vaguest words “out” and “away” with which to dispose of his son. And in introducing him only to send him away again, he denies even the possibility that Edmund might be able to build sustained, long-term connections with his father’s friends, men like Kent.

A tiny detail later in the play constructs exactly the opposite picture of Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar. As Edmund schemes to convince Gloucester and the court to believe that Edgar had designs to kill his father and inherit his lands, Lear’s daughter Regan exclaims in shock, “What, did my father’s godson seek your life? / He whom my father named, your Edgar?” (2.1.91-2). In those two lines, we realize that Edgar has been closely knit into this society from birth, that his ties of kinship are far-ranging – that whereas Edmund is all but unknown to his father’s friends and barely even given a proper greeting before being packed off, Edgar’s name – that is, his greeting into the world, and his introduction ever after  – was given to him by the king himself. Which must make the wrench of Edgar’s sudden and undeserved severing from that world even more shocking for him – but I hope to have more to say about that in a future post.


Text: King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997).


[1]This is not the place, perhaps, for a lengthy defense of Cordelia’s actions during the love test – though I have one – but I think it is worth noting that when she describes her love for her father, her language is perfectly in keeping with this language of love as social obligation:

                               Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honor you. (1.1.95-98)

This is not an alien tongue in the world of King Lear, even if Lear refuses to understand it for what it is, and how much it matters.

An autumn sonnet for a winter night

I hope to get back to Edgar soon, but in the meantime, a brief post occasioned by my preparing to teach some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In particular, I found myself thinking about the first four lines of sonnet 78:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. (lines 1-4, my emphasis)

Once, I read a novel in which a character, looking out a window at an autumn day, recited to herself, “When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang…” And that brought me up short, not so much because the words in the second line were reversed, but because of what that reversal suddenly made clear to me about how the line works in unexpected ways. The version of the line from the novel is a reasonable linear progression, as the leaves flutter from the trees day after day: from few to none. But the sonnet actually conjures up separate images, disparate flashes of autumn: no single tree can go from complete bareness back to having a few leaves on its branches. The poem presents us with absolute starkness, in “none” – and then backs away from it, tempers it with “few,” as though afraid to go quite that far.

And then there’s the bite of the closing couplet, which is to my mind equally surprising:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long. (lines 13-14, my emphasis)

We don’t get “lose,” which is what we might expect after the depiction of the trees losing their leaves, or the other images in the middle of the poem: the twilight sky losing its light, the fire losing its strength, all natural processes of inevitable decline. Instead of “thou must lose” (in other words, “I must die”), we get “thou must leave,” which short-circuits those natural processes entirely. The ending of the love described here isn’t an unavoidable outcome, but a decision that could be made at any moment by the sonnet’s addressee. The modal verb “must” tries to coerce us into seeing this separation as something as inevitable as death, but “leave” contradicts that force. And how “strong” could such love truly be, if the addressee could choose to leave it behind? A note of uncertainty, even perhaps capriciousness, sneaks into the sonnet by way of that punning little word, as we follow the poem from leaves to leaving.

On Jane Austen and the subject of “ought”

I only lasted for one post before I went off-subject! I wonder if that’s some sort of record.

Still, I’ve got Jane Austen on the brain at the moment. This is, it’s true, a thing that happens to me fairly frequently anyway, but on Wednesday I sat in on a lecture on the opening of Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve just started reading Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures by Claudia L. Johnson in my spare time, so I hope you’ll forgive me the detour. (Incidentally, Johnson’s book opens with a discussion of her adventures in editing Mansfield Park – specifically, which edition’s punctuation to follow in one instance – and it says something about me that I was immediately both charmed and hooked by this. I may or may not want to know what that something is.)

There are many things I could say about Mansfield Park – how much I love the novel’s main character, Fanny Price, for example, and how few others seem to join me in loving her; or how Austen uses Shakespeare in the novel to suggest value judgments (this is, after all, the novel in which one character says that “we all talk Shakespeare”), but instead I’ll go with something else near and dear to my heart: Austen’s use of modal verbs.

(My dissertation was partly on modal verbs in Shakespeare. Funny thing about writing a dissertation: you start noticing your topic everywhere. And since modal verbs – “can,” “may,” “must,” “will,” “shall,” and “ought” – actually are everywhere, I’ve been doing a lot of topic-spotting lately.)

The word “ought” is important in Austen, as you might expect given her reputation as a moralist, or as you’ll know if you’ve ever read Emma: Mr. Knightley’s estate, Donwell Abbey, is “just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was”; when Emma agrees to marry Mr. Knightley, she says “Just what she ought, of course. – A lady always does.”  And in Emma, the social “ought” and the moral “ought” come together, at least when it comes to Emma and Mr. Knightley. But Mansfield Park is a novel about the clash between tradition (upheld by Fanny and her clergyman cousin Edmund Bertram) and expensive dissipation (Edmund’s sisters Julia and Maria, as well as his older brother Tom; the alluring newcomers Henry and Mary Crawford), so it only makes sense that the social “ought” and the moral “ought” usually fail to meet up. When Henry Crawford takes it into his head to flirt with both Bertram sisters at once, the narrator calls our attention to what the behavior Henry, Julia, and Maria ought to have been, in contrast to what it was:

[Henry Crawford] went for a fortnight — a fortnight of such dullness to the Miss Bertrams as ought to have put them both on their guard, and made even Julia admit, in her jealousy of her sister, the absolute necessity of distrusting his attentions, and wishing him not to return; and a fortnight of sufficient leisure, in the intervals of shooting and sleeping, to have convinced the gentleman that he ought to keep longer away, had he been more in the habit of examining his own motives, and of reflecting to what the indulgence of his idle vanity was tending; but, thoughtless and selfish from prosperity and bad example, he would not look beyond the present moment. (Vol. I, ch. 13; my emphasis)

(I love, by the way, that Henry’s leisure here is only “in the intervals of shooting and sleeping”; he has so little to do that he even has leisure from his leisure activities.)

Meanwhile, there’s the “ought” of mere social consensus or appearance, unattached to any particular moral force (or even substituting the social as a claim higher than the moral), as when Mary Crawford declares that Julia “ought to do better” than marry a mere baron with no actual money (Vol. III, ch. 9), or when Maria shows off the bumbling Mr. Rushworth’s property at Sotherton in order to gain in standing and consequence by her engagement to him: ” ‘Now we shall have no more rough road, Miss Crawford; our difficulties are over. The rest of the way is such as it ought to be. Mr. Rushworth has made it since he succeeded to the estate’ ” (Vol. I, ch. 8).

Edmund, as we might expect from a sober clergyman, resists the pressure of the social “ought” and judges by what is actually required; when he procures an invitation to Sotherton for Fanny by agreeing to stay home himself, we get this exchange between him and his sister Julia:

“I am sure she ought to be very much obliged to you,” added Julia, hastily leaving the room as she spoke, from a consciousness that she ought to offer to stay at home herself.

“Fanny will feel quite as grateful as the occasion requires,” was Edmund’s only reply, and the subject dropt. (Vol. I, ch. 8)

(Edmund’s biggest problem, I believe, is his inability to see other people’s social “oughts” – that is, he takes merely flattering or insinuating behaviors for evidence of real moral and ethical judgments, as when he comments that Mary Crawford speaks of Fanny “just as she ought” in wanting Fanny to marry Henry [Vol. III, ch. 4]. This is probably because the merely social has so little claim upon him; it blinds him to its hold over other people.)

And both he and Fanny are the most persistent in using the moral “ought,” which others fail to do: ” ‘No one here can call the office [of clergyman] nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear. …it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation’ ” (Vol. I, ch. 9, emphasis in original). Fanny censures Henry by saying that he “can feel nothing as he ought” (Vol II, ch. 5), and examines her conscience minutely to determine whether she should be a part of the scandalous play the others are putting on, even though she knows that her uncle would never approve:

she had begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do; and as she walked round the room her doubts were increasing. Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for – what might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance had set their hearts? Was it not ill–nature, selfishness, and a fear of exposing herself? And would Edmund’s judgment, would his persuasion of Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole, be enough to justify her in a determined denial in spite of all the rest? It would be so horrible to her to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples… (Vol. I, ch. 16, emphasis in original)

(This is one of the reasons I love Fanny: she’s so quick to see the right course of action, but so quick to discount her own judgment because of her habitual shyness and poor treatment from most of the Bertram family.)

I don’t know if the two “oughts” ever really come together in Mansfield Park, in the end; the failures of many of the characters in Mansfield Park seem to stem from just that inability to bring together the social and the moral.