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  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.
 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).