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Thread: Does anyone understand a Shakespeare play without studying it first?

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Does anyone understand a Shakespeare play without studying it first?

    I started reading Othello in my project to understand and like our greatest national writer. I chose Othello because it is one I had never studied or seen performed. I think I get the jist but still don't really understand much of the verse, even when I understand most of the actual words. When I was a lad I assumed that there was a small, well educated section of society who could understand Shakespeare and actually enjoyed his works. Otherwise why would people go to theatres to watch his plays. Now I am coming to the view that hardly anyone really understands a Shakespeare play without studying it first. The thing is, it is not just the words. I find it very difficult to understand what he is driving at much of the time. I wondered whether to his contemporary audience, standing in the Globe Theatre, it all came across clear as a bell. Apart from Shakespeare's works, the oldest English books I have read that were not translated into modern English (modern as right now) were Robinson Crusoe, written 1719, and The History of Tom Jones, 1749. I had no problems reading them. In Tom Jones there were many references and some words I did not know, but not so many they stopped me from following the book. I would usually look them up in the notes at the end of each chapter. Maybe I would get on better with some of Shakespeare's contemporaries. There were playwrights Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe. About fifty years later there was diarist Samuel Pepys.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    It would be nice to know if there are any good translations of Shakespeare into modern English.

    There is this famous German translation by Schlegel and Tieck. I read it many times ago and even the English original didn´t surpass it for me, perhaps because I understood the translation better.

    Recently there is this much acclaimed translation by Frank Günther. It's aim is to bring Shakespeare close to his readers, by modernizing the language of the play. Maybe you have something similar in English.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    What is your mother tongue, Danik? I thought you were from Brazil, so spoke Portuguese.

    I think there have been some translations from Shakespeare's English to more everyday English. It seems like missing the point reading a modern translation. Shakespeare was a renowned wordsmith and coiner of phrases. He packed his words, ideas and phrases into iambic pentameter and rhyme. That is difficult to modernise without losing something. On the other hand, reading a modern translation before watching the play would help understanding.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Yes, Kev, I am from Brazil and speak Portuguese, but my mother tongue is German.

    You are quite right, Kev. I think, depending the time and effort you can or want to spend on these plays, there are two possibilities.
    The first one is to read the same play several times in the original as many times you think necessary to get more familiar with it, looking one or other word up in the dictionary. It is the more demanding way but you are native in English and have read a lot of literature. It is also, at the end, the most gratifying.
    Another possibility is reading the original play together with a new version. Either one can read the modern version first, to learn what the content is about, or one starts with the original one and just checks difficult passages with the new version.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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    Registered User Steven Hunley's Avatar
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    With Shakespeare, you have to remember the English is at least 400 years old, and that his plays were never meant to be read. The majority of meaning (over 94 percent) comes from tone, facial expression and body language. So see the plays first, and you'll understand the majority of what's going on. Then read it. See and understand, then read and sort through all the footnotes.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    I have begun to understand it a bit better. Maybe there people so tuned into 16th/17th century English they can pick up a book by Shakespeare and just read it. People used to reading the King James Bible perhaps. There are not so many of them these days. People are not as religious as they were, in the UK anyway. Even Christians are more likely to read a more up-to-date translation of the Bible than the King James.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    I think it is a matter of getting used to it. And quarantine is a good opportunity for it.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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