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Thread: Is Shakespeare difficult to read for a present day English speaker

  1. #1
    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Is Shakespeare difficult to read for a present day English speaker

    Last night I started reading the preface of Gwynne's Grammar, which is another grammar, punctuation and style guide written by an opinionated curmudgeon (aren't they all). One thing he said was that the English language had not actually changed much over the past few centuries. New words had been added, but few had been lost or had changed their meaning. He said even Shakespeare could be read by a present day English speaker without much difficulty. I agreed with him about books written in the 19th century. I found there was not much vocabulary in Dickens or Austen that I did not understand. There was plenty of vocabulary in Hardy I did not understand, but I think that was because he was showing off. However, the biggest problem I had with Shakespeare at school was that I did not understand it, at least not without the teacher explaining it or the student notes.
    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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    Card-carrying Medievalist Lokasenna's Avatar
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    He's quite right. Shakespeare is modern English - sure, some of the idioms will be unfamiliar, and some words have undergone semantic shift, but nevertheless it is still modern English.
    "I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity- through him all things fall. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!" - Nietzsche

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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    Shakespeare might also give you a bit of a misconception of what idiomatic Early Modern English was like. If you read something like Bacon's essays they present very little difficulty for a modern reader.

    This is the opening paragraph of Bacon's novella The New Atlantis:

    "We sailed from Peru, where we had continued by the space of one whole year, for China and Japan, by the South Sea, taking with us victuals for twelve months; and had good winds from the east, though soft and weak, for five months’ space and more. But then the wind came about, and settled in the west for many days, so as we could make little or no way, and were sometimes in purpose to turn back. But then again there arose strong and great winds from the south, with a point east; which carried us up, for all that we could do, toward the north: by which time our victuals failed us, though we had made good spare of them. So that finding ourselves, in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world, without victual, we gave ourselves for lost men, and prepared for death. Yet we did lift up our hearts and voices to God above, who showeth His wonders in the deep; beseeching Him of His mercy that as in the beginning He discovered the face of the deep, and brought forth dry land, so He would now discover land to us, that we might not perish."
    "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."
    - Margaret Atwood

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Whenever I start Shakespeare with high school students, I show them three passages. The first is from Beowulf, the second from The Canterbury Tales, and the third from whatever Shakespeare play we are about to study. This lets them see how modern Shakespeare's English is.

    In Shakespeare, it is the poetic syntax, the allusions upon allusions, and high rhetoric that makes the works difficult - not the words themselves.

    Take this riddling exchange:

    ROMEO
    Good morrow to you both. What counterfeit did I give you?

    MERCUTIO
    The ship, sir, the slip; can you not conceive?

    ROMEO
    Pardon, good Mercutio, my business was great; and in
    such a case as mine a man may strain courtesy.

    MERCUTIO
    That's as much as to say, such a case as yours
    constrains a man to bow in the hams.

    ROMEO
    Meaning, to court'sy.

    MERCUTIO
    Thou hast most kindly hit it.

    ROMEO
    A most courteous exposition.

    MERCUTIO
    Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.

    ROMEO
    Pink for flower.

    MERCUTIO
    Right.

    ROMEO
    Why, then is my pump well flowered.

    MERCUTIO
    Well said: follow me this jest now till thou hast
    worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it
    is worn, the jest may remain after the wearing sole singular.

    ROMEO
    O single-soled jest, solely singular for the
    singleness.

    MERCUTIO
    Come between us, good Benvolio; my wits faint.

    ROMEO
    Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I'll cry a match.

    MERCUTIO
    Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have
    done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of
    thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five:
    was I with you there for the goose?

    ROMEO
    Thou wast never with me for any thing when thou wast
    not there for the goose.

    MERCUTIO
    I will bite thee by the ear for that jest.

    ROMEO
    Nay, good goose, bite not.

    MERCUTIO
    Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting; it is a most
    sharp sauce.

    ROMEO
    And is it not well served in to a sweet goose?

    MERCUTIO
    O here's a wit of cheveril, that stretches from an
    inch narrow to an ell broad!
    There are a few words here that are no longer in common use - but only a few. It is the plethora of wordplay that make this - and like passages - difficult.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

  5. #5
    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    Whenever I start Shakespeare with high school students, I show them three passages. The first is from Beowulf, the second from The Canterbury Tales, and the third from whatever Shakespeare play we are about to study. This lets them see how modern Shakespeare's English is.

    In Shakespeare, it is the poetic syntax, the allusions upon allusions, and high rhetoric that makes the works difficult - not the words themselves.

    Take this riddling exchange:



    There are a few words here that are no longer in common use - but only a few. It is the plethora of wordplay that make this - and like passages - difficult.
    That's a good post. Yes, I understood most of the individual words, but not the meaning. However, I am sure in many of the plays we did at school, I did not understand many of the words.
    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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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    I'm TAing our department Shakespeare course for non-English majors in September and I suspect that issues with the language will probably be what I spend most of the first conference on. For the moment I'm thinking that I'll recommend they read the plays through once without worrying too much about understanding every detail, and to follow that up with reading a plot summary on wikipedia to fill in any blanks. I'll also try working through some passages with them.
    Last edited by OrphanPip; 06-27-2013 at 11:01 PM.
    "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."
    - Margaret Atwood

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    Registered User hannah_arendt's Avatar
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    I am not a native English Speaker and I have always read Shakespeare in modernised version. I tried once to be ambitious but I didn`t understand much.

    For Polish natives, there are many old poems they cannot understand. I remember studying polish medival literature I had to check up many words. I think that the same is with Shakespeare for English native speakers.

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    Registered User seaofmilktea's Avatar
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    I had to do Othello at school and I found it a real challenge because of the horrible layout of the book I had. A lame excuse, perhaps, but I got a different version and understood much more. I also had an awesome.teacher who help break down the text.

    But it gets easier. I read Hamlet easily enough in one morning. A month ago I was reading A Midsummer Night's Dream so I could tutor a younger student from my school. (I've not graduated from secondary school yet ) I hadn't studied the text before, mind! Of course, I bought the copies with notes in them explaining the puns and the metaphors and the meanings of obsure words. I couldn't do it on my own!

    When I went to see Macbeth 3 years ago I couldn't understand a word. I has to choose between watching the action or glancing up at the subtitles. Did i mention falling asleep watching The Tempest? (It was a long day though, and my contact lenses had dried up)


    I agree that the main problem are.the puns and the metaphors, but a good book would have notes for that. Shakespeare likes to let the dialogue stray from the plot. Titania going on about the bad weather would.be an example. I like it, but it does complicate the language somewhat. Other problems include terms relating to specific professions such as law, war, and sailing (Othello). Moreover, a certain amount of knowledge about the culture and beliefs of the time.are required, such as knowing what 'humours' were. (Again, Othello) Also, unfortunately I don't know Greek mythology as well as I should!
    Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
    柳暗花明又一村

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    Registered User seaofmilktea's Avatar
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    I wish my teacher did that! Great idea.
    I remember when we did Macbeth when I was around 13 we only did fake Shakespeare, i.e. prose summaries of the plot. I found ever so pointless. That took away the lamguage problems and left us with characterisation, plot and themes. But at least ourteacher showed us a proper film adaptation afterwards.

    Actually, do you think showing film/ tv adaptations is a good idea for teaching English? I'm not a teacher, I'm just curious. Watching one version might be imposing an interpretation on students, but there usually isn't enough time for several versions.
    Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
    柳暗花明又一村

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    I tend to use the film after studying the play, in order to bring up the idea of adaptation. I once tried using the film concurrently (we would study a few scenes and watch the corresponding scenes in the film) - not sure how well that worked out.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

  11. #11
    Good topic. English isn't my native language, but i do have a very good grasp of it by now. But recently i came across some of Shakespeare's work and honestly to me it seemed like another language!

    Sarah

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