Why Smart People Struggle with Shakespeare Too

This excerpt from John McWhorter's book "Words on the Move" explains why smart people struggle with Shakespeare too. 

John McWhorter, Writing for
8-minute read
Episode #594

hamlet looking confused at a skull representing confusion of shakespeare language

To truly know that a word is a thing ever in flux can help us understand the language of the past—or why the language of the past can be so hard to fully understand. Shakespeare is, again, a useful demonstration: "reduce" is hardly alone in his work in throwing the modern listener or reader. Have you ever attended a Shakespeare play and kept to yourself, as everyone around you was exclaiming about how wonderful it was, that you missed so much of what any of the characters were saying that you’d be hard-pressed to say you took in the plot in any detail? My sense over the years has been that asking people about this creates precisely the same discomfort as asking if they floss every night.

Commonly we are told that Shakespeare’s language is “high,” such that the challenge can be met by making a certain effort. Related to this is the idea that Shakespeare’s language is poetic, requiring more effort to process than the phraseology of Neil Simon. Then someone will say that the language comes across best with careful acting technique, ideally wielded by British people.

All claims except the one about Brits are true. However, many will be nagged by a feeling that there is more to the story, and there is. When, in "Hamlet," Polonius opens his farewell speech to Laertes (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”) with “And these few precepts in thy memory / See thou character,” rising to a challenge can take us only so far. We can indeed process "precepts," "thy," and "thou" with the aforesaid rising. But what does Polonius mean by "character"? Neither intonation, facial expression, being British, nor rising will get across that in Shakespeare’s time [character] meant “write,” as in the characters that one writes. Polonius is telling Laertes, in short, “Note these things well.”

At the very start of "Measure for Measure," Duke Vincentio announces:

Of government the properties to unfold,

Would seem in me to affect speech and discourse;

Since I am put to know that your own science,

Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice

My strength can give you; then no more remains . . .

The reason we could grasp almost no meaning from this when spoken in real time, and might get little more even reading it on the page, is not that the language is poetic. There isn’t a Wordsworthian word in the passage. Yet one “rises” to this only to bump one’s head. The problem is that so many of the words no longer mean what they did four hundred years ago.


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