No One Can Understand Shakespeare

First of all, there are modern translations of Shakespeare at No Sweat Shakespeare. It's . . . understandable! It lets you appreciate Shakespeare's stories the way they deserves.

It can also be disconcerting.

The question for him was whether to continue to exist or not
You cannot read the version on that website and appreciate Shakespeare's ability as a writer. (You can appreciate those authors' abilities as writers.)

But if you read the original, you still won't appreciate Shakespeare's ability as a writer. Words have changed meaning too much over the past 400 years. For sure, the grammar is old and uncomfortable, and many of the words are archaic. (Avouch?) That makes Shakespeare very difficult to read. But I'm talking IMPOSSIBLE.

And it's really hard for anyone TO SEE THIS PROBLEM.

Let me prove my point in a long essay. This is the start of Hamlet:

SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the Castle.
Enter Francisco and Barnardo, two sentinels.

Who’s there?

Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Long live the King!
You have no problems reading the first five words of Hamlet. But what about stand? Nowadays, we tell people to stand when they are sitting or lying. Or doing a handstand, but not when they are walking. However, if you read the stage instructions, you can realize they are probably walking towards each other. (I didn't.) Then you can think about it and realize that stand means "stop walking."

You had a chance of realizing that. Unfold is your next challenge. You might have just ignored it. But if you thought about it deeply enough, you probably decided it was a metaphor. Then you had to decide what it was a metaphor for. Was Bernardo supposed to spread his arms, so that Francisco could see he had no weapon? Open his cloak?

Tough decision. Anyway, it's not a metaphor. If you looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), you saw it meant, "To disclose or reveal by statement or exposition; to explain or make clear." That meaning is obsolete.

Is any harm done? Yes. If you don't understand unfold, then "Long live the King" is like a non sequitur -- it's is just some random comment Bernardo is throwing out.

In fact, it's an awesome line and right in the flow of the conversation. Bernardo has been asked to verbally reveal himself, and he says "Long live the king." So, he has chosen to say his allegiance, not his name. But of course that might be all the other sentenal cares about.

Let's stop here for a second. A word that looked like normal meaning was not. A word that looked like a metaphor was not. A line that looked like a non sequitur was not. And this is in the first 13 words of Hamlet. You are completely unequipped to evaluate Shakespeare as a writer.

And, when I read Shakespeare with my modern mind, it's flat. When I spend hours trying to understand him from an Elizabethan mind, it comes to life.

And Shakespeare's great for his time, and you are doing nothing wrong for your time. The problem is that unbreachable 400+ years.

You Do Not Know What You Do Not Know

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
If you don't know contumely (I don't), you have a problem. But YOU KNOW YOU HAVE A PROBLEM. You can look it up in a dictionary. You can skip over it and at least you will know you're missing something. (A regular dictionary can handle this. From Merriam-Webster: "harsh language or treatment arising from haughtiness and contempt")


If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste
You read that wrong. But you didn't realize you had a problem. You still don't even know what your problem is.

If you are a being a good reader (a questionable strategy), you will go into the next scene thinking that Bardardo and Horatio are rivals. Then you will be confused when they're not. And it will be one more thing to ignore. You will never think to look "rival" up in the OED, where you will find it had the opposite meaning 400 years ago. ("A person having the same objective as another, an associate. Obsolete. rare.")

Suppose there's a typo:

Ay, there's the crub.
Hmmm. You don't know the word crub. But there's still context (which is difficult to understand for a lot of reasons). So maybe you can guess in at least a vague way what crub means. Or skip over it. Will that typo interfere with your understanding?

Not really. The actual sentence is

Ay, there's the rub.
But the meaning of rub is obsolete, so you don't know it and neither does anyone else. And you might never think to look it up. You can still try to guess the meaning from context, just like you could for crub. But that's all.

From the Oxford English Dictionary: "Any physical obstacle or impediment to movement, esp. one that is unexpected. Also in figurative contexts." The idea of 'unexpected' adds depth to that line and portrays Hamlet as reacting to his own thoughts in real-time.

More Examples

My personal favorite is:
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task Does not divide the Sunday from the week.
You should know the routine. That does not exactly make sense. Maybe you can even focus in on the word impress. Maybe you know that one reason for the war of 1812 was the British impressing our sailors. ("to force authoritatively into service.")
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
You don't know what coil means. It is not a metaphor, thank you for trying. (""Noisy disturbance, ‘row’; ‘tumult, turmoil, bustle, stir, hurry, confusion’.")
MARCELLUS. Holla, Barnardo!
Hello comes from hallo, which comes from holla. Is it good enough to know that Holla means Hello?

Not to a good writer. I draw a distinction between "Hi", "hello", and "hey". And I think about which word to use in writing, and I'm sure my vocalizations are sensitive to which meaning I want. So, to actually understand Shakespeare at the level he deserves, we would want the connotations. Which we can't get for 1600 England.

Here that isn't a problem because holla doesn't mean hello, it probably means "A shout to excite attention."

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin [dagger]?
It makes sense that quietus would mean death.

The thing is, there is a legal term from that time with the Latin name quietus est. And essentially it means a receipt for paying a debt, declaring that the person is now free from all legal obligations. And that is an amazing metaphor. Meanwhile, I know of no evidence that quietus was used to mean death at Shakespeare's time.

By the way, "Long live the king" could be a shortening of "the king is dead. Long live the king." That would give it a different meaning here. I tried to look up if this was happening. No one knows.

The Small Print

These examples are from just one play. They are the most flagrant from the start and the soliloquy, which is just a small portion of Hamlet, and I left out words that were just small problems (mettle) or uncertain (careless).