Detoxing the Bard

The Wall Street Journal published an article about an upcoming project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The project involves updating or translating Shakespeare’s plays, but I am not too concerned with the project itself.

Adaptation and translation are important for interpreting Shakespeare. Perfectly valid endeavors; some turn out better than others; they are nothing to get too excited or upset about. I hope this venture of the OSF goes well, and am interested to hear more about it. That’s all for that.

What does have me fuming is this article spouting illogical at best, and deceitful at worst, information about Shakespeare’s contemporary relevance.

When an article openly admits the official statement has not been made, I am wary. Why does this author feel the need to break this story before the OSF makes their announcement? Dr. McWhorter does not have any quotations or comments from OSF, which means this likely isn’t a sanctioned article trying to build publicity around the coming announcement.

That makes it click bait or lazy journalism. Either way, not a great start.

Dr. McWhorter then begins to speak for the masses, about how “educated people” truly feel about Shakespeare. I’d love some direct quotations, or a personal narrative, or statistics, or anything to say that the author spent time validating his assumptions rather than making sweeping generalizations. That is a logical fallacy I would expect from my high school students, not the WSJ.

The next section consists of Dr. McWhorter illustrating how the words have shifted meaning. However, people misuse and recreate meaning constantly with language, but we manage because language is more than just words on a page.

When actors perform, they enliven the language with hand gestures, vocal tones, facial expressions, and physical reactions. Even if the language has changed, a good performance clarifies that. Demonstrating what it means to “character” something or to be “well compact” is hardly an insurmountable difficulty. Actors, designers, directors, and dramaturgs work to ensure that the audience does not flounder. Pointing out a few odd phrases on the page could not be more removed from, and more irrelevant to, performance.

To bolster his selective haphazard analysis, he references research by Shakespearean scholar, actor, and director Ben Crystal. I’m just going to compare what the author of the article says Crystal says, to what Crystal actually says:

Dr. McWhorter: “Ben Crystal has documented that only about 10% of the words that Shakespeare uses are incomprehensible in modern English.”

Crystal: “As for the words, well, admittedly, some of the words [Shakespeare] uses might not have been in general use for a few hundred years, but a rather cooperative 95 per cent are words we know and use every day… Only five percent of all the different words in all of Shakespeare’s plays will give you a hard time.” (Shakespeare on Toast, p. 11)

Do I need to spell out the reasons that’s an unprofessional and sloppy use of information? Five percent versus ten percent? And Crystal never said anything anywhere (as far as I know) about Shakespeare being “incomprehensible.”

Then this illogical rhetorical question: “But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of ‘culture’ and keeping our confusion to ourselves?”

(Aside, does anyone know what “genuflecting” means? I find his use of an archaic word wonderfully ironic.)

It’s a hasty generalization with a false binary, non sequitur, and ad hominen. All within on sentence, with a typo. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is not good journalism, argument, or even writing.

So, why am I on a soap box about this?

Besides it being awful journalism, this article actively undermines everything I know and believe about Shakespeare.

Students tell me they can’t understand Shakespeare before they have even looked at the page or seen a production because they think he writes in “Old English” (he doesn’t). Teachers tell me that kids can’t be expected to understand or enjoy these plays because they are too hard, too old, too complex. This article tells me we can’t fully enjoy Shakespeare because the language is impossible.

But do you know what I have seen? I have seen a boy, no older than ten, almost fall out of his chair laughing during A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have seen young girls, ten or thirteen, pull their jackets over their faces as the witches skulked on stage in Macbeth. I have seen students, adults, teens, and everyone in between, shout out, gasp, and engage with Shakespeare more times than I could list.

No matter what people say, I know that Shakespeare can be understood with nothing more than a good production–I’ve seen it.

From my experience as a student, as a teacher, as an actor, I know the biggest obstacle to Shakespeare is not the language.

The biggest obstacle is this lie that Shakespeare cannot be understood.

This article presents that lie as fact, and that is why I am fuming.


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