Hating Shakespeare

Shakespeare haters have been responding to the Beware of March 15 item about rewriting Shakespeare in my Fox column.  

I wonder about people who can read Shakespearean language.Why did they spend so much time learning Shakespeare when they could have been studying something useful? Snobbery is about the only reason I can come up with.

Another reader thought practicality should come first.

It’s doubtful if most employers need or desire  their employees to be capable of speaking in Shakespearean phrases.

Here’s another from someone with an e-mail suggesting he works for a California school district. Not as an English teacher, I suspect.

Sorry to have to tell you that this science major does not share your view about the value of liberal studies—especially shakespear. As an adult returning to complete my degree, I nearly ‘choked’ when I came across ‘required’ subjects that were supposed to broaden my horizons. It got so bad that I became beligerant to the point of almost being asked to leave; but I had to keep questioning why-oh-why is this required for a computer major? (I am now in my 50’s and still do not read novels or go to operas—this does not make me bad, just different. Oh, by the way, my poor life is not deprived because I simply don’t understand any of it).

 I paid for my education, out of my own pocket. All I could do in ‘those’ classes was calculate the cost of each minute until an instructor made the mistake of calling on me in front of the class. It seems he had written a poem on the board. The poem was somehow comparing a B17 in WWII to a woman giving birth when it released its’ bombload (or at least that is what the navigator of this plane was writing about). When asked what I thought, I replied:” If I was the pilot in a wartime, killing situation, and my navigator was doing this kind of nonsense, I would turn the controls over to the copilot, pull out my .45, shoot the S.O.B., then throw him out with the bombs”. Needless to say, the class laughed and the instructor asked me to stay after class. Before he could say anything, I stuck my face right into his and said:”The college got their money; you can’t hurt my GPA; you give me a C and you will never see me again”. He said:”DEAL”.

I did something similar in linguistics, though with a bit more subtlety.

A chemist writes:

If I gave my next seminar to our customers in “Shakespearean English”, do you think I would be praised for my strong grasp of the language or simply fired?  My guess would be the latter.  I couldn’t stand Shakespeare in high school or college, but now that it has been translated into a language that someone can actually USE in the real world, maybe I’ll read some too.
By the way, I do acknowledge that much like Latin, there are certain people (historians, language scholars) who would actually find understanding dead languages useful.  But for the rest of us…

Shakespeare’s English is a dead language? Most high school students read a few Shakespeare plays in the original, with help from footnotes, and enjoy it. More or less. The question is whether those who can’t read real Shakespeare should be given simplified Shakespeare, or should we stop pretending and give them a nice, easy, modern author. And admit poor readers are not on track for college success.

About Joanne


  1. Laura (southernxyl) says:

    When I was pursuing my chemistry and math major, I expected to take classes outside those studies. I was attending a university, not a trade school.

  2. Shakespeare is not just for humanities majors, the plays add value to our lives. Just as a person who cannot perceive the beauty of science or of math is diminished, so is the science or math major who won’t learn something that he believes to have no immediate utilitarian value.

  3. Andy Freeman says:

    I’m all for a well-rounded education. Interestingly enough, the only folks who have the relevant requirements are techies….

  4. I guess learning for learning’s sake is out these days. Has anyone mentioned anywhere yet that people who make the time and effort to understand a language they are not familiar with will have a better understanding of their own language (in this case modern English)? And has anyone mentioned yet that the individual who is disciplined enough to master Shakespearean English (or any other dead language) would probably make a good hard working employee?

  5. Man. Some truly ignorant people emailed you.

    Yes, I doubt any employer will want their employees to read or speak in Olde English, but they do want employees who are creative and knowledgeable. This means that some idiot who can’t deal with “Ides of March=March 15” is not someone you want to hire.

  6. Just a quibble: Shakespeare is not Old English. He is early modern English.

    I actually have a dual degree in English and Computer Science. At one time, I could program in seven different computer languages on three different operating systems. I started out as a chemical engineering major, so I’ve had plenty of college level math and science. I also have concentrations in political science and Greek. I’m not a techie; I’m an English teacher.

  7. I am a fizzycyst, an I had to take a shakespear class in colege. It was dum! It wasn’t nothing but a bunch of quotes! “To be or not too be”, “parting is such sweet sorrow”, “that was the unkindest cut of all”. Ha! I could of wrote that. What a waist of time.

    I can’t say that I have ever learned anything useful in english class.

  8. jeff wright says:

    The barbarians are at the gate.

  9. J.M. Heinrichs says:

    Bravo Rita C: I am from the opposite end of the putative spectrum. To gain my BA, my course load in the first two years was 50% Maths and Science; the last two years required computer courses and psychology. (This was prior to the advent of Operating Systems, I learned to program in Fortran.) Interestingly, my peers on the Eng/Sci side of the college spent their first two years concentrating on useful Eng/Sci courses; in their third and fourth years, they had to take Eng and Hist courses to “improve their minds”.
    In addition to supporting Rita: I implicated myself in a scholastic dispute when I was in Grade 5, and due to the overwhelming social pressures from my peers, thought that I should quit school. My mother was made of sterner stuff, and after listening to my careful and logical arguments, sent me back to class the next day. My main point in the above argument was that I had learned enough Math, Science, English and History, to be able to live and function effectively in the adult world. As I said, Mom disagreed.
    Reading comments against learning Shakespeare, or supporting modern pedegogical thinking, I am amazed at how smart I was in Grade 5 (1966, by the way).


  10. You were just gifted, JMH. Nice allusion to Julius Caesar :).

  11. michaelh says:

    Linden has the right idea. While there are some turns of phrase to be found in Shakespeare that defy contextual comprehension, they are very few. Anyone who is literate in English but can’t read Shakespeare and understand 99% of it has weak comprehension skills. I am NOT saying they are stupid, I AM saying their education is insufficient.

    Every employer I’ve ever had has counted me among their most valuable employees primarily because I can educate and train myself. And that is almost entirely because I understand what I read, even when it is technical and specialized text I have never been exposed to before. Thank God for parents and teachers who held me accountable to learn even when I didn’t see the need for it.

    Additionally, perhaps the most compelling defense for advanced literacy is that it makes better citizens which makes a better country. The ability to understand and engage in public discourse requires that a person be able to comprehend what they read and hear from a wide variety of sources. It’s no wonder BS so pervades politics. The electorate is ill equipped to tell the difference between empty rhetoric and real content.

  12. Walter Wallis says:

    …and those Liberal Arts babes are so CUTE!!!

  13. Speaking as one who loves Shakespeare, let me cast my vote for doing away completely with the idea of a “well-rounded” education at the college level. Let’s face the fact that Shakespeare is only of interest to book geeks, and even then, he sure as hell isn’t necessary reading when your average book geek has countless other authors of equal skill and relevance to choose from. The old fart’s had his day – let’s chuck him out, along with all other liberal arts requirements.

  14. I had a conversation with my dear wife as to why Shakespeare mattered. He had a great way of saying complicated emotions and feelings with just a few words. Even though I teach software development classes, I use Shakespearean references, such as “method in my madness.” There are many such phrases, without which our language would be so much poorer. Tell people to deal with the Ides of March, for crying out loud!

  15. I’ve taught Shakespeare to 7th graders for quite a few years. They prefer the original language over simplified, modern language. The only modification I make is that I shorten the plays.

    Should it be taught in the schools? Only when the teacher enjoys it.

  16. Mad Scientist says:

    How many people remember that the “Ides of March” is actually a direct translation from the original Latin? The Romans also had phrases for the 1st (kalendis) and the last (pridie). A Leap Day (our Feb 29th) was the bisextus.

    We only remember the ides because of Shakespeare.

  17. I would wholeheartedly fight the end of the Liberal Arts education at universities. I am a better person for having studied a variety of subjects in college: I am able to make relate to more people because I can converse on a larger set of topics than before I went to college. I am able to think more critically, something EVERYBODY who goes to college ought to be learning. (I’m better at Jeopardy, too, but that’s not terribly useful unless I actually audition for the show.)

    This is just more fodder for the arguments of those of us supporting a stronger technical school system. People who are interested in learning a technical field shouldn’t be forced into technical schools, but they should be more of a viable option. If nothing else, it’ll make them happy for not having to take classes outside their fields. That ought to make fans of the Liberal Arts education happy, too, as classes would actually be filled by people who want to be there.

  18. Mike McKeown says:

    I would think that knowledge and analysis of the careers of the MacBeths (husband and wife), Iago, Richard III, and all the main characters in “Julius Caesar” would would be required in modern business schools, just as one might expect knowledge of “The Prince” and Castiglioni.

    There is even an example as to how to be behave when forced out for criminal incompetence and activity: “Nothing in life suited him so much as the leaving of it.”

  19. Tom West says:

    Two points to add:

    (1) Shakespeare *is* part of our (at least middle class) contemporary cultural context. Even if you don’t read Shakespeare, having no knowledge of his plays, his famous phrases, etc. leaves you lost in many cultural references. Essentially, it paints you (however unfairly) as somewhat ill-educated.

    (2) It’s not just the language that is hard, it’s the experience. I will admit that I didn’t have much appreciation for Shakespeare in high school because I didn’t have the emotional experience to understand what the characters were going through. Several years of experience later and suddenly Shakespeare was *alive* and meaningful.

    Relatively inexperienced or immature students are not going to derive that much pleasure from Shakespeare because they won’t understand it, regardless of the language it uses. However, it still allows the student to obtain cultural knowledge that will be useful later, and may enhance their regard for the Bard when they are at a stage to appreciate him.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I’m with the Shakespeare haters. And I have an interesting contrast.

    A year or two ago, the New York Times Op-Ed page printed the musings of an Indian political writer on India’s independence day. He said the Indian subcontinent was like a misshapen Venn diagram, with Kashmir as the intersection. What stuck me was the casual assumption that a literate audience knows what a Venn diagram is. I doubt that any American political commentator (outside the techie press) would make that assumption.

    A while back, Ms. Jacobs talked about innumeracy in the news room with such a lack of concern she almost seemed to be bragging. Making formal logic a part of our way of thinking wouldn’t hurt. (As with an item above, where quoting Goebbels somehow became an “attempt to equate charter schools with Nazis.”)

    Numeracy and logical thinking actually matter. Their lack upsets Ms. Jacobs and a lot of others less than the lack of Shakespeare appreciation. As a hobby, Shakespeare is fine for those who like it. So is unscrambling obscure references in Sherlock Holmes stories, or mapping out the various time lines in the DC comics multiverse. But I can’t see basic education as the place for such things. Too much time for something that really doesn’t matter.

  21. The debate on the usefulness of reading Shakespeare aside, I don’t like the reading of fake Shakespeare for one reason… It’s allowing teachers and students to claim accomplishments that they haven’t really achieved… “Our kids read Shakespeare…” No they don’t… They read glorified Cliff’s notes… Why not just watch the movie..?

    Plus, half of the point of reading any great literary work is to gain the knowledge of the significant quotes from it… I’m sure that kids won’t recognize the famous quotes because they didn’t read them…

    That being said, I think the re-writes can be useful as a supplement to increase understanding when they’re reading the real thing… (It sounds like some of the schools are doing just that…) Our english department in high school encouraged the use of Cliff’s notes as we read some of these books… Of course, it was only to be used as a suppliment… We never read through the Cliff’s notes, then claimed to have read the original…

  22. If there’s this much excitement about reading modern English translations of Shakespeare, what about Chaucer? Anyone for Canterbury Tales in Middle English? I’ll bet that’s a rarity. It’s going to be the same for Shakespeare, methinks, sad though I am to think of it.

  23. I have the students write the paraphrases.

  24. I read Shakespeare in the original when I was in school, but before that, I read Chaucer in modernized English. I really liked Chaucer. Up until then, I’d imagined that the medieval world was entirely populated by noble chaste knights and virginal princesses, and had been entirely devoid of dirty jokes, sexual references, etc. Because I read Chaucer, I became less likely to accept arguments that assumed that sexual libertinism was invented in the 1960’s with the sexual revolution.

    The chronicles of Matthew Paris would do approximately the same thing for a student, I suppose. If I were creating a curriculum, say for homeschooling, I’d include one or the other– or both.

  25. First of all, these bozos need to go to DeVry if this is their attitude towards a university education. From people I know who’ve taught English there, I know they’ll just pass you along and won’t make you do anything you don’t want, so long as you pay them their money.

    As for the guy who got his face right into his instructor’s face–don’t ever try that in my class.

    Also, your degree is apparently not worth the paper it’s written on. You’d think an adult would act more like an adult, and accept the responsbilities he or she had taken on. Instead, you act even more childish than the most childish of the 18 year olds I have to deal with each term.

    Glad you’re so proud of your lack of culture, your ignorance, and your inability to accomplish a task without resorting to threats and disruptions.

  26. Anon: You stated, ” Making formal logic a part of our way of thinking wouldn’t hurt.” Do you realise that it used to be part of the standard curriculum? That schoolboys were schooled in Rhetoric and Logic? Watering down the curriculum to make it more “relevant” has a _long_ history.

    You also state, “Numeracy and logical thinking actually matter. Their lack upsets Ms. Jacobs and a lot of others less than the lack of Shakespeare appreciation.” Upon what factual basis do you rest this insulting statement? Why do you introduce a dichotomy into the discussion where none exists? Do you think an illiterate high school graduate faces a bright future?

    For others who have implied that Shakespeare is obscure and irrelevant, I will point out that a Google search of “Shakespeare 2003 production” comes up with 299,000 entries. A similar search for Mamet and Brecht produces 13,300 and 20,900 entries, respectively. Shakespeare is also much more accessible to the viewer than many 20th century dramatists. It seems likely that Shakespeare will still appear on stage in 200 years, when many modern dramatists’ works have become historical footnotes.

    I am intrigued to hear the sentiments, “Why do we gotta learn this stuff?” coming from posters who would heap abuse on any high school kid who dared to say the same thing about geometry or physics. I do believe that is possible to teach any subject poorly, and a bad teacher can ruin any subject matter.

  27. Laura (southernxyl) says:

    Re: Venn diagrams. We learned them in elementary school in the 1960’s. I think it was part of New Math. And somehow, they’re still around. My kid didn’t get them, but my niece (born 1985) did. One Christmas I gave her two books: “Catherine, Called Birdy” and “Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind”. They’re very, very different stories, but both involve teenage girls whose parents want to marry them off. My niece loved both books, and she drew me a Venn diagram to describe their differences and what they had in common. I thought that was kind of cool. She’s really an airhead, but she’s the kind of airhead who would read and enjoy Shakespeare in the original.

  28. Mad Scientist says:

    I offer a blanket apology for all the techies out there who cannot see the benefit of studying at least some of the classics. They are illiterate slobs who need to learn there is more to life than their jobs.

    Just because you read Shakespeare does not mean you need to use “Forsooth!” every 4th paragraph. It’s not the language, it the message.

    Unfortunately, most attempts to make it more “readable” distort the message.

  29. Andy Freeman says:

    > Plus, half of the point of reading any great literary work is to gain the knowledge of the significant quotes from it… I’m sure that kids won’t recognize the famous quotes because they didn’t read them…

    To the extent that the above is true, that “point” is better satisfied by teaching from something like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

  30. Venn diagrams are used frequently in schools — often for writing assignments, not just math. I think most people know the reference.

    I wasn’t bragging that most newspaper reporters are innumerate. I was just saying they are. I find it alarming.

  31. I read abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays in elementary and junior highschool. In highschool I read the real thing. At some point in highschool I saw a Kenneth Branagh production of “Much Ado About Nothing” with Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves, and Denzel Washington. I was pleasantly surprised that I got all of the jokes in the play. It was absolutely hilarious! I was proud of myself for being able to understand something that was at first difficult. It’s really sad that people would rather take the easy way out by reading cheesy translations instead of rising to the challenge of mastering something difficult.

  32. Jim Thomason says:

    I’m sort of conflicted on the whole issue, as I increasingly am on many educational issues. When I was in college, I also thought that having to take humanities (and other non-major related) courses was a waste of time. Now I wish I had focused more on those classes.

    But what did I actually gain by being forced to take those classes? I honestly don’t remember a single humanities class I attended, though I know I passed several. Or maybe my music appreciation class was considered a “humanity”. I do remember that class, but only two things in particular – the Bugs Bunny film clip of “Kill the Wabbit” that was shown to demonstrate classical music in modern culture, and the professor hee-hawing like a donkey to emphasize how “low-brow” the “joke” in Hayden’s “Surprise Symphony” was.

    In many ways, I suppose that you could say that education is wasted on the young. It’s generally far more important to nurture a love of learning in them than it is to force feed some particular bits of knowledge, IMHO. I think that trying to force people to learn something against their will is actually counter-productive much of the time, as exemplified by the quotes on Joanne’s post.

    All that said on the general issue, on the specifics of Shakespeare, I am pretty much in full agreement with those who think that it should be taught in the original. If you have to teach something that has easily understood language, then don’t do Shakespeare! Just do Hemmingway – or any of hundreds of other more recent writers.

    I would change my mind only if old Bill were around to translate it to current English himself. Every “translation” that I have ever heard or read has been truly dreadful. It doesn’t seem that anyone can be found who can duplicate his genius, even with the blueprint right in front of them. Why read a clunky copy when with a little work you can read the dazzling original? It’s like prefering a piece of glass to a diamond because the glass is easier to cut.

  33. Michelle Dulak says:

    Chaucer is a different sort of case, because late-Medieval English is a lot more different from modern English than Shakespeare’s is. When we covered bits of the Canterbury Tales in ninth grade, I don’t know what edition we were working from, but it was in modernized spelling with a lot of footnotes, like our Shakespeare. It certainly wasn’t updated to the “Beware March 15” level. (And boy did we have fun with it. The teenager who can’t enjoy “The Miller’s Tale” is dead.)

    Just a comment: I think Shakespeare’s language is a lot easier for high-schoolers than 18th-c. literature would be. I can’t at the moment remember any 18th-c. literature that we studied as literature at my high school. (Some as history — Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” Common Sense, some of the Federalist Papers . . .) Until well after high school, there was this massive gap in my literary knowledge between Shakespeare and Wuthering Heights, very inadequately plugged by a couple of heroic couplets by Pope. I wonder if others have had a similar education.

  34. Steve LaBonne says:

    Chaucer is not that difficult to read if one uses an edition with copious footnotes (and there are cheap, readily available paperbacks with suitably annotated selections from the Canterbuty Tales.) Chaucer in modern English is like any other translated poetry- 90% of the poetry is gone.

  35. It’s okay not to like Shakespeare. To me, it seems a little sad, but it’s okay. It’s okay not to read novels, as one of the people making an early comment here admitted. There is a lot of world out there and none of us can take it all in.

    However, I don’t understand why anyone would want to limit themselves that way.

    I like to think I’m learning something every day. Some of that learning has an immediate, direct impact on my life, some of that learning comes in handy later, bubbling to the surface when it’s needed. And some of that learning may never have any application at all.

    But useful or not, all that learning is important to me. It makes me a better person, able to do my job better, relate to other people better, to think better–both logically and creatively. Learning is never wasted and the broader your scope of learning, the better your understanding.

    As Robert Heinlein said, “specialization is for insects.”

  36. speedwell says:

    Shakespeare is not English (I mean in the sense that you learn it to become conversant with the language and the way it should be used). Shakepeare is culture, history, even class. If you want to know the history of English and English-speaking people, if you want to sound like an educated person, if you want to understand half of the idioms thrown around by people in our society, then you want Shakespeare.

    But if you want to learn to write excellent English, write excellent plays, write excellent ANYTHING, then there are tons and tons of really quite excellent authors, ancient and modern, who could be studied with much more profit.

  37. Bill Leonard says:

    I am one of those who find Shakespeare a lot easier to read and a helluva lot more readable than most of the fiction written between his time and the late 19th century. Part of the problem is that, for most of that time, writers were paid by the word. That’s why some of the novels are so unbearably long in the original. Fielding’s Tom Jones, for instance, has whole sections where the action stops for 40 or 50 pages while the reader is subjected to a discourse on art criticism, among other things.

    I don’t’ know how many people read Chaucer in Middle English these days, but I have noticed that his work is available in both middle and modern English, and in several different editions, at most bookstores. And old Geoffrey has never gone out of print in my adult lifetime.

  38. I like the liberal arts education I got at my techie university. I remember almost all of the important stuff from my various classes: two lit classes, 3 years of Japanese language, linguistic anthropology class, psych class, music composition class, history of science class — none of which had direct bearing on my majors (physics and math), but which promoted mental agiliy and cultural literacy.

    And the liberal arts can stick with you your entire life, whether you use it in a job or not — I still watch Shakespearean plays, I reread Dickens and Austen all the time (I didn’t enjoy Dickens until I was 25), I’ve bought tapes on the history of the English language and other such topics from the Learning Company. The Humane Letters are accessible to all, or at least should be – they expand one’s perspective of life and humanity.

    What saddened me in all this is that I, a math & science major, took junior-level humanities courses, as did everyone else (and we math majors tended to do rather well in the humanities). Almost no humanities majors took junior-level math or science courses. I was always an advocate for increasing the math or science requirements for the humanities students, so they would have a more well-rounded education. Taking precalculus really doesn’t hack it.

  39. Shakespearean language is hard? Sheesh, it’s not like it’s in Arabic or something. The difficulties I had with it (such as they were) all revolved around the historical context of the various works (else you don’t get a lot of the jokes), and any decently annotated textbook (and/or teacher) can fix that.

  40. I had the opportunity in college to read and study The Canterbury Tales in their original Middle English. I had read it before in a more modernized version, but it wasn’t until I read it in Middle English that I realized it was supposed to rhyme and that it is, in fact, a work of sublime wonder.

    I had a background in German as my “required foreign language” from high school, and my Chaucer professor spent a couple of class sessions teaching us the correct pronunciation and providing a pronuciation guide. He recommended that we do the readings out loud when we studied.

    Shakespeare is easy, as the individual words go. But this:

    “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
    The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,”

    Now that is a tough read!

  41. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    Anne Haight wrote:

    >Shakespeare is easy, as the individual words go. But this:
    >”Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

    >Now that is a tough read!

    Not so bad if one reads aloud, although declining the pronouns and conjugating the verbs can be a bit weird, as in “that hem hath holpen”.

    Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in a small consolidated high school in a rural county in a rural and “backward” state, among our many memorization assignments was the prologue, in ME.

    And we LOVED IT! Kids these days!

  42. Bill Leonard says:

    I believe it’s “Aprille,” the final “e” pronounced as “eh”, which helps a lot with the poetry’s meter. That’s a minor quibble.

    But it’s important, because that “e” represents what was then a decaying of inflections that were holdovers from Old English. Ditto, pronouns. In Chaucer’s time and in his geographic area, the inflection is thei, here, hem. By the end of the Middle English period, the normal form was more or less standardized as they, their, them. The verbs that were holdovers from the Old English period were changing, too — generally, with what once were strong verbs becoming weak verbs. In Chaucer’s time it was help-holp-holpen, while now we say help-helped-have heped. (Assuming I remember all this correctly!)

    Since I’m not an academic, none of this has any particular value — except for my own edification, since the history of the language is something of a hobby. But I likely wouldn’t have that if I hadn’t been exposed to Chaucer and the rest of the canon of western civilization.

    Interesting thread!

  43. Kent Richmond says:

    I am currently involved in a Shakespeare translation project of my own, to translate Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English while maintaining the meter,literary qualities, and complexity of the original.

    You are right that the dumbed-down versions of Shakespeare being used in schools are silly and not literature, but you also need to recognize that Shakespeare’s language is 400 years old and extremely difficult. Mastering it is not necessary for success in college and does not open up the student to much literature beyond Shakespeare since everyone influenced by him speaks a more recent form of English or has read Shakespeare translated into foreign languages.

    “Lend me your ears” is familiar to us because it has remained in the language, but how about this one?

    “Swithold footed thrice the ‘old,
    He met the nightmare and her ninefold,
    But her alight,
    And troth her plight
    And anoint thee witch, annoint thee.”

    Argue in your next column that kids need to be able to grasp this little rhyme to succeed in college. Reread the first page of Othello for another example of how we prepare kids for the language of college.

    I got the idea to do faithful, literary translations from John McWhorter at the Manhattan Institute. Here is the testimonial he has offered for my work.

    “Too often, unless we read a Shakespeare play beforehand, we process the language as if it were coming from a poorly tuned-in radio station. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays to be experienced impressionistically as ‘poetry;’ he assumed his language was readily comprehensible. At what point does an earlier variety of a language become so different from the modern one as to make translation necessary? Mr. Richmond is brave enough to assert that, for Shakespeare, that time has come. The French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov—and now, we can truly say that we have our Shakespeare.”

    Don’t give up on us Shakespeare translators yet. We are trying to keep his works alive.

    Kent Richmond
    Department of English
    California State University, Long Beach

  44. Bill Leonard says:

    Mr./Dr. Richmond,

    You are quite right: students do not need to grasp a difficult rhyme from the Bard in order to succeed in college. But that is beside the point.

    I say again: Shakespeare is part of our common western cultural heritage. In my view, all those who aspire to a college education, and to consider themselves “educated” (keepng in mind that there are many, many trade schools to impart computer programming, dental technician skills, heating and air conditioning techniques and the like), should at leasst have some passing familiarity with The Bard.

    And high school kids who cannot comprehend the “easier” plays in the original (Julius Caesar, for instance) are not likely on track to be college material — no matter wehat their parents think or what high school “educators” tell them.

  45. Tyson Laron says:

    We’re a little bit pompous to assume that the historic references of Shakespeare should have meaning to the college bound student. Why? Does that mean the Bard should have studied rap lyrics so that he could relate his stories to future generations of readers. I think not. Shakes may be poetic, but if a story cannot be translated into the modern tongue, then it is a story not worth retelling.

    One day in the distant future I can forsee a college professor suggesting that students should not be allowed to graduate until they can truly appreciate the words of Puff Daddy and his homeys.

  46. meeps,

    You took the history of science, and it wasn’t directly relevant to your physics major? You must have had a pretty weak class, if that’s the case. We had, for instance, to learn the math that Kepler used to brain out his laws, which is not nothing for a bunch of arts students.

    Interestingly, the professor at the beginning of the course, did a survey of people’s science backgrounds. Not a lot of the arts kids in the class also did math or science, but there weren’t a lot of science majors in there either. Pity on both counts.

  47. Kent Richmond says:

    In response to Bill Leonard, any college student wanting to be well-versed in western cultural heritage should have knowledge of Plato, Sophocles, Moses, Beowulf, Dante, Cervantes, and so on. But I know of no one who feels we are cheating students if we let them read these writers and thinkers in well-written translations.

    All around the world Shakespeare is read in translation. Only English speakers do not get to enjoy Shakespeare in a language they know well. I am committed to relieving us of that bit of irony.

  48. Steve LaBonne says:

    “And high school kids who cannot comprehend the “easier” plays in the original (Julius Caesar, for instance) are not likely on track to be college material — no matter wehat their parents think or what high school “educators” tell them.” This is the really important point in this discussion, methinks.

  49. speedwell says:

    Kent, my dad, who is an immigrant from Hungary, once told me he studied Shakespeare in school, translated into Hungarian. Skeptical, I asked if the original iambic pentameter was kept where it occurred in the original text–he said yes, it was.

    Now, because of the peculiar syllable stress in Hungarian (first syllable of each word bears the stress), this would be a truly heroic feat of translation. I actually wonder if Dad remembers this correctly.

  50. Kent Richmond says:


    I don’t know enough about Hungarian (a non-Indo-European language) to know if iambic pentameter is possible. But recogize that most two-syllable nouns in English are trochaic, meaning the first syllable is stressed. The naturalness of iambic pentameter may have more to do with how words work into a sentence in English than the dominant rhythm of individual words.

    Shakespeare translators may be finding some compromise between iambic pentameter and common metrical patterns in their native language. English translators do this. Richard Wilbur’s English translations of Moliere use pentameter couplets rather than the hexameter Moliere used. Hexameter, for complicated reasons, sounds wordy and sing-songy in English.

    Your father may have remembered correctly.


  51. Bill Leonard says:

    Mr./Dr. Richmond,

    Neither Plato nor Sophocles, Moses, Dante or Cervantes wrote in English. The scops who originally chanted the Beowulf yarns around the campfires and in the great halls did so in Old West Saxon, a Germanic dialect. So translations, of course, are necessary.

    Shakespeare wrote in the English language — early modern English, to be sure, but English nonetheless. You of course have every right to pursue your projects. But I question whether any translation, either in verse or in prose, is necessary.

  52. Kent Richmond says:

    In response to Bill Leonard, the fact that Shakespeare wrote in an earlier form of English facilitates translation. And the fact that the words look like English gives readers the mistaken impression that they understand, the most famous example being “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

    My son’s 9th-grade English class spent six weeks deciphering ROMEO and JULIET(and a whole class period on Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech), a play that Shakespeare says “Is now the two hour’s traffic of our stage.” I wonder if the dramatist John Webster (he would have been about 15 when he first saw Romeo and Juliet) needed six weeks to get through the play.

    My students in college say they really enjoyed reading Sophocle’s ANTIGONE in high school because the Robert Fagles translation is so accessible. Most Appreciation of Lit teachers in our English and Comp Lit departments at CSULB have given up on Shakespeare because students will not read him, and covering even one play eats up several weeks of the semester.

    In the theater, audiences laugh at the actors’ antics and slapstick, but notice how rarely audiences laugh at the actual jokes. Some directors even omit many jokes because they know the audience cannot understand. Yet people laugh out loud when they read my translation of TWELFTH NIGHT. Shakespeare wrote lines that are funny even without the horseplay on stage.

    Necessary, perhaps not, but Shakespeare deserves to be enjoyed, not merely admired. A good translation, and here is the paradox, is, for modern audiences, a more accurate rendering of Shakespeare’s intent than his original is.


  53. Kent, you know, I’m happy you have something to publish in order that you don’t perish, but high school students just aren’t as dumb as you say they are — at least not outside California. That you think they are makes me feel pretty darn cranky. Generally speaking, studying a work implies spending more time with it than just watching/reading it. Shakespeare is worth the time spent. It’s not a race. I have heard myriad arguments against everything I teach. If I bought them all, we’d be doing Green Eggs and Ham.

  54. Kent Richmond says:

    Gosh, Rita. You sure have the wrong idea about California and higher education here. We have wonderful colleges full of bright students. We do have a huge immigrant population that complicates what we teach a bit. My son’s 9th grade class,by the way was in a gifted program that drew from the top 7% of students. No one was too dumb.

    You also are unfair with your publish or perish dig. I am not tenured and under no pressure to publish. And if I did have to publish, my translations would not count nothing towards tenure since they are creative works, not scholarship. My translations are a labor of love, not some scheme to coax a promotion out of a university (I’m nearing the end of my teaching career anyway). I don’t understand such cynicism toward me. You sound very bitter toward universities.

    And you add another low blow. To suggest that there is a slippery slope leading inevitably to Green Eggs and Ham is a reckless argument. Your students would find my translations plenty challenging. They are just as complex and nuanced as the original. And reading them at the speed they are performed(about 150 wpm)is not racing. Shakespeare’s plays are supposed to be read at that rate. They are designed to be spoken to an audience, not deciphered.

  55. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    Kent Richmond wrote:

    “And the fact that the words look like English gives readers the mistaken impression that they understand, the most famous example being ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?'”

    I’ll grant you the passage is likely the most misunderstood line in English verse.

    But I also think that is because it appears in one of the most celebrated scenes in all Shakespeare (heck, even popular composer Stephen Foster wrote an art song about the scene). The fact of its fame alone means that many people recognize the line but have never read or seen the play, and only know the line.

    I think the context makes the meaning of “wherefore” clear even to a high school student (it certainly did to me). This is especially so if a student has ever read much from the King James Bible.

    I’m not suggesting that the bible be taught in school, only that high school students having some understanding of the KJV language was a relatively common cultural phenomenon within my own lifetime.

    >O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
    >Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
    >Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
    >And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

    One must work hard to grossly misinterpret “wherefore” within the context of the whole passage. Downhome country reasoning: She already knows where he is (the gist of the popular misconception), so it’s got to mean either “why” or “therefore”, and the fact it’s a question cinches it.

    I have no particular beef with a “translation” of Shakespeare, although I think it would be quite difficult or impossible to even approach the Bard’s poetics in such a “Shakespeare v2.0”.

    Maybe a sort of exegesis in modern English in a facing page edition would be more suitable for students. It’s not as distracting as footnotes, and it would augment the experience of reading the original.

    That’s my old technogeek’s $.02 anyhow.

  56. Kent Richmond says:


    I think we need to work hard not to misconstrue “wherefore”, since it has hung on mostly in the fixed expression “the why and the wherefore.” Remember that Elizabethans did not need context to figure out what Juliet meant by “wherefore”. “Wherefore” established the context for the next three lines. It did not rely on those lines for its meaning. And how much linguistic reconstruction can a theater audience process and still be ready for the next line? It is very tiring.

    In spoofs of Juliet, comics generally deliver the line in a dreamy, wistful state as if Romeo is a vague, distant character for which she longs, rather than a frustrating dilemma. This suggests that modern-day clowns think she means “where.” I vaguely remember a TV commercial from the 1960s that made fun of Juliet’s bad eyesight. She can’t see Romeo standing right in front of her. This misunderstanding explains why most editions feel it necessary to gloss “wherefore” as “why.”

    The fact that we are talking about it at all suggests that we struggle with it. If we interpret it correctly, we feel entitled to bragging rights.

  57. Bill Leonard says:

    “I’m not suggesting that the bible be taught in school, only that high school students having some understanding of the KJV language was a relatively common cultural phenomenon within my own lifetime.”

    Right on point, Curmudgeon! That was my experience as well — but then, I am 60 and I didn’t labor under the disadvantage of a California school systems education until my family moved here when I was in junior high school.

    Two points about the KJV: it was first, foremost and by design a preaching bible, which meant it was written to be read aloud. Like Shakespeare, it is much more accessible when read aloud. And, its contribution to modern English usage is immeasureable and greater even than Shakespeare’s.

    And a last thought: much of the reason the KJV is so difficult for many probably is that, although it was published in 1611 or so, much of it was lifted from Caxton’s English bible, published about 125 years earlier.

  58. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    Kent Richmond wrote:

    “The fact that we are talking about it at all suggests that we struggle with it. If we interpret it correctly, we feel entitled to bragging rights.”

    Um, you did bring it up. I “struggled” with it for about, oh, 10 seconds in the 1950s. Upon reading the passage after having seen countless animated cartoons bizarrely misinterpreting the line, I wondered why the creators of Rocky & Bullwinkle hadn’t done something really clever with it. AFAIK they never did, but to their credit I think they never misused it either, but I could be wrong.

    The phrase “whys and wherefores” was in very common usage among adults in my childhood and region. So was the KJV. So I never even had much chance to misunderstand many lines, that one included.

    Fact is that in some US rural regions (IIRC especially around VA and WVa) the common dialect of English spoken well into the 20th C. was as much akin to Elizabethan as to modern English. Maybe that’s why Shakespeare was not so difficult for so many rural schoolchildren.

    We could look up archaic words like “merkin” and giggle, thinking we were getting one over on our teachers. We weren’t, of course. They had just conned us into loving to learn, using the oldest trick in the book.

    All that said, I like the idea of a running “translation” of Shakespeare alongside the original, for introductory teaching purposes. But reproducing the poetic nuances seems unlikely to me. Having just for run groped my way through some John Taylor doggerel (The Water Poet, 1580-1654) armed with an OED, I think that even reproducing poetic atrocities (but delightful ones) in modern English would be difficult at best.

    I think such an edition’s purpose would be to wean students quickly to the real thing.

    And, thanks, Bill Leonard, for explaining my point about KJV language and understanding Shakespeare. Oh yeah, being 60 ain’t so bad in my experience. At least it beats heck out of the alternative.

  59. Fact is that in some US rural regions (IIRC especially around VA and WVa) the common dialect of English spoken well into the 20th C. was as much akin to Elizabethan as to modern English. Maybe that’s why Shakespeare was not so difficult for so many rural schoolchildren.

    That’s an interesting suggestion, since I was born in rural East Tennessee and spent my first 9 years there. I never found Shakespeare’s language to be particularly difficult or confusing. Also, my parents were both very literate and encouraged me to read a lot. I think environment has a good deal to do with it. It’s not an issue of intelligence, per se.

  60. I see. So your argument is that since some people misinterpret parts of the play, you need to re-write it. Struggling is bad. Got it. And studying a play is bad, too. I’m just supposed to hear it. Is it OK to study other authors even though they didn’t think their work would ever be taught in American high schools? Hey, how’s this: when you’re done with Shakespeare, my students often complain about the language in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Huckleberry Finn. You may want to translate them next.

    I’m not bitter toward colleges. I’ve attended and graduated from several. I’m just offended that you think high school students are either incapable of getting Shakespeare and/or that they shouldn’t be asked to do something just a little bit hard.

  61. Kent Richmond says:

    Anne and Curmudgeon,

    When I started translating Shakespeare’s works, one argument I used was the fact that most churches had by the 1950s abandoned the KJV, so two full generations have passed without Americans getting much exposure to Elizabethan English other than some Shakespeare in high school.

    Linguists (and I’m one of that lunatic fringe) tend to be cautious about claiming that Elizabethan English is spoken in rural areas of the U.S., but it may well be that certain regions stuck with the KJV longer than other areas of the country and thus find Shakespeare more accessible.

    As far as translations of poetry not being nuanced, that is not supported by the facts. There are lovely, nuanced translations of poetry available. Friends and colleagues who read my Shakespeare translations are surprised at how they reveal nuance and subtle characterization. (“Shakespeare’s damn good, isn’t he?” is my stock answer). And don’t forget that Shakespeare’s plays, especially the later ones, contain generous doses of prose.

    Weaning students to Shakespeare strikes me as an odd educational mission. Only a fraction will continue to read Shakespeare as is. And we do not seem much interested in reading other Elizabethan dramatists (and there were a lot) except perhaps Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare is the culmination of a literary tradition, not a port of entry into it. He was so influential that we cannot ignore his contribution, but why not read him in a form that makes that experience enjoyable instead of something to be endured?

    Check out my web page at CSULB (http://www.csulb.edu/~richmond/Shakespeare.html) if you are interested in what I’m doing. I have excerpts (still in the draft stage) of my translations of Twelfth Night, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. I also provide a brief history of previous Shakespeare translations and adaptations. I hope I can win you over.


  62. Kent Richmond says:


    More slippery slopes, straw men, and false dilemmas. You seem to be purposely trying to misunderstand my position. When did I say we should not study plays? When did I say we should not challenge students?

    I am not rewriting Shakespeare. I am translating Shakespeare. And all, not some, modern readers misinterpret Shakespeare unless they are helped by teachers and scholars. David Crystal just put out a new dictionary of Shakespeare’s words. That suggests we need a lot of help.

    It is interesting that you want reading Shakespeare to be a challenge, something we suffer through. I want it to be as delightful as hearing Mozart for the first time or seeing a magnificent work of art. I may not have the talent as a translator to achieve that, but I am not ashamed to try.

    I get the Huckleberry Finn type argument regularly. It does not work very well because it strengthens my case. If works from 120 years ago are a challenge for adolescents, then imagine how difficult works from 400 years ago must be.

    I make my living more from teaching critical thinking than from translating Shakespeare (a losing proposition so far), so plan your arguments well.


  63. I actually managed to get a BA in English without taking a single Shakespeare class, mainly because I was warned away from the department’s Shakespeare “scholar.” I enjoy Shakespeare recreationally, though I’d never claim to be knowledgeable about his work. I don’t see anything wrong with using the dumbed-down Shakespeare for ESOL or slow learners. It’s no different from using updated spelling in Chaucer. It just shouldn’t become the standard, certainly not in college.

  64. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    Kent Richmond wrote:

    “Linguists (and I’m one of that lunatic fringe) tend to be cautious about claiming that Elizabethan English is spoken in rural areas of the U.S., but it may well be that certain regions stuck with the KJV longer than other areas of the country and thus find Shakespeare more accessible.”

    Not being a linguist I’m free to make any lunatic claim I choose. ;^)

    I agree that I asserted it in too strong language, but “more akin to” was my intended emphasis. I’ve heard that claim over the years.

    Of course, various regional speech patterns could have emerged from other language than Elizabethan or ME. But statements like “I’d ‘a holpen him out if he’d ‘a asked” seem to support the notion, at least to my untrained ear.

    The surprising thing to me is how “natural” archaic language sound if one spends a little time listening to such speakers.

    That may be why I tend to see, um, nigh intralinguistic “translations” as a bridge or even a crib for a transition that modern native speakers can make fairly easily. I would hope for such a work to be useful that way.

    That said, I think it’s a worthwhile project.

  65. Challenge = suffering? I understand.

  66. Kent Richmond says:

    Thanks, Caffeinated Curmudgeon, for your encouragement.

    By the way, I was thinking about your comment that your were confused by “wherefore” for about 10 seconds. If your internal stopwatch is accurate, that means it took you about 9.8 seconds longer than it would take you to process “why” (50 times slower!). So by the time you processed it, Juliet would have been about three lines ahead since it only takes about 3 seconds to utter an iambic pentameter line. This is exactly why many of us find Shakespeare so difficult to follow on the stage. We need a lot more processing time, but the actors move right along.

    A friend of mine, a director and actor of Shakespeare productions, tells me that when actors speak very quickly, it is because they feel the language is so difficult that going slow won’t help much. They go slow when the language is more comprehensible. And when they forget lines, they can fill in the blanks with double-talk if they need to since even the most attentive audience members won’t know the difference.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we have computer programs that can generate authentic sounding Shakespearean double-talk.

  67. Walter Wallis says:

    Winston Smith – where have I heard that name – but then I are a engineer, so I couldn’t possibly know.

  68. “I want it to be as delightful as hearing Mozart for the first time or seeing a magnificent work of art. I may not have the talent as a translator to achieve that, but I am not ashamed to try.”

    Great.. I’m so looking forward to “hooked on classics” for literature.

    Seriously, the average listener today is no better equipped to understand old music than it is to understand old literature. If you truly want them to have that experience then you have to equip them to understand the real thing. I hope you do manage to get a translation that preserves the worth of the original but I don’t happen to think it’s possible.

    About the amount of time it takes for a listener process a line. Are we talking about listening to a performance, or critically studying how a work is constructed? In all of my literature classes, we were learning the nuts and bolts of how great literature was put together. We were striving to learn something from how a particular author used words, rhythms, ideas, humor, emotions etc. I don’t care how immediately understandable the language is, It takes study to understand how the writer accomplished the end result. I may laugh ’till my sides split when I hear a rendition of your text. But studying it will not teach me how Shakespear put the elements together until I study Shakespeare’s original.

  69. Kent Richmond says:


    Of course scholars and lit majors should study the original. But few people want to study literary works that deeply. You can enjoy Mozart without having a clue as to how he did it. And you do need to laugh hard at Shakespeare to understand how his plays work. If you don’t get the jokes, you can’t understand why Shakespeare delighted audiences 400 years ago.

    Your notion that studying the original reveals how it was put together is not as solid as you think anyway. A good translation, one faithful to the original, allows the reader or audience to process the play at normal speed, to fully appreciate how scene, character, and plot unfold and interact when performed. Reading at a snail’s pace or understanding only pieces of what we hear hampers appreciation. We cannot enjoy Mozart if we only hear every fourth measure. Most of us, including me, read Elizabethan English poorly. Are you willing to say that poor readers of modern English get as much out of a piece of writing as a good reader does? The job of a translator is to make us good readers in a language we do not know well.

    Also recognize that you are not really reading Shakespeare’s originals anyway. They have been pieced together by scholars from the quartos, folios, and actor’s prompt books. A recent edition of Romeo and Juliet studied 170 different prompt books to piece together the best version of the play. Some of the most famous speeches never appeared in Shakespeare’s day in the form we hear them today. Shakespeare is famous for never finishing anything, so we owe a lot to these tireless scholars.

    And yes translation can work. It works in German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, French, Swedish, and so many other languages. New translations in foreign languages often hit bestseller lists. Today in Germany, Shakespeare is the most widely performed dramatist, and he is performed in German. To say that translation cannot work in English requires us to ignore these facts.

    If you think about it, for a well-executed translation not to work, the reader would have to know more about Elizabethan English than the translator. For most people, translation is the best bet.

  70. I see that you have received many responses to your Fox column about your comments on Shakespeare. I personally believe that a little bit of Shakespeare really is very important, regardless of their career choice. However, I do not believe that Shakespeare’s plays should ever be “read.”

    I believe that many people forget that William Shakespeare wrote plays. The stories that he tells are written as scripts. Can you imagine sitting down some evening and reading the script to Driving Miss Daisy? The play/movie of Driving Miss Daisy was not written as a book, it was written as a script.

    William Shakespeare never intended for the plays that he wrote to be read in an English class. To be truly appreciated you have to watch a Shakespeare play. I think that the idea of using modern English translations of the plays in class is a wonderful opportunity to open up people’s minds to the wonders of Shakespeare. Once the students gain a basic understanding of the play, let the students watch it in the manner that Shakespeare intended. For those that don’t have access to a good live Theater Company, there are several excellent movies that can be picked up at the local video store. There is a short version of Hamlet with Mel Gibson and a terrific full version by Kenneth Branagh. Speaking of Kenneth Branagh, he continues to produce excellent versions of Shakespeare’s plays such as Henry V, Othello, and Much Ado About Nothing. Even though these films are almost word for word from the original plays, the “difficult” language falls away as a person becomes caught up in the story.

    I think that we adults like to view Shakespeare as a “rite of passage.” After all, if we had to suffer through it, why shouldn’t are children. How many of us could explain the plot of Hamlet to our children intelligently, let alone with passion. Shakespeare may not be every person’s version of an exciting evening, but let’s not cheat our children out of stories they might actually enjoy just because of a language barrier that is so easily remedied. Leave the reading of Shakespeare to the ‘players’ and the enjoyment of his stories to the audiences, just as it was when Shakespeare himself would have been watching from the wings.



  71. I am a 15 year old from maryland who absolutely loves shakespeare. i’ve never studied it in the least but i don’t find it all that bad even without footnotes. it IS a vital part of the curriculum. and if you can’t understand it, then you really weren’t very well educated- either that or you don’t stay awake in class…

  72. cheers, athena. my english teacher has made me love shakespeare as well. and to the person who said “It’s doubtful if most employers need or desire their employees to be capable of speaking in Shakespearean phrases,” what about the freedom of knowledge and logical thought? of abstractions that do aid in practical situations? studying shakespeare has practical applications and such should be recognized.


  1. Caerdroia says:

    Connect the Dots

    Read this, then read this….