26 January 2016

Frank Kermode on Shakespeare's Language

by Kirk Woodward

[Taking off from a recent announcement from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that it has commissioned modern-English “translations” of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Kirk Woodward, who’s contributed frequently to ROT on various topics (most recently, “Four Worthies” on 5 January), is taking up Shakespeare’s language.  Kirk’s discussion is a kind of book report/review since he’s using Frank Kermode’s 2000 Shakespeare’s Language—which Kirk told me “really is wonderful”—as his guide.  Many theater pros, especially actors and directors, declare that they rely on the language of Shakespeare’s plays, both his diction and the prose’s and poetry’s rhythms, to be their guide for performance.  Kirk and Kermode here show us some of the reasons that’s both a valid and practical tactic.  After all, did the Bard’s Hamlet not advise the players: “Speak the speech , I pray you, as I pronounced it to you . . .”?  Who are we to reject Shakespeare’s own advice?]

The announcement by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on September 29, 2015, that it has commissioned thirty-six teams of playwrights and dramaturgs to “translate” the plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) into modern English has generated a great deal of comment. It is a little unclear exactly what results are expected. The official press release says:

In approaching the task OSF has established two basic rules. First, do no harm. There is language that will not need translating and some that does. Each team is being asked to examine the play line-by-line and translate to contemporary modern English those lines that need translating. There is to be no cutting or editing of scenes and playwrights may not add their personal politics. Second, put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his. This means the playwright must consider the meter, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric, character action and theme of the original. These translations are not adaptations. Setting, time period and references will remain unchanged.

The Festival does not say it intends to produce the results of the project, beyond workshop productions. It does report that four “translations” already have been or are scheduled to be produced; one was Timon of Athens, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014. (The A.S.F. set Timon in New York City, but whether that was the “translator’s” intention is unclear.) That same theater is also scheduled to produce a translation of The Tempest, the first “major” play of the translation series to have a production. (The others scheduled so far are Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen, neither generally considered masterpieces.)

The Festival undoubtedly welcomed the controversy its announcement caused, on the often repeated principle that “any publicity is good if they spell your name right.” Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, writing in The New Yorker on October 6, 2015 (“Why We (Mostly) Stopped Messing With Shakespeare’s Language”), provides an historical perspective on the discussion:  adapting Shakespeare’s plays, he points out, was the rule rather than the exception for 300 years, so the O.S.F. project “seems fairly conservative.” In fact,

Although accessible, stylish play scripts could offer handy entry points for Shakespeare newbies, one almost wonders why O.S.F. needs thirty-six playwrights (and supporting dramaturgs) to do the sort of clarifying work that annotations to modern editions have been doing for years.

(Pollack-Pelzner points out that over half the “translators” are female and/or members of minorities, a welcome development.)

In all this discussion, I have not yet seen one of the apparent assumptions of the “translation” project questioned. That assumption is that although we don’t readily understand Shakespeare’s language, his original audiences did.

There is an alternate possible assumption sometimes raised, one that as far as I know is not widely held by scholars: that, contrary to the first assumption, Shakespeare’s audience wasn’t really very bright (a bunch of illiterate rowdies and orange peddlers), and that Shakespeare basically wrote over their heads.

And neither of these assumptions considers a third possibility: that there were times when Shakespeare, while presumably respecting his audience, wrote without regard for whether his audience understood every word or not.

These reflections came to mind as I read Shakespeare’s Language (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000) by Frank Kermode (1919-2010). I first leafed through the book while visiting Stephen Johnson, author of the outstanding novels The Book of Squirrels and Those That I Guard, and an avid reader. The little I saw of the book encouraged me to get it for myself.

At the time I knew nothing about Frank Kermode, who, I have since learned, was born on the Isle of Man, taught at many universities in both Great Britain and the United States, including Cambridge, Harvard, and Columbia, and is widely admired for his criticism and book reviewing. Richard Howard, quoted on the jacket of Shakespeare’s Language, says that Shakespeare’s Language “is, and will doubtless remain, the first book one should read about Shakespeare’s plays, and with those plays.”

That’s a bold claim considering how many books have been written about Shakespeare, but I’m not certain Howard isn’t correct. Here are some reasons:

First, Kermode is sane. One has hardly opened the book before encountering the following, which I think is worth quoting at length:

There are modern attitudes to Shakespeare I particularly dislike: the worst of them maintains that the reputation of Shakespeare is fraudulent, the result of an eighteenth-century nationalist or imperialist plot. A related notion, almost equally presumptuous, is that to make sense of Shakespeare we need first to see the plays as involved in the political discourse of his day to a degree that has only now become intelligible.

These and other ways of taking Shakespeare down a peg seem, when you examine them, to be interesting only as evidence of a recurring need to find something different to say, and to say it on topics that happen to interest the writer more than Shakespeare’s words, which are, as I say, only rarely invoked.

The tone of these novelties is remarkably self-confident. The critics need to value their own opinion above that of many predecessors whose qualifications they might not in general wish to dispute. They have to treat as victims of imperialistic brainwashing Johnson, Keats, and Coleridge, to name only three.

Of course if you can rubbish Shakespeare you can also rubbish these and comparable authorities; respect for them is merely another instance of our acceptance of unexamined bourgeois valuations. But in the end you can’t get rid of Shakespeare without abolishing the very notion of literature.

I could not agree more, particularly with the last sentence, which reflects what many of the critics he describes seem to want to do.

Second, he writes as a human being – the book is intended, as he says, for “intelligent readers rather than specialists” (thank you!), and occasionally his own personality shines through, as in this (Kermode served in the British Army during World War II):

Since the principal characters [in Othello] were soldiers, the setting couldn’t be other than military in character. Shakespeare had plenty of experience doing the military – the life of various kinds of soldier is amply recorded in the History plays and All’s Well, and is not absent from Hamlet – but he had not hitherto attempted that almost invariant type, the foul-mouthed N.C.O. I myself have memories, happily remote, of Iago-like warrant officers, sycophantic self-seekers, the main difference being that Iago has a surprisingly educated vocabulary.

Then, as a reader of Shakespeare’s plays, Kermode amplifies the meaning of many passages and words in a grounded and helpful way. He balances alternatives and credits those who have different opinions, but his own choices of equivalent words are splendid. He sees in Coriolanus that “voices” is Shakespeare’s word for “votes;” that Macbeth shows evidence that Shakespeare was familiar with the Confessions of Augustine (who in his Confessions writes “How long? How long? Tomorrow and tomorrow?”); that Timon of Athens “likely… was sketched out in advance, and… some sections were written in a final form while others were not. … [For example] Apemantus’s announcement of the arrival of the Poet and Painter (IV.iii.351) would presumably have been altered in any final version, since it occurs eighty odd lines before they turn up.” These and numerous other insights fill the book.

Next, Kermode is by no means an apologist for Shakespeare. In many of the books about the Bard, one gets the impression that he can do no wrong. Kermode seems to take seriously the fact that Shakespeare was a working playwright, with a theater company always demanding more “product,” and that he did his best, but not always with a consistent result. For example, in Kermode’s report on the early Henry the Third Part VI (written in 1590-91?), he sees how “the heat of battle cannot prevent Richard of York from expressing himself in similes” (I.iv.3-21), and goes on,

To a modern ear this seems, as a report on a military defeat, to be on the lazy or languid side. . . . It is hard not to think it absurd that in such a desperate extremity the Duke should seek out two comparisons with ships and lambs to describe the flight of his army, and even explain why the wolves were in pursuit. Likewise, the more far-fetched comparison of a swan swimming against the stream. An Elizabethan audience would not have thought these conceits useless ornaments; they were an accepted way of making one’s points, of decorating, of enforcing pathos, and so on. Yet it is plain that as the stage developed its own habits of language these rhetorical devices came to seem inadequate.

Understandable, then, since Shakespeare is still practically in his apprentice period as a writer. But of Measure for Measure (1602-04?), a product of Shakespeare’s astonishing middle period, Kermode can write:

Much has been written in defense of the second half of Measure for Measure, but it surely is a muddle. There are fine things in it, of course . . . but it tends to be prosy and incredible . . . interest, as I see it, is sacrificed to expediency . . . .

And in The Tempest, a late (1611?) and very great play, Kermode nevertheless points out that in Prospero’s expository speech in Act One, Scene two,

with some agitation and some bad-tempered admonitions to Miranda, of which the primary purpose is to prevent his having to deliver an unbroken monologue, he then describes the plot that overthrew him [I.ii.777-87] . . . . The general sense is not in dispute, [but] all this in a single sentence, and the unwieldiness of a paraphrase arises from the repetitiveness of the original, the hurry and disconnection of its metaphors.

One can count on Kermode, then, to candidly describe the strengths or weaknesses of a particular passage without fearing that he is somehow slandering Shakespeare. Even better, though, his examination of Shakespeare’s language leads to an exciting discovery: that in around 1600, something happened in Shakespeare’s life – Kermode does not attempt to say what – that led to a significant development in the way he wrote:

Shakespeare became, between 1594 and 1608, a different sort of poet; as in the study of all artists, connections between early and late remain detectable, but the manner and purpose of his activities is transformed . . . in a context altogether more complex and ambiguous.

In Kermode’s analysis, the change he describes can be seen in Hamlet (1600-1?), in particular in a remarkable linguistic feature: a steady stream of “doubles” of both word and action. Once noticed, it is hard not to see this feature remarkably often in Hamlet and other middle and late plays, for example in this speech by Polonius (II.i.61-65):

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out;
So my former lecture and advice
Shall you my son…

Similarly Claudius (I.ii.10-13):

      As ‘twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole

Shakespeare’s doublings can contain two of the same thing (“Angels and ministers of grace”), or two contrasting things (“spirit of health, or goblin damn’d”), or an ambiguous relationship called a hendiadys, “marked by identifiable tension or strain, as if the parts were related in some not perfectly evident way” (“a cutpurse of the empire and the rule”). They contribute to what Kermode calls the “melody” or the “tune” of the words of Hamlet and the other plays of its period. (I think immediately of Macbeth’s “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” an opposition that sets in motion a vast series of contrasts that continue through that play.)

What is all this doubling about? Kermode, sticking to his analysis of language, doesn’t draw a moral, but my sense of it is that Shakespeare has come to detect a profound ambiguity in personality that expresses itself, for example, in a contrast between good and evil, between honest and dishonest, between valuable and worthless, between open and guarded, between a “public self” and a “shadow self.” The doubling reinforces the ambiguity that Kermode sees as an element of all Shakespeare’s later work, as Shakespeare refuses to settle for a simple explanation or judgment of behavior, or for that matter for an easy answer for anything. Under such examination, a difficult play like Troilus and Cressida begins to seem coherent, because doubling and ambiguity of personality is in fact its subject.

Reinforcing (should I have said doubling?) Kermode’s observation about “doubling” is the equally important observation that after 1600 Shakespeare tends to repeat key words throughout a play, with a close to subliminal effect. Examples include “honest” and “think” and related words in Othello, “see” and “look” in King Lear, and “done” and “blood” in Macbeth. It is not only that Shakespeare uses such words repeatedly, but that he sets them in shifting sets of contexts, so that the different usages almost serve as comments on each other. Kermode calls this a subtle

change, from the simpler expressiveness of the early plays to an almost self-indulgent, obsessive passion for particular words, their chimings and interchimings, their repetition.

I have only described a few of Kermode’s many insights about Shakespeare’s language. I want to present one more. In Kermode’s words,

we have more to deal with dramatic language that was almost certainly difficult to the audiences for whose pleasures it was originally written. . . . It is simply inconceivable that anybody at the Globe, even those described by Shakespeare’s contemporary, the critic Gabriel Harvey, as “the wiser sort,” could have followed every sentence of Coriolanus. Members of an audience cannot stop the actors and puzzle over some difficult expression, as they can when reading the play. The action sweeps you past the crux, which is at once forgotten because you need to keep up with what is being said, not lose the plot by meditating on what has passed.

After considering several such passages in Coriolanus, Kermode tells the following story:

Once in Stratford I asked a well-known actor how he would deliver some lines in The Tempest that still baffle commentators: “But these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labors, / Most busil’est when I do it” (III.1.14-15). He said he would try to speak them as if he understood them perfectly. The idea was to prevent the audience from worrying about the meaning, the next best thing to making the meaning clear.

(Kermode adds that “I myself, when editing The Tempest, wrote a note of about a thousand words on the passage, to nobody’s great benefit.”)

Often complexity and even obscurity of thought matches the anguish of a character’s mental processes, as for example in Claudius’ soliloquy (Hamlet, III.iii.56-64), of which Kermode writes:

Here we have the energy, the flurries of oblique association, that characterize Shakespeare at his best. The play of figures, echoing one another, the failure or refusal to follow the old course of milking similitudes, the changing depth of focus . . . the colloquial roughness . . . the persistent but not expansive legal references testify not only to a different range of metaphorical usage but to a different, dramatic manner of representing a man thinking, under the stress of guilt or fear.

Complexity and even obscurity of language becomes for Shakespeare a tool for (among other purposes) mirroring the complexity and obscurity of a character’s thoughts and feelings.

One final observation about Kermode’s book is that Kermode, unlike many an academic writer, never loses sight of the fact that Shakespeare’s language is meant for the theater. Not the Sonnets and the long poems, of course, although Kermode makes interesting observations about their relation to the plays. But the plays were written as performance pieces – by a poet. The language, Kermode demonstrates, is not something added on to a plot; it is the dramatic substance of the piece.

An analogy, mine, not his, is that you can’t pull a turtle out of its shell; the turtle and the shell are one. Try to take the turtle out of the shell, or pull the shell off the turtle, and you kill it.

And with that we arrive where we began, with a discussion of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s project to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays. Is it appropriate to clear up the ambiguities in Shakespeare’s plays, if he intended them to be there, or if their presence is an important characteristic of his writing? And is there a prospect of success for the project, if Shakespeare’s language is the movement and the meaning of the play, or will translation kill the plays?

I for one would have already concluded that the Oregon project is doomed, if it were not for the fact that translations of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly into German, have been successfully performed. I am not qualified to determine how much of the essence of the plays, as we think of it, carries over into another language. Did the translations of, say, August Schlegel (1767-1845) and Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) give the Germans the same Shakespeare that we know? And how did they handle, as Kermode calls it, “the increasing obscurity of Shakespeare’s language?” Did they try to straighten out passages that Shakespeare left obscure, in which

we register the pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them. This is new: the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighing of confused possibilities and dubious motives; the proposing of a theory or explanation followed at once by its abandonment or qualification, as in the meditation of a person under stress to whom all that he is considering can be a prelude to vital choices, emotional and political.

It would be ironic if the main result of the Oregon project were to straighten out what Shakespeare had deliberately left crooked.

Whatever the results of the Oregon project, one suspects that Shakespeare’s work will survive them. And all, no matter what play by Shakespeare they read or see and in what version, will find the experience of the play deeply enriched if they keep at hand Frank Kermode’s invaluable book.

[For the record, my next post on ROT will be a compilation of articles, including OSF’s original press release, covering the translation project.  Interested ROTters are encouraged to return to the blog to see what the theater said for itself and what the New York Times and the New Yorker said about the plan.

[I can’t speculate on how a German spectator “hears” Shakespeare when he sees a German rendering of the Bard’s plays, anymore than I can tell you whether I hear the same Schiller or Molière when I see translations of their plays in English.  But I can say that when I’ve read an original-language text of a play I’m working on in English (for example: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Anouilh’s  Romeo and Jeannette, and Jacques Deval’s Tovaritch in French and Sologub’s  Petty Demon and Chekhov’s Wood Demon in Russian), there are all kinds of things that are lost, as it were, in translation.  Some are significant, some merely useful, some are inconsequential (though interesting); some can be restored, some are irretrievable.  One problem, of course, is that if you don’t know both the original and the translation, you don’t realize what’s missing.  (When My Fair Lady was translated into German for the Berlin stage, the translators didn’t even try to render Lerner and Loewe’s and Shaw’s cockney-infused London speech and characters into German; they transferred the whole thing to 19th-century Berlin and used a Berlin dialect for the Doolittles.  On the other hand, when Fiddler on the Roof was produced in Tokyo, spectators were quoted as exclaiming, “It’s so Japanese!”)  I have no idea how this connects with Kirk and Kermode’s point.

[By the way, this suggests something that amused my dad from when he was a young student of German in high school back in the ’30s, reading German versions of Shakespeare and other English classics.  On the title page there was an annotation for the translator that read “Übersetzt und verbessert” by whomever.  The German means “translated and improved . . . .”

[Kirk’s remark about straightening out what Shakespeare deliberately left crooked reminds me of a comment my former dramaturgy teacher Cynthia Jenner said about a production of a play by the then-novice Heather McDonald, whom Jenner liked and thought was unique and promising as a young writer.  The production, Jenner lamented, had “ironed out all the quirks” of McDonald’s script.

[Kirk’s final comment brings to mind something someone once said to me about bad productions of good plays—and the same is true of ill-conceived adaptations/translations: they’re not “crimes against humanity.”  The plays continue to exist for future stagings and reading; it’s not like painting a mustache on the “Mona Lisa.”]

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