Wetrifleand tinker,buthis wordsplayon.

Robert Garnett is a professor of English literature at Gettysburg College


Four centuries in the grave, Shakespeare is still with us. But t i m e s ch a n ge ; tastes alter; language evolves. Will he survive the 21st century?

Over the years, he has annoyed even his greatest admirers.

His friend (and rival) Ben Jonson scoffed at his learning (“small Latin, and less Greek”) and wished he had revised more carefully. A great 18th-century critic complained that Shakespeare’s swelling rhetoric often tarted up “trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas”; more perplexing was Shakespeare’s addiction to “quibbles,” or puns: “A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; … it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire.”

A c c o r d i n g l y, Sh a k e - speare’s plays have often

been “improved.”

Around 1680, for example, one Nahum Tate dropped a happy ending on the great bleak tragedy King Lear. In this sunnier version, for example, Lear’s poignant lament for his dead daughter Cordelia — “Thou’lt come no more / Never, never, never, never, never” — disappears. Cordelia lives, and marries happily.

In the 19th century, Thomas Bowdler, offended by Shakespeare’s “indecent expressions,” systematically revised the plays to render them “unsullied … by any word that can give pain to the most chaste.” In Hamlet, for example, Hamlet and Ophelia have this exchange:

Ophelia: You are keen, my lord, you are keen.

Hamlet: It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.

Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare was having none of that.

But we cannot afford to be smug about Tate’s softheartedness or Bowdler’s censorship. The 21st century has a problem with Shakespeare, too. His knotty “old English” is too difficult.

Actually he wrote in what scholars classify as modern English, but there’s no doubt that the plays can sometimes be heavy going. Who wouldn’t be baffled by lines like “So frowned he once when, in an angry parle,/ He smote the sledded pole-axe on the ice”?

Enter from stage West the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Generously supported” by a deep-pocketed angel, the festival plans to “translate” Shakespeare into contemporary idiom.

Every rising generation of readers deserves a chance at the best literature, and there’s much to be said for making the plays accessible to the young, to nonnative speakers, to anyone not able to cope with Shakespeare’s language.

But the Oregon rewrites have higher ambitions. Thirty-six “great” and “extraordinary” playwrights, anointed to rewrite all of Shakespeare’s plays, will “put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his” — whatever this strange phrase means.

The translations, in short, will not be training wheels for learners. The idea is that we’d all understand Shakespeare better if we didn’t have to deal with that ornery old language.

But if a tourist in Chartres Cathedral should complain that he can’t see out the windows because the stained glass is blocking the view, we might urge, “Look again — the stained glass is the view.”

So too, Shakespeare’s language is the play. Only through his language do the dry bones of the old and often silly tales he borrowed “suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange,” like The Tempest’s apparently drowned Alonso: “Of his bones are coral made,/ Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

Awash in a rising sea of words — jargon, fluff, euphemism, cliché, political rhetoric, and bureaucratic pillow-stuffing — we need Shakespeare now more than ever. He incites us to think concretely, imaginatively, vividly. He helps us to see ideas and emotions.

What’s “persistence,” for example? “The quality that allows someone to continue doing something or trying to do something even though it is difficult or opposed by other people,” an online dictionary tells us. Shakespeare cuts through such fuzziness with a living image: Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod.

Determination? But screw your courage to the sticking point,/ And we’ll not fail.

Youth carries its freshness into life like a battle flag: Beauty’s ensign yet/ Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,/ And death’s pale flag is not advancèd there. Age looks back, wistfully: For you and I are past our dancing days.

War is ahawk dropping on its prey, a pack of eager hounds unleashed: Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war. But power is ultimately worthless: Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay/ Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

Complacency? More water glideth by the mill/ Than wots the miller of. Shallowness is a mocker: He jests at scars that never felt a wound. Evil habits forge their own punishment: The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/ Make instruments to plague us.

And love? The strongest oaths are straw/ To the fire i’ the blood. Men are fickle lovers: Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,/ Men were deceivers ever. And women? Frailty, thy name is woman!

For four centuries, such sharp images and pungent language have lent salt and savor to English.

Every age tailors Shakespeare to its own size, and our own times will do the same. He has outlived all the rest, and he’ll survive us, too.

“He was not of an age,” Ben Jonson correctly foresaw, “but for all time!” rgarnett@gettysburg.edu