The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1129  Tuesday, 15 May 2001

From:           Tony Burton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, 14 May 2001 13:05:46 -0400
Subject: 12.1114 Re: Peter Brook's Hamlet and Parallel texts
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1114 Re: Peter Brook's Hamlet and Parallel texts

Nicolas Pullin's defense of the Brook's "Hamlet" on the ground that it
"makes perfect sense" to him finally coalesced my enormous discomfort
with the modernizations, some creative, some covert, that form the
subject matter of these threads.  Lots of things about any great work of
art "make perfect sense" to lots of people who disagree vehemently with
each other about what that work signifies, and "Hamlet" may be the prime
literary example of all.  The magic of high art is that it makes sense
at so many levels to disparate capacities for comprehension and
learning.  I wince when I hear the introductory voiceover to Olivier's
old film "Hamlet" "This Is The Story Of A Man Who Could Not Make Up His
Mind" (more or less accurately remembered), and the dated and parochial
point of view it expresses.

If as Pullin points out, "Hamlet" contains within it the painful paradox
that the logic of revenge is cyclical and endless, well and good.  But
that is not The Message of the play, and it is jejeunely reductionist to
say so, or to imply as much by overemphasizing that point as the single
"authorized" moral to be appended at the end, especially if it is an
obvious and much-noted one.

So, too, with parallel texts.   The emotive, intellectual, moral, and
aesthetic content of Shakespeare's plays lies  in a Protean mix of
character, situation, plot, imagery,  rhythm, and contemporary issues,
all of these (and more) enhanced by contrast and comparison, irony and
pathos (and more).  It may take a certain amount of effort (those damned
footnotes may be useful) to get a feel for what is expressed and
implied, but the effort to do so is not great and, more to the point,
keeps our own language vigorous and expressive, and our thoughts supple
and precise; I'll refer to Orwell's evergreen "Politics and the English
Language" for a better presentation of why that's desirable.

Every attempt to render Shakespeare in modern language, even excluding
such dead-wrong bloomers as the one cited earlier in this thread,
"Wherefore art thou Romeo" becoming something like "Where are you,"
requires the translator/traducer to decide on one of many possible
meanings contained in a given image or trope, the choice of which can
color the entire experience of reading or seeing a play, depending on
the actor's delivery, the production as a whole, and the background,
including prejudices, or sensitivity of the reader/audience.  What
"Hamlet" had in it "to please the wiser sort" is ALWAYS lost in
misguided attempts to create modernizations, which fail anyway because
words change their meanings (think of "gay" Paree, or "bad," not to
mention "liberal" -- what  would our Chief Executive make of Laertes's
liberal-conceited carriages or Gertrude's liberal shepards? --) too
rapidly for the editor's purpose to be achieved beyond the first
school-class of readers.  I can't think of any film versions of "Hamlet"
that would leave the viewer with a sense that  the
meaning/point/principle subject of the play is a notorious literary

If one feels that Shakespeare is too challenging to impose on the
uninitiated without prosthetic assistance, why not simply assign Cliff
notes, or Classic Comics summaries, or a currently available film
version, and announce that one's course objective has been met?  It is
one thing to study great works in translation for practical need, and
another to run lazily from every difficulty that might be wished away.
Shakespearean English is not a foreign language, and many of the
contributors to this list have offered testimony that its archaisms and
dialectical curiosities have their own special charm and attraction for
the young student who is not positively discouraged by the prejudices of
a weary teacher.

Tony B

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