Brush up your Shakespeare

Posted by Marlinee on Apr 27, 2014 in Middle Age |

Apparently Shakespeare turned 450 this week. This event went unheralded by Google (which thought Earth day was a more worthy doodle of the day), so there is of course some doubt as to whether this anniversary actually took place. Much like there is still some doubt that Shakespeare actually wrote everything that bears his name. But let’s put aside these petty controversies.

Shakespeare is one of those cultural touch points that is part of virtually everyone’s (at least in the English speaking world) experience. Or in fact, everyone’s shared trauma, because no man in the history of the world has inspired such universal loathing. The only people who got out alive in my high school were in the ‘non-academic’ stream and got to watch West Side Story instead of reading Henry IV Part 2.

I have many bones to pick with Shakespeare. Here are some of them.

The soliloquies. A soliloquy is defined as “an utterance by a person who is talking to himself or is otherwise disregardful of any hearers present”. And here lies the essence of my problem: generally, the only person interested in what someone who is talking to himself is himself. Also, for some reason, teachers of Shakespeare think that memorizing a soliloquy or two is essential to the process of understanding the play in question. I’d be happy to recite the first soliloquy by Prince Hal in Henry IV that I was forced to learn about 40 years ago. That’s because it is still taking up some of my brain cells, regardless of whether I could probably use them for something else, like remembering where I left my glasses.

The quotes.There are 2,810 Shakespeare quotes that have been catalogued. You probably know the top of the hit parade, like “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them” and “All that glistens is not gold.” And I have no quarrel with these. What bugs me about Shakespeare quotes are the misquotes that have taken on a life of their own. For example, the witches did not say “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” but “double, double toil and trouble”. This was supposedly Walt Disney’s fault, who thought he could re-write Shakespeare. Oh wait, I guess he did, rather successfully as I would bet a random poll of people on the street would quote Walt’s version rather than Will’s.

The words. We all know they talked a different breed of English back in the Shakespearian day. Some words have completely disappeared, while others mean something completely different. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” actually means ‘why are you’ not ‘where are you’ (see also, misquoting). But that’s not the worst part. For some reason people feel it is necessary to use what they think passes as a Shakespearian accent when appropriating his words. As well, Shakespeare felt the need to just make words up. About 2,200 of them at last count. Mr. Shakespeare, you are a cold-blooded arch-villain who has disheartened many a student’s eyeball. Good thing you are already dead or we’d have to assassinate you.

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