I am always amazed that in a world with such wonderful playwrights I ask why do we still study Shakespeare? His language doth make mine eyes water! Recently a student asked me to explain the meaning of the play Hamlet. A penniless British writer of plays, wrote a story of violence, abuse and incest which took place within a Danish Royal Family.
With the arrival of a special week dedicated to this writer I decided to investigate how much of his language we still use. Do we use them in their original format, or have we adapted them to 21st Century speak. I thought I would start with Hamlet, we do use a number of phrases and sayings from this rather grim play. Here is the opening line of a long speech. “To be or not to be, that is the question.”(1) Spoken by Hamlet as he thinks about the values of life and death. Perhaps not so darkly, today we may say something like: “What next?”
I guarantee you will have seen stores talking of their ‘midsummer madness sale’. This generally means that they are getting rid of their summer clothes ready for autumn and winter. Items will be sold much more cheaply. William Shakespeare did not have summer sandals in mind; he was writing about the rabies that hit the city during the heat of summer as a reference to the madness of a love letter. “This is very midsummer madness” (2).
“Romeo, Romeo!, Wherefore are thou Romeo? (3) Juliet calling for her lover. Today we might be more crass: “Romeo, where the hell are you?” It is many years since English used the ‘polite’ thou/you, it is one of the few languages which does not differentiate you.
Love is a much abused word in English – not only do we ‘love’ a person but our car, our mobile phone and music. Shakespeare also used the word Love across many of his plays and Sonnets (posh word for poems!). He used it with a double meaning for his time, as women were not permitted to act on stage it meant that men played female roles. None more so in A Midsummer Night’s Dream right from the start he writes: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”(4) Meaning if you really love someone there will be bumps in the road - a little bit like the modern phrase ‘tough love’.
William Shakespeare is with us as much as Voltaire and Socrates. Maybe I will talk about them next time. Let me know what you think about Shakespeare in our modern lives.
(1) Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1
(2) Twelfth Night Act 3 Scene 4
(3) Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene 2
(4) A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1 Scene 1
For more reading have a look at www.nosweatshakespeare.com