lay off, McWhorter

If D. H. Lawrence doesn’t convince you that John McWhorter is wrong about Shakespeare, let me chime in. I could list about a dozen false or at least questionable assumptions McWhorter makes in his post, but let me confine myself to two. First, he assumes that difficulty in drama is bad. Second, he assumes that difficulty is a function of linguistic change — of course, he knows that there are other reasons why plays and stories and poems are difficult, but he doesn’t mention any of them. This is a great flaw.

Let’s remember that Shakspeare could write as staightforwardly as anyone when he chose to. Consider this wonderful little moment from Act V of Henry V, when the young victorious king is wooing the daughter of the King of France, encumbered by certain linguistic barriers on both sides:

HENRY. But, Kate, dost thou understand thus much English, canst thou love me?

KATHARINE. I cannot tell.

HENRY. Can any of your neighbours tell, Kate? I’ll ask them.

But then consider this passage from Act II of Troilus and Cressida, in which the woman referred to is Helen:

HECTOR. Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost
The keeping.

TROILUS. What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?

HECTOR. But value dwells not in particular will:
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ‘tis precious of itself
As in the prizer. ‘Tis mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god,
And the will dotes that is attributive
To what infectiously itself affects,
Without some image of th’ affected merit.

This is not difficult because it is old; it’s difficult because it’s difficult. That is, Troilus and Hector are engaged in a serious philosophical debate about what constitutes worth — it’s a word that turns up repeatedly in the scene — and that’s an extremely complex topic. Shakespeare doesn’t try to simplify it in the least. Does anyone think that the average playgoer in 1601 understood the argument that Hector is making here?

So, McWhorter wants “richly considered [translations], executed by artists equipped to channel Shakespeare to the modern listener with passion, respect and care.” I’d be happy to turn that scene from Troilus over to any poet who thinks he or she can “channel Shakespeare” and see what comes out. I don’t think it’ll be pretty.

Of course, Troilus is a uniquely thorny play, so let’s take something more famous — clichéd, even:

To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

You think you can improve on that? Great. Knock yourself out. McWhorter thinks that someone reading that speech in modern French understands more of it than you or I do. Which means that to him the poetry is nothing. Not my view.