THE CONTEMPORARY SHAKESPEARE SERIES
A.L. Rowse, ed., University Press of America, Lanham, Md., and London. Spring 1984; 6 plays, $2.95 each, paper.
If Shakespeare has survived Nahum Tate’s 17th-century version of King Lear, in which Cordelia (in the interest of poetic justice) does not die but instead marries Edgar; if he has survived the vehement efforts of George Bernard Shaw to debunk his genius and his “archaic” philosophy, morality and theatricality; if he has survived the more recent attempts of myriad directors, both talented and not, to subjugate his words to their radical “production concepts,” if he has survived Cliff Notes and Classic Comics, re-interpretation and deconstruction, bowdlerization and musicalization, then chances are he will survive A.L. Rowse’s The Contemporary Shakespeare.
But that doesn’t mean we ought to forgive Rowse for conceiving and executing this new edition of the 37 plays, in which he has set out, in a manner he deems “both revolutionary and conservative,” to translate Shakespeare’s language into modern English. The first six of these “modern texts” have been released by University Press of America. I have looked at Hamlet and The Tempest; the other four are The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet.
In an introduction to the edition, Rowse sets forth his reasons for undertaking the modernization. The introduction has a tone of guilty anticipation, like that of a child who knows he will be scolded for scribbling on the walls and so arms himself ahead of time with reasons for his seeming naughtiness. Some of Rowse’s reasons are better than others, but none is strong enough to justify his wall-scribbling.
“The starting point of my project,” Rowse writes, “was when I learned…that Shakespeare is being increasingly dropped in schools and colleges because of the difficulty of the language.” I distrust this jumping-off assertion. Perhaps Shakespeare’s plays are no longer taught with frequency in high schools, but that is probably for the best, since standards in secondary education have declined to the point that few young students are prepared to appreciate Shakespeare on even the most rudimentary level. As for Shakespeare in colleges, I feel utterly confident that he will be a mainstay as long as comp lit departments are around.
But even if Rowse’s alarm had some justification, his assumption that the dreadful state of affairs has come about due to what he calls “superfluous difficulties” in the texts seems a naïve rationalization for his project. If a student cannot cope with an occasional unfamiliar word, how will he manage to sort through Shakespeare’s complicated syntax, his maze of figurative expression, his frequent allusions to classical myths, ancient history and popular Elizabethan culture? While Rowse’s “revolutionary” daring leads him to change “thou” to “you” and “doth” to “does,” his “conservative” respect inhibits him from addressing the more profound difficulties of Shakespeare’s language. We have that much to be thankful for.
Rowse also aims to help the modern repertory actor, “who increasingly finds pronunciation of words difficult”—not to mention “the difficulty of accentuation.” No doubt someone soon will have the bright idea to convert all the plays into prose so the poor actors will no longer have to bother learning how to speak that pesky blank verse.
Then there are all those foreigners who “use Shakespeare a great deal in learning our language.” We don’t want to confuse them, Rowse contends, by exposing them to Shakespeare’s occasional lapses into bad grammar and awkward diction. I myself have never actually met anyone who learned English by reading Shakespeare. I must admit, if a puzzled German approached me on the street and asked, in perfect Shakespearean English, for directions to the nearest public washroom, I would probably embrace him and invite him home to dinner; I’d certainly pardon him a grammatical lapse attributable to his venerable teacher.
As we encounter one by one his explanations for the many conservative changes that Rowse has made, it seems like quibbling to take exception to any of them. For instance, he argues for getting rid of the subjunctive, which has now virtually disappeared from the English language; thus he renders “if this be” as “if this is.” He also modernizes the second and third person singular—”all those shouldsts and wouldsts, wilts and shalts, haths and doths, have become completely obsolete.” Particularly well taken are his efforts to find equivalents for words that have gone out of the language entirely—such as “fardels” and “quietus”—as well as words that have attained quite a different meaning in contemporary English, such as “Presently” (which for Shakespeare meant “immediately”). In making his substitutions, Rowse has sought synonyms that fit comfortably into the rhythm of the line. He also argues for ridding the texts of conjunctions such as “in’t”; for regularizing the use of the relative pronouns, “who” and= “which”; and for abandoning troublesome usages that are most likely due to misprints in the folios.
Most of us who have prepared a Shakespeare text for production have made similar adjustments on a limited basis. Yet Rowse’s adjustments seem to know no limits. For example, he alters Hamlet’s line, “Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,/ And could of men distinguish, her election/ Hath seal’d thee for herself,” so that it reads:
“Since my dear soul was mistress of its choice,/ And could of men distinguish its election,/ It has sealed you for itself.” Here he has departed from the simple conservative changes he espouses in his introduction and has altered the meaning, rhythm and music of Shakespeare’s language: he does so with ill-advised re-punctuation, the addition of words (required because of the re-punctuation), and the arbitrary substitution of one pronoun for another. Is it entirely insignificant that Hamlet refers to his soul with a feminine pronoun? Why change to the empty, neutral “it”?
Such an alteration certainly has nothing to do with clarifying meaning for a modern audience. Instead, Rowse’s alteration—and there are countless others like it—betrays his hubristic objective to “fix” the plays’ “imperfections.” In most cases his adjustments are of obvious inferiority—they sound awkward or pedestrian and they lessen the meaning and impact of the original.
Yet, ultimately we should do more than question Rowse’s alterations because they are ineffective. We ought to question the principle involved. Each of the “conservative” changes for which he argues may well seem tolerable when considered by itself; but when I open the text and witness the subtle but profound cumulative effect all these changes have on the aura of Shakespeare’s language, I feel the insidiousness of Rowse’s work. He cannot ruin the unique grace and style of Shakespeare’s language with his handiwork; but he taints it more than a little.
It is somewhat ironic that Rowse’s “newspeak” version of Shakespeare arrives in 1984. Of course, his aim in modernizing and simplifying Shakespeare’s language isn’t fascistic. Unless one refers to the fascism of the modern English-speaking masses, whose lazy, ignorant disinclination to encounter any culture other than their own is assumed by the pandering A.L. Rowse and his Contemporary Shakespeare.
John Glore is the literary manager at Arena Stage and has recently served as dramaturg on Arena’s productions of Cymbeline and As You Like It.
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