The study of anything from an era before Modern English can be a bit dense and confusing for most people, particularly when attempting to persuade students of all levels to study Shakespeare. As soon as anything by Shakespeare is mentions students cringe and the complaints begin. “He didn’t even write in English.” “How are we supposed to read it if it isn’t translated?” “What dos this even mean.” These are some of the most common complaints that are heard in classrooms when the subject of Shakespeare is brought up. However, a lot of the misunderstanding is in a lack of understanding of the sociological context that the language was used in rather than the language itself. Modern s simply cannot wrap their minds around the individuality of each word within the context of the whole, a bit like not being able to see the trees for the forest. Due to this the nuances get lost in the quest for overall meaning rather than taking it for itself.
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The problem lies not just with students, but with modern teachers as well. Educators that are pressed for time spend most of it focusing on the overall meaning of the text, the lovely wording of particular speeches, or the literary devices used in the text to emphasize certain parts of it. They do not attempt to delve into the deeper meaning within the language itself; the ebb and flow, the word shifts, or the slightly altered connotations that make Shakespeare universal. They ignore the trees in order to look deeper into the shadows of the forest and forget what it is that makes Shakespeare and writers like him so great; language.
Language is a method of communicating. More than this, however, it is a method of seducing. Language, used the right way, can transcend cultural barriers and lead even the most reluctant student into places he or she never explored before. Beyond the obvious use, that of basic communication, language can be adapted for whatever need. It can become a painting, a melody, a sound that has never been heard before, or a person never before seen. Language can act as the transport carrying the student into worlds and wonders. Yet most students are repelled from beautiful pieces of literature and theatre by the tool used to lure them in, the language. However, there are methods of studying Shakespeare with a focus on the connotations of words taken in sociological, historical, and textual context rather than looking at the literal meaning which would allow even the beginning scholar to find his or her footing. This means that the study of Shakespeare must go beyond the study of overall meaning, textual meaning and delve into the language of Shakespeare by studying the words and lines individually rather than as part of the whole creating a level of comprehension that demonstrates what lovers of Shakespeare have been asserting all along. Shakespeare is universal and can be readily understood by modern audiences from all walks of life just as his work was enjoyed by noble and commoner alike when it was fresh from the writer’s pen, so to speak.
There are several methods for looking at the language in a piece of literature, and even a few critical theories that do this as well. For most, Deconstructionist Theory is the first on thought of when language is meant to be a focus in a literature study. Deconstructionist Theory is basically founded on the idea that language is fluid, so the meaning of a word cannot possibly stay the same over time (Allen, Brizee J. Case Thompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle). However, this doesn’t take into account the social or historical context that a word or group of words was used in. Nor does it allow for connotations that can remain the same even if the denotation of a word changes over time, or if the word falls out of use. For that there is Linguistic Theory which operates under the premise that language in literature must be studied in the sociological context the piece was written in to be fully understood (Fowler). In other words, the connotations of a word change with the audience’s sociological frame of reference and to fully understand what the author meant the audience must be aware of the sociological history of the piece. That being said, a piece of the puzzle of true understanding is missing even in a broader view of the language. That piece is filled in when audience response is taken in to account. Basically, it doesn’t matter how much the denotation of a word changes, or the connotations are understood based on society viewpoints when the piece was written, the audience’s comprehension is everything (Maroder, Tim, T.J. Milano, Caleb Nickels, and Mike O’Donoghue).
Taken together, all three theories basically imply that comprehension of any piece requires a working knowledge of how the language has changed over time, the sociological viewpoints that influence the connotations of certain words, and what the audience thinks the connotations of certain words are meant to be. At first glance this seems to be a daunting task, however most authors want their works to be read (or performed) and so they aren’t as dense as they seem to be. In fact, when looked at combining these three theories, they aren’t dense at all. Indeed, they become easier to comprehend and interpret when these three theories are applied, even with the differences in spelling and connotation in the original version of English as opposed to the modern English.
Studying Shakespeare using any of these theories means picking apart the language and looking for the inconstancy and hidden meanings in the words. To begin with, looking at words that are familiar to any audience, regardless of time frame, is a requirement. It would be almost impossible to break down words and phrases that are not currently in use for beginning studies because there is no frame of reference to compare these words with, but there are plenty of words and phrases still used today for students to study in depth. Probably the easiest and most familiar references to use for this would be the ones that revolve around the supernatural. The reason for this is that the supernatural seems to be the recent craze in modern literature of all genres, as it is in film and television. There are many references to the supernatural in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, however two stand out as treating solely with the supernatural and these are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells a tale of lovers who are torn apart and run to the woods to be together, lovers who are not loved who follow the others to the woods, and a lover’s spat between the fairy king and queen that is apparently affecting everything else. All of these problems are solved by the supernatural stepping in and fixing everything so that they all live happily ever after.
Macbeth is the story of Scottish kings and how they became kings. Macbeth is told by three witches, the supernatural, that he will be thane of an important part of Scotland and then king after that. At first he doesn’t believe them, but when he is declared thane he begins to plot how he will be king. Goaded on by what the supernatural women told him and by his wife, he kills the king and becomes king. He gets paranoid and kills anyone who could take his crown, but then seeks the supernatural again. He is told by the supernatural that he will be king until certain events happen and can’t be killed by “any man of woman born” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) and so feels safe even when the events he was warned about start happening. However, he is killed and someone else becomes king in his place.
The idea of witches and fairies began long before Shakespeare, but seems to have grown in the literary genre in the last two or three decades, which gives beginning students something familiar to relate to when Shakespeare is brought into their literary mix. It also adds a bit of familiarity to the language used by these supernatural beings since most modern authors seem to think that they should use almost antiquated language when they speak in modern settings. Granted, some of the language is modern by comparison, however the cadences are similar when the witches or fairies cast spells and such which gives a similar feel to the language as they begin to move from modern to Elizabethan English. Thus we have common ground with which to begin a study of the language in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, with a focus on the lines spoken during the supernatural scenes.
Breaking down a play line by line and word by word is decidedly a bit more difficult than, say, a novel. Interpretation of the reader/actor and/or the watcher creates more of a difference in denotation and connotation than may have been intended by the author. This is part of the dynamic of a play, and part of the reason audience response is so important when studying the language of the play. For example, the line “Days and nights has thirty one,” (Macbeth 4, 1) could mean many things. The witches are most probably referring to a length of time, however it could refer to an age – such as the idea of someone being a certain number of “moons” old as referenced in some tribal cultures, or it could refer to a particular month and thus would mean a specific date. Interpretation is everything, and this means that the individuals which make up the audience (the reader/actor and/or the watcher) supply the connotations that lie behind the denotations in the words and lines. However, for the purposes of convincing a student that he or she is perfectly capable of not only understanding, but comprehending the language, denotation is just as important as connotation. In the previously mentioned line it can be agreed that the denotations of the words have not changed over time. A “day” is when the sun is in the sky, a “night” is when the moon is in the sky, “thirty one” is a number, and “has” is a verb referring to a state of being. This is readily apparent. But what about the more complicated lines? Lines such as “Swelter’d venom sleeping got,” (Macbeth 4, 1)? What are the denotations of this line? “Swelter’d” or more modernly “sweltered” means “very hot” when it’s used these days. However in old English it could mean “faint with heat” or “to die” (Online Etemology Dictionary). Add to that the obvious words, “venom” which is poison – usually from a snake, insect, or other poisonous animal, “sleeping” – present progressive of sleep, and “got”- past tense of the verb “get” which means to acquire or gain and the line translates to “died by poison while sleeping.” Once broken down, it become much simpler to read and interpret based on the denotations and possible connotations that come from looking at the text as individual words rather than as a whole.
Likewise, breaking down some of the more complicated lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can help reluctant students determine the intent behind the words. A simple line such as “Set your heart at rest,” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2,1) is fairly easily interpreted. The denotation of these words hasn’t changed much over the years. However, if the witches’ speeches became rifer with meaning, then the fairies are even more so. A more complicated line would present a greater challenge, though not one that could not be met. For instance, the lines “The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world, By their increase, now knows not which is which:” (Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2,1) are meant to bring a certain imagery to mind. However, though flowery and beautiful when spoken, changes in spelling, word order, and denotation do not allow modern audiences to share the vision that was created. And so it must be broken down and translated. There are several words in the lines that are easy to comprehend, their denotations and connotations have not changed much. Words such as “autumn”, “angry”, “winter”, and “change” are fairly straight forward. But there are words intermixed that need a bit of studying before the intended meaning is clear. “Childing” is could be present or future perfect, depending on the contextual use. It is a shift in the usual use of the word “child” which is the offspring of two humans. It literally means “bearing children” or “fruitful” (Childing). “Wonted” means usual, according to the Online Entomology Dictionary, and “livery” means “pay” or “rations” or “pay” which was usually clothes (Online Etemology Dictionary). Finally, “mazed” means “bewildered” or “astonished”, basically “confused” according to the freedictionary.com. Once broken down, the lines translate to “the fruitful autumn, angry winter, change their usual clothes, and because of this the confused world doesn’t know which is which.”
When looking at Macbeth linguistically one of the first things to note is the change in the witches’ dialogue versus every other character. For example, Shakespeare is fond of using poetic devices such as iambic pentameter, which has five beats and ten syllables in each line (Marotus). However, when the supernatural is involved, this changes. He changes the beats to something resembling catalectic (incomplete) trochaic tetrameter, beats which are opposite an iamb and number in four instead of five (rhythm and meter in English poetry), changing the rhythm into something a bit more sing-song, flowing, and musical-almost something you can dance to.
“Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
Double, double. Toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” (Macbeth 4, 1).
If spoken outloud, you can hear the slightly abbreviated rhythm which follows a beat that is accented primarily on the first syllable rather than the second, and ends in a half beat in almost every line. Another distinction that can be heard is the difference between characters who speak in verse and those who don’t. For example, the upper class characters speak in verse using iambic pentameter, save for a few speeches that are in prose. The lower class characters speak in prose.
Linguistically speaking, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very similar to Macbeth in the use of prose, verse, iambic pentameter and catalectic trochaic tetrameter. The differences are in the slight shifting of metered syllables to create a more sinister impression in the witches’ dialogue versus the more flower-child feel of most of the fairy dialogue in Midsummer. The extra half beat that creates the incomplete rhythm feels as if it falls randomly in the few verse speeches made by his fairies.
“Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,–her womb then rich with my young squire,–
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him,” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2,1)
Another distinction between the witches’ spell and the fairies’ speeches is that they almost seem to begin in prose and fall in to the rhythmic pattern set for all of Shakespeare’s supernatural characters.
Using tools such as verse and prose in his plays was a method to delineate character relationships in a way that audiences could easily relate to that had nothing to do with style of dress. In many of his plays, in fact, style of dress did not always give clear evidence of social class or even gender of a particular character. Thus, in a time when audiences relied on sight and sound to distinguish between characters, a method is needed when sight is unreliable – such as in box seats of on standing on the floor in a theatre. And so, classism in language is used. As noted previously, lower class characters spoke in prose as opposed to the verse of upper class characters. However, supernatural characters were not as easily distinguished and so they needed a different method that is verse, but not verse. However, this is not the only distinction that can be noted when the supernatural comes in play. Simple linguistic shifts, that is shifts in connotations, also play a part in giving audiences clues as to the nature of the speakers. In Macbeth the connotative shifts reference an older, more pagan, faith than the prevalent Christianity of Shakespeare’s day. Simple phrases such as “thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d,” (Macbeth 4,1) may seem innocent, a cat meowed three times. Yet to a clever ear the connotations are more in line with the idea of a herald or a trumpet calling the spirits, the witches, to come using the power of three which binds them to a purpose (Campbell). In fact, the very image Shakespeare created, through use of connotative shifts, of the three women implies a much different meaning that simply “witches.” Even the various translations of the “name” for the women carry different connotations. For example, “weird” as the modern connotation of “strange” or “different” probably came from the original idea of “wyrd” which originally meant “fate” in old English, and was used to represent the three fates in Macbeth (weird). Another connotation of the women comes from the word “sisters” which can mean so many things in a time when Christians called nuns “sister” along with the familial relationship implied by the word, and the implication of a bond that is beyond blood – as in a bond of prophesy or magic. It implies that the women were bound together in some way that covered all of the possible meanings of the word “sister” and none of them at the same time.
Once the language is managed, the audience’s interpretation of the text can completely change the connotations, even beyond what the author may have intended. A play isn’t a play without an audience, and the audience is fickle, both in favor and in what it thinks the lines mean. Add to that shifts in denotation, words that fall out of use, and shifts in connotation and you have a maze that must be waded through carefully when presenting material such as Shakespeare to students. It must be taken step by step, and audience response is only one of those steps. Once the possible intended denotations and connotations have been determined, it’s time for the audience’s idea of connotations. Simply put, while denotation cannot often be argued because it is the literal definition of the words, connotation can change over time as it did with the word “wyrd” (weird). All it takes is a simple shift in dialects, and words suddenly take on whole new meanings beyond what they were originally. One example of this, as mentioned perviously, is the word “sister” which began as meaning “mine own woman” (Online Etemology Dictionary) to meaning “female sibling”, “nun”, “female” in general, “black female”, or “female member of an organization.” Because of connotation shifts based on dialectical changes in the language over time, “weird sister” could mean anything from “fated women” or “strange siblings” to “creepy club members.” It will vary with audiences. The same could be said for the word “fairy” which has changed from “fae” and “faerie” meaning “fates” or “supernatural” (Online Etemology Dictionary) to meaning “touched”- as in mentally unstable or sort of living in a dream world- to slang for a male who is homosexual, both modern connotations being used in the movie A Midsummer Night’s Rave to some degree. Thus, the audience could interpret the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in very different ways depending on cultural differences in dialects of English. Based on the idea of audience response, the witches’ and fairies’ speeches begin to take on new interpretations that lend a certain more sinister air to the witches and a more sensual air to the fairies. While “finger of birth strangl’d babe” (Macbeth 4, 1)is usually interpreted as “finger of a baby who died at birth” it could take on new connotations suggesting sacrifice and murder on the part of the witches based on how modern audiences receive the spell and the idea of witches to begin with. Likewise, Titania’s talk of her time with the Indian boy’s mother, while innocent enough by the original connotations, suggests an intimacy that modern audiences read to mean “lovers” rather than “friends” or even “goddess and priestess” as was probably originally intended in the text (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2, 1).
Audience interpretation is everything. In the case of a play the audience consists of everyone who reads, performs, and watches the play. Canny authors know and play to that, implying more than is intended while audiences bring their own ideas of what is meant to the table, creating a dynamic where connotation and denotation mix beautifully bringing the scene to life for everyone who is involved in it. Part of the difficulty with modern audiences is the different methods for presenting the material. With so much technology available, Shakespeare’s images can be presented in whole new ways that bend the interpretations to suit the director’s imagination. With modern, jaded audiences expecting spectacular special effects, directors run into the conundrum of how to stay true to the original connotations of the text without disappointing audiences, and at the same time making the language more accessible. It is a conundrum that most modern film versions cannot get past.
While there haven’t been many modern translations of either of these two plays, their themes reappear time and again in television programs and movies. Shows such as Black Sails have the theme of a woman convincing her lover to do something for her benefit as well as a woman being the power behind the men that is in Macbeth. Movies such as Men of Respect and Scotland, PA are overt modern retellings of Macbeth complete with witches and wives. There are movies based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream such as A Midsummer Night’s Rave and Where the World Mine. Each of these use very loose translations of the characters, event, or language to recreate the elements of magic, mystery, and darkness that are present in the plays. Keeping in mind that there are not modern equivalents for some of the words and phrase Shakespeare used, there can only be loose comparisons in the dialogue of the modern translations. However, it is important to note that even loose translations can provide an element of understanding that will aid students with comprehension in the original text.
Modern adaptions of Shakespeare rarely hit a good note with audiences. They tend to be too full of images that don’t connect well with the language denotations and connotations. However, though it was not well known and was a low budget movie, but Men of Respect is probably one of the better modern language adaptions of Macbeth. The writer chose to use modern language and slang instead of Shakespeare’s English, but the connotations in the film are the same and or similar enough that the two could almost play side by side and create the same images in the audience’s mind, even if civil war with swords is turned in to mob style gun fights. We have a “padrino,” a god father, instead of a king, and where Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to “screw your courage to the sticking place” (Macbeth 1, 7) and talks about a child that dies of an illness, Ruthie talks hints at abortion and killing a child for the man she loves (Turturro). By this we have the same deeper, devious, manipulative voice screaming, “If you love me you will do this,” in the ear of the main characters in both versions. Translation: nothing is lost in using modern English as long as the connotative meanings are kept so that audiences can read between the lines, so to speak.
A Midsummer Night’s Rave is the closest to Shakespeare’s dreamy comedy using modern English that I’ve found, however, the connotations are lost in a drug induced haze of flashing lights and loud music. While there is the underlying idea of supernatural creatures playing with mortals for fun, and controlling the environment that mortals dwell in remains, the overall lightness and sort of playful, bantering dialogue that creates a world of dreams is lost in a darker, more diabolical connotation. However, while not close to the original in denotation or connotation, there are some lines that provide apt translations, based on the connotations, which do allude to the idea of music, laughter, and dancing playing a part in keeping the environment stable. “Don’t you know? The earth stops spinning if you don’t dance on it,” This is a wonderful summary of Titania’s speech to Oberon in which Titania tells him that nature is disrupted because he refuses to dance in the fairy rings due to the fact that he is jealous of her affection for an Indian child;
“But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport….
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,….
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original,” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2, 1).
In the case of the movie, the language is simple enough that anyone can comprehend it, yet it does not change the connotations of the longer speech which is that idea that the world can’t function without the fairies dancing on it. And yet other than a few lines similar to the one mentioned, so much of the original connotations are lost in the change from Elizabethan to modern English and the attempt at a modern party setting in this version that the original play may as well have not been mentioned as the source.
Most beginning audiences assume that they won’t “get” Shakespeare because they can’t “understand the language.” What they don’t realize is that they hear it every day in the connotation of words we use all the time. Words like “hag,” “dance,” or “gossip’d” are used today with connotations very similar to the ones Shakespeare implied in his dialogue. If audiences could see past the whole to the meanings behind the words, then they would find that Shakespeare really is universal; even if the audience isn’t full of Shakespearean scholars.
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