Get thee ready, Ophelia, thy Bard's labour may be lost in a new translation
The word is well cull'd, chose, sweet, and apt, I do assure you, sir, I do assure. - Holofernes in ''Love's Labour's Lost''Skip to next paragraph
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THE Bard's words may never have been more prophetic.
For Shakespeare, one of the world's foremost cullers of le mot juste, has just had his language reculled by one of the world's foremost Shakespearean scholars.
Oxford historian A. L. Rowse, the renowned if controversial Elizabethan authority, has become the first to transform the traditional language of Shakespeare's 37 plays into modern English.
The transformations - published as ''The Contemporary Shakespeare Series'' by the University Press of America to coincide with the 420th anniversary of the Bard's birth - extend to double negatives, double comparatives, his use of second- and third-person singular, and other vestigial grammatical forms. So the Bard's ''thous'' and ''thees'' and ''shouldsts'' and ''wouldsts'' have hit the cutting room floor - along with ''fardels,'' ''quietus,'' ''hoodwink'd,'' and a host of other 16th-century archaisms. In their place, Rowse has substituted familiar linguistic forms - and, frequently, his own or other scholars' words.
The result? It setteth scholars on their ears. The alterations are eliciting both bursts of applause and howls of protest from Shakespearean scholars and dramatists here and abroad.
Some, such as actor Richard Burton, New York Shakespeare Festival producer Joe Papp, and historian Barbara Tuchman, have applauded the historian's attempts to free Shakespeare from the often obscure original language and its accompanying ballast of footnotes.
But most critics charge that the textual tampering violates not only the meter but also the meaning of Shakespeare's verse. Some observers have labeled it a ''popularization''; others find it simply ''irresponsible.'' Actress Helen Hayes says it introduces ''jive talk'' into Shakespeare. And John Andrews, editor of The Shakespeare Quarterly and academic program director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., says that ''Rowse's editing obliterates nuances, reduces tonality, and brings the poetry down to the prosaic.'' He notes that ''it's akin to replacing the statuary of a medieval cathedral with (department store) mannequins.''
But Rowse, author of dozens of tomes on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age, is no stranger to scholarly disputes. He first raised the hackles of the academic community when he identified Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets as Emilia Bassano Lanier, the daughter of one of the Queen's Italian musicians - a controversial theory that literary circles have debated and many critics have debunked. So Rowse brushes off barbs aimed at his latest work like so many errant gnats.
''Their attitude towards Shakespeare is that of the museum,'' said the professor emeritus in an interview here recently. ''I want to keep William Shakespeare alive and not have him laid up the fridge.''
Rowse maintains that his approach has been one of ''absolute common sense. I'm simply removing unnecessary difficulties.''
In some cases, the effect of the removal is nominal. At other times, it is dramatic. The awkward use of the subjunctive ''Where be thy brothers?'' for example, Rowse changes to the more easily read ''Where are your brothers?''
But in such well-known passages as Hamlet's injunction to Ophelia - ''Get thee to a nunnery'' - even his minor change sounds odd: ''Get you to a nunnery.'' Elsewhere the historian has trod lightly: In Hamlet's famous ''To be or not to be'' soliloquy, Rowse has changed only two words for clarity.