Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A, a, a. In Shakespeare's writing, the letter "a" all by itself can be one of three things.

It can an indefinite article, like it is in English now.

It can mean "he."

It can mean "if."

If you know those are the possibilities, it's easy to tell from context which is which.

However, you have got to know that there are those possibilities.

Much of learning to read Shakespeare is learning stuff like that. When you know it, you know it. It goes to the part of your brain that just knows things and doesn't bother you about it.

The number of thing like that to learn about Shakespeare's language is lots more than one. It is however, not infinite. Struggle, struggle through some plays holding on to the footnotes hard, and your brain begins to pick up the new to you stuff, the old stuff, and you get so you can just read it.

Is it worth it? I think it's worth it for someone who deals with English a lot, for anyone who produces English as part of their job. Once past the barriers, you're in there with someone who is really good with what is basically the same language you're dealing with all the time.

Learning to read Shakespeare is two or three learnings that have to be done at the same time.

Learning the language with is disorientingly different and the same for a current English speaker. Learning what is up with the play that you are actually reading--what is happening and what are the layers of meaning and ugly and beauty that come off what is happening.

My biggest problem when I decided to buckle down and read all of Shakespeare was my inner little kid.

Shakespeare sometimes does verbs a little different. Not really a big different, just a little.

But my inner 2 and 3 and 4 year old was saying, "What!? That is so wrong! I learned how we did that and it's not like that. That's not how we do it!"

This would manifest as intense discomfort with language differences that really aren't a big deal.

The answer, which wasn't always what I practiced, is to comfort the kid. It's great that you learned all that. I'm proud of you. Now we're learning this other way that's a little different and okay. It'll be okay to learn this, even kind of interesting. We learn this and this guy will tell us some interesting stories.

I finally decided to read all of Shakespeare because actors like him so much. He was an actor. John Gielgud, who in the 1930's made Shakespeare plays a money making proposition for the first time in centuries, says he can't believe that the plays were written by a non-actor. Things like the way the giant parts are paced, almost at the limit of what an actor can do physically but not quite. Just enough breaks for the main character to be offstage so it's possible for the actor playing that character to do it night after night. Gielgud just loved the plays and made the accessible to lots more people after a time when they were only don't in fringey theatres by starving, young idealists.