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Is Shakespeare Still Readable? [by Vincent Katz]

I am excited to be back at the B.A.P. post desk! This week I plan to riff on things I’m reading and see where that takes me. I usually read a mix of favorites and new work, often going back to things that have affected me powerfully in the past. I like the way books come to litter a place, diving into obscurity for extended periods before resurfacing bold-faced and re-determined to command respect. Alternatively, there are those books that lie there perennially, always available yet untouched for months or years at a time. This summer I picked up such a book and threw it into my overnight bag — the updated Folger Library edition of Hamlet, published in 2012 and edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. I think it belongs to my son Oliver. I say “think” as I found it in the vicinity of his room; there is no handwriting in it I can identify as his, and no evidence he ever looked at it.

Hamlet cover

 

We used these same editions when I was in high school, probably read the same syllabus. There may be a tendency to look down on these editions as “school” editions, or to think that one should be able to read Shakespeare without notes at this point, that one should be able to get what one gets out of the words alone. I am here to tell you that, unless you are really schooled in sixteenth-century poetry (and I know some of you are), then this is not the case. I understand a lot more of Shakespeare than I did when I was in high school, but there are still usages I want to fine-tune in my reading. And this brings me to the beauty of these editions. They are not at all precious, you can take them anywhere, they are clearly and elegantly designed, they have the benefit of having the notes on pages facing the text, and, for this reader at least, the choices of which usages to include notes for were judicious.

 

For example, in Act 3, Scene 2, when Hamlet is prepping Horatio to observe the King’s reaction during the play Hamlet has prepared for him, here are some of the notes given:

84: comment: observation

85: occulted: deliberately hidden

86: unkennel: a term describing the driving of a fox from its lair

89: Vulcan’s stithy: forge of the Roman god of fire and metalworking

92: censure of: i.e. forming an opinion about; seeming: appearance, behavior

 

Here’s the passage:

I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,

Even with the very comment of thy soul

Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt                      85

Do not itself unkennel in one speech,

It is a damnèd ghost that we have seen,

And my imaginations are as foul

As Vulcan’s stithy. Give him heedful note,

For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,                          90

And, after, we will both our judgements join

In censure of his seeming.

Maurice Jones as Hamlet in Chicago Shakespeare Theater production  2019[Maurice Jones as Hamlet in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 2019 production]

The reading is enhanced, made easier, by this helpful edition. I now want to read all of the plays in these editions. I picked up Hamlet in Oliver’s room, thinking, there is a reason I needs must read this text again (Shakespearean English is quite addictive!). And there was. The embodiment of madness, was it not of love fomented? Was it purely of his father’s motive? And what did that entail? I’ve been reading it to my mother, and we love to repeat to each other, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” It’s an oral art, a text made to be used onstage. It is simultaneously some of the best poetry in our language. I wonder if it is really passing out of use now. I mean, do kids love this language as much I did at their age, and still do?

Hamlet  Act 3  Scene 2  on Shakespeare at Play's iOS app[Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, on Shakespeare at Play's iOS app]


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