Home > Multimedia Essays > Musings Within the Text

Musings Within the Text

Submitted by Carlos P. Marin 08-20307

Throughout the course of this class, the different manifestations of Shakespeare’s works and ideas across different mediums have been discussed in great detail. In my decidedly idealistic opinion, most of the adaptations of Shakespeare into different mediums (I say most because a few of them are obviously shameless attempts to make a quick buck by capitalizing on the bard’s name and status) are attempts to gain a deeper understanding of what exactly what he meant when he penned his works centuries ago. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been able to better understand Shakespeare’s works by studying his presence in comics, music, paintings, and other mediums that are not often associated with him. How different mediums interpret him and the uniqueness of how each approached his work has provided countless insights.

However, when I think about it, the primary source of our knowledge regarding Shakespeare is not even our exposure to the performances of his plays which was the original manner in which his works were showcased; it comes from their published versions. Indeed, as was mentioned in class, the very first example of his work exhibiting its ability to exist as forms outside of its theatrical origins was the book. A probable reason for why people tend to overlook the fact that books were not the original form of Shakespeare’s work is that books provide a large part of his availability to the public. It’s safe to assume that more people have read Hamlet than actually seeing it performed live. Thus, the topic of this essay is to examine how this transmedial manifestation of Shakespeare as published material helps us to understand the ever-changing ideas contained in his works.

Perhaps what makes reading the works of Shakespeare as frustrating as it is rewarding is that, too often, it seems as though he wrote in a completely different language. Yes, it can be argued that understanding anything that was written in the English of several centuries ago will be challenging for the simple fact that any thriving language is continually changing. However, I believe that the profound difficulty that accompanies any attempt to understand Shakespeare cannot be explained by the fact that it is written in an antiquated form of English. Indeed, much of the difficulty stems not from the fact that it is written in an outdated manner but from the uncanny regularity with which we can draw parallelisms between Shakespeare’s thoughts and ideas to our present day concerns and rationalizations. I do not know whether I love or hate the fact that almost every time I re-visit his works, I end up noticing or realizing something that had previously escaped my attention. It’s that peculiar quality of his works that perhaps grant them some measure of their timelessness and appeal. Whereas reading most other literary works feels like being privy to the innermost thoughts of the writer’s mind, reading Shakespeare feels like conversing with a friend who has yet to decide whether or not to tell a secret you know he’s keeping from you. You manipulate the manner of conversation, look at things from different perspectives, and volunteer your own theories in an attempt to convince him to finally give you a definitive answer. I’ve regularly experienced that sense of “Is this it? Is this all you’re trying to say?” when I try to make way through his texts. Most times, the answer is a resounding no. Although this is true for some works of other prominent literary figures it is more so, in my experience, with Shakespeare’s works than with any other’s.

It’s interesting to note that just as we have never been able to truly decide within the confines of the classroom and of this blog what the Shakespearean truly is, there is no single method of publishing of Shakespeare’s works. Although the play featured within these books is the same no matter which edition you purchase, how it is presented and interpreted varies according to the source. The approach of each publishing house to how Shakespeare’s works should be printed and what additional information is provided are as diverse as the needs and requirements of the people who purchase these books. These slight variations and customizations are what customers ultimately pay for. Today, bookstores are filled with different printings of the same plays by various publication houses that all aim to help readers probe the ideas contained within Shakespeare’s works in the manner that they require to do so.

The most familiar to most of us would probably be the Folger or RSC versions of the text. These texts are concerned with introducing Shakespeare’s plays to students who are relatively inexperienced readers of his works (high school students and those enrolled in English 23, for example). Shakespeare’s works, as presented by these publishers, are usually accompanied with footnotes that deal primarily with defining words and phrases that modern-day readers may not be familiar with. Aware that the owner of these books will be using mostly them mostly within a classroom setting, they come with summaries and analyses of scenes and major events of the play. In short, reading these editions of Shakespeare’s plays will leave you with an in-depth understanding of the plot and not much else.

Just as there are published versions of Shakespeare’s works meant for those barely acquainted with him, there are books meant for the more academic and serious Shakespearean scholar. An example of these books would be the plays of Shakespeare as published by the Oxford University Press. These books usually pack significantly more information about the play outside of its plot than those meant for students like the ones previously mentioned. They contain a large number of footnotes that not only provide in-depth information about different elements within the text but also comment about them (etymologies of words, parallelisms to other significant works of literature, etc). These footnotes provide elaborate information on not only what the text is saying but also on why it was said in that manner. Highly academic essays and intellectual interpretations regarding the play featured in each of these books are also present; they actually account for majority of its pages. Printings such as these of Shakespeare’s works place a much greater emphasis on the place of these works within the Western literary canon.

The last example that I will provide is perhaps the most infamous of all published versions of Shakespearean text- the No Fear Shakespeare set of books. Books in these series have something of a taboo status when it comes to reading Shakespeare. The reason for such notoriety is that with these books, it is possible to go through an entire play by Shakespeare without reading any of his original words. The No Fear Shakespeare editions provide its readers with a paraphrased version of the original text that makes use of more contemporary language in order to make reading it easier. The problem with this is quite clear; to alter the language of the plays is to disregard the very reason for their continued significance and appeal. Are the “updated” versions of the original text still the works of William Shakespeare?

By providing these three examples of how the works of Shakespeare are published and made available to all of us I hope to have highlighted the fact that the interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays is not static. Far from it. The presence of so many versions and editions of the same plays prove that. Just as there is no medium that can completely encapsulate all of the ideas of Shakespeare, there is no single way to read and understand his published works. That, I believe, is the greatest characteristic of his work- that it is continually changing in the minds of people. It changes according to their needs, preferences, and current understanding. It changes as we change and vice versa. This, in turn, clearly reflects how our personal definitions of what is truly Shakespearean constantly changed throughout the course of this class. This is the fact that this class has been reiterating so many times through so many different mediums since the start of the semester: anything Shakespearean is dynamic.

Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. March 18, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Your analysis of Folger and No Fear Shakespeare books leave a bad taste in my mouth; namely, how you criticize Folger books because they “leave you with an in-depth understanding of the plot and not much else.” and how No Fear books suffer because the “problem with this is quite clear; to alter the language of the plays is to disregard the very reason for their continued significance and appeal.”.

    The main thrust of your argument seems to be that Shakespeare is versatile in the way he can be presented, hence there are numerous versions of his texts lying around waiting to be bought; a notion I agree with. Shakespeare can be read a variety of ways, can be interpreted in however a fashion you want to, as long as you can back it up. Which is why I’m troubled with your criticism of Folger and No Fear books.

    The main problem you seem to get with these texts is that they come across to you as “dumbed down” (correct me if I’m wrong) versions of Shakespearean text. On the other hand, you praise Oxford for giving highly academic, and if you ask me, impenetrable essays on Shakespearean works. See, this doesn’t match up with your assertion that Shakespeare is not static; if you know this, what is your problem with Folger and No Fear? Surely by now you know no one text is “correct”, and each text is meticulously studied and usually culled from a combination of the First Folio, the various Quartos, and numerous other sources to “create” the text we’re reading. Essentially, it is up to the whims of the editor what words appear to represent Hamlet, for example, and he could easily remove parts of the play he may deem “not part” of Hamlet. Essentially, even Oxford books or Folger books are interpretations of Shakespeare’s works, invariably colored with their respective editor’s preferences and prejudices. The inclusion of academic essays contribute to this as well; by reading this, one’s view of the play is highly colored by the view of an academic, and when he reads the play he remembers the words of the featured essay. Isn’t this the same for No Fear? No Fear Shakespeare is essentially an interpretation of Shakespeare’s text as well, and like the academic essays featured in Folger and Oxford Press books, they will invariably lean on one interpretation of the text when choosing how to ‘ translate’ Shakespeare.

    What I’m getting at here is that you seem to be condemning some of these books because they are not “original” Shakespeare and they do not allow the reader to form his own conclusions regarding Shakespeare’s works. Yet is it not an inescapable fact that all of modern published works of Shakespeare are in fact mediated upon by an outside source? Every text we read is already colored by someone else’s analysis, unfortunately. If you think about it that way, there is no reason for you to denounce No Fear, for example; it just follows a long tradition of interpreting Shakespeare for a generation.

  2. carlos
    March 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    I apologize if it seemed that I was condemning the the Folger and No Fear Shakespeare editions of his plays. The objective was to point out the different purposes that these texts seek to serve or satisfy, not to glorify one version over another. It is unfortunate that you detect tones of condescension within what I believe are fair and objective observations regarding those particular texts. I think that I must stress that the commentary I provided regarding the differences between various printings of his plays centered around the added information that the text of the plays came with. It is from analyzing the set of additional information that a particular publisher decides to accompany Shakespeare’s plays with that its purpose as reading material can be determined. I definitely do not regard any Folger or No Fear Shakespeare re-printing of his plays as “dumbed down” versions just as I do not believe that the efforts of students to understand the text are any less significant than that of more educated members of the academe. Again, what I am pointing out is that these texts all serve different purposes. I do not think that there is anything wrong with asserting that a particular printing of Shakespeare’s plays meant primarily for the use of students concerned itself with giving readers an in-depth understanding of its plot more than anything else. It think that such observations of such editions are fair because that is what it intends to accomplish, it is what its intended readers are in need of at the time of their reading or buying. It cannot be denied that the Oxford editions do include much more information regarding the plays compared to other editions because they are meant to serve a different purpose. While I definitely agree with you that the information that they provide is sometimes impenetrable but we must keep in mind that is impenetrable only as far as we are concerned. I’m sure that there are a large number of Shakespearean scholars who feel that the presence of such information when it comes to studying the plays is appropriate. I did not praise the Oxford editions of the text as much as mere pointing out that they did contain a far greater amount of supplemental information. They aim to satisfy the needs of a whole other group of readers. What I intended to stress in the essay is that our understanding of Shakespeare can only be enhanced by the presence of these different editions. As for my commentary on the No Fear Shakespeare edition of his works, I simply wished to ask whether or not it was still Shakespeare you were reading if you read a complete rephrasing of his works. The No Fear Shakespeare and its complete rephrasing of the plays is an extreme example of the translation that Shakespeare’s works undergo depending on its publisher and intended purposes. Doubtlessly, this is accompanied by its own sets of problems and limitations. However, I also do not doubt that the rephrasing of his works serve a purpose or need just as worthy as the objectives other editions try to accomplish. I certainly do not wish to imply a hierarchical method of rating these texts. What I wished to point out was that these works would all be equally appropriate within the set of needs that they attempt to satisfy. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that there is no “correct” rendition of his plays and that each come with their own set of influences and biases. As such, they are all limited in the sense that each performs tasks that other renditions cannot similarly accomplish. What I tried to point out through the essay was that there are different versions meant to address the different needs of readers. Indeed, our understanding of Shakespeare is improved by the very presence of different editions of his works. The dynamism of Shakespeare is further stressed by these different renditions- none of which is better than any other.

    I thank you for your comment as it forced to me further examine the ideas that are at the core of this essay. I hope that I have addressed your concerns appropriately. Again, thank you!

    • March 18, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      Certainly; I understand what you wish to argue, and I was simply pointing out how the article reads from an outsider’s perspective. I can see what your main argument is; I just found it problematic that while I was reading it I could detect some fairly subtle biases running through your work. Of course, that’s just me being paranoid, I suppose.

      Technical comment: I suggest interweaving your images with your essay for it to be truly ‘transmedial’. Putting all of them together at the bottom of the post kind of defeats the purpose of a ‘multimedia’ essay.

      Nonetheless, good presentation, there are some nice points that I fully agree with. Nice!

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