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 Indeed, much of the difficulty stems not from the fact that it is written in an outdated manner but from the uncanny regularity with which we can draw parallelisms between Shakespeare’s thoughts and ideas to our present day concerns and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.