Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Willful Neglect

In various places of the world, especially wherever the Spanish established a colony, the Day of the Dead is not just a day set aside on which everyone visits a cemetery to pay respects to their dead loved ones. For families it is the actual day on which an individual - a mother or father - had died. It is a day fraught with superstitious rituals that are supposed to guarantee that the dead will rest in peace. April 23 is traditionally believed to be the day of William Shakespeare's birth. One of the reasons we know this is because it coinicided with the day of his death in 1616.

What is there left to say on Shakespeare's 450th birthday, except to comment on how someone so universally revered could be so obscure to the vast majority of people. It's only partly because of his stature as probably the greatest poet-playwright in history that most people are willfully ignorant of his work. Literary fame is only dimly recognized today. And it doesn't seem to matter that he's as strange to native English-speakers as he is to speakers of some aboriginal language in Papua New Guinea or in Amazonia.

The King James Bible was published in Shakespeare's lifetime, and most people today can't read it without consulting a glossary. A Christian friend of mine, who believes that the original Bible, written in Hebrew and Greek, is the inspired word of God, prefers one of the modern translations to King James' because the language of Shakespeare's age seems to him to put distance between him and his Creator. Never mind that the Standard Text, as it became known, contains poetry that occasionally rivals that of Shakespeare, and that, for centuries, it was the only book that could be found in nearly every household where English was spoken and that it provided uneducated people with beautiful and noble language with which they could describe the most mundane events in their daily lives.

What most people who fear Shakespeare's language don't seem to grasp is how utterly clear he is, and how convoluted and muddied English has become since his death 398 years ago today. Would Shakespeare be able to read The New York Times without a lexicon?

No comments: