The writings of Shakespeare are often suffered through by students in literature classes, and this suffering is generally paired with one inescapable lesson: William Shakespeare is the most exalted poet to have written in English. Ever.
Shakespeare is credited with creating (either through the addition of prefixes or suffixes or through plain old inventiveness) about 1700 words that linger in today’s lexicon, including the following: addiction, blushing, eyeball, lonely, obscene, swagger, and my personal favorite, madcap. To have invented one or two or even ten words that remain in common use hundreds of years after your death would be a pretty impressive feat, but to come up with well over a thousand? Well, that’s just (to use one of Shakespeare’s words) zany.
Be that as it may, literature students still suffer. Shakespeare’s writing (along with other things, like the translation of the King James Bible) may have ushered in modern English, but to today’s readers, it doesn’t seem very, well, modern. Take, for example, this passage:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
It all sounds very nice (it’s my favorite passage from Shakespeare, to be honest) and it inspired the title of one of Faulkner’s novels, but so what, exactly?
Shakespeare wrote about death, love, lust, sex, betrayal, murder, cross-dressing, and yes, there was that one bit about the fairy falling in love with the man who had been turned into an ass, but is this writing something we can still truly connect with? Or is the antiquated nature of the words an impediment?
Language is something that is forever in a state of flux. Would Shakespeare be more relevant today (outside of academia and the film career of Kenneth Branagh, where his relevance will never cease) if his writing were updated into an English closer to what we speak today? Outside of the rare interlinear or side-by-side translation, why do you think this hasn’t happened on a widespread basis? Would it be wrong?
Think about your own writing for a minute. If it were to survive and be read for hundreds of years (and you were to know about it somehow), would it be okay with you if those words you labored over were rewritten so audiences of the day would be better able to get it? What’s more important, being able to understand everything (without having to consult a dictionary) or the sanctity of the writing as written?
(Thanks to Billectric for inspiring this question.)