Understanding Shakespeare’s Language: Part 1


MATT TORONTO: Hi, my name’s
Matt Toronto, and I teach acting and directing
at Penn State. And one of the courses I teach
is Acting for Shakespeare. And so we’re going to talk a
little bit about dealing with Shakespeare’s language. And I think a lot of people
get nervous about talking about Shakespeare and his
language because it seems foreign, it seems weird, it’s
kind of inverse, and all of these things. And hopefully we’re going to
demystify that a little bit with some concrete ways of
approaching the language. And I think, hopefully what
you’ll realize, is that you already understand
Shakespeare. He’s writing about human beings
just like you and me. We just have to figure out in
the course of his language the clues that help us understand
who these people are, and what they want, and what
they’re doing. So what we’re going to do is
I’ll take you through the five keys to unlocking the bard. But before we do that, I want
to show a little clip from a production of Romeo and Juliet
that I directed. That will give us
sort of a start. And you’ll probably recognize
this passage, but we’ll be dealing with it as we unravel
the language and find the clues that will help
us understand it. So here’s Romeo and Juliet. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -But, soft! What light through yonder
window breaks? It is the east, and
Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the
envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that
thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. Be not her maid, since
she is envious. Her vestal livery is but sick
and green, and none but fools do wear it. Cast it off. It is my lady, O,
it is my love! [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] MATT TORONTO: So that’s a great
clip from a production I directed at Penn State. And the actor in that
is Gilbert Bailey. And the woman playing Juliet
is Leah Miller. And they were both
terrific actors. So I wanted you to be able to
see somebody do a really great job with that particular speech,
which is very familiar to many of us. What I want to do is, because
that’s a little bit familiar, sometimes we think we understand
what that speech is, but there’s much
more to it. And we can kind of unravel what
it’s saying in it, and really get a lot more from the
language, from the speech, and from what’s happening there. So we’re going to go through the
five keys to unlocking the bard’s language. And the first key, the first
step that we want to take, is called follow the thought. And it just means what it sounds
like it means, follow the thought. What is the character saying? What is the character
thinking? You take the words and
try to figure out what they’re saying. It’s simple enough, but
sometimes it takes a little detective work, OK. So we’re going to look at it,
and the first thing we should do is look up any words that
we don’t understand, OK. So if there’s a word that looks
like it’s a key word to understanding what’s going
on, you can look it up. Try an old fashioned
dictionary. Try an online dictionary. You can also find online lots
of Shakespeare glossaries, Shakespeare dictionaries. Or an old fashioned book, the
way they used to make them. This one is one of
my favorites. It’s called A Shakespeare
Glossary by C. T. Onions. OK. And you can just look
up the words. So say in the first line we’re
looking at it, “But, soft! What light through yonder window
breaks?” Maybe you don’t know what the
word yonder means. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. If you don’t, you look it
up in the glossary. And then you realize it
means, over there. Simple. Over there. Yonder means over there. That thing over there. OK. So we’re going to look at this
first line and try to translate it into modern
day English, OK. So “But, soft!” Who
says, but soft? Nobody says but soft, unless
a butt is very soft. We don’t say that anymore. So we’ve got to find, what
is he really saying? What’s going on? Well, he’s looking up at a
window and he says, “But, soft!” I think he’s saying check
it out, what’s that, holy moley, holy cow. But soft, check it out. “What light through yonder
window breaks?” What’s that light over there? Over yonder. What is that light? OK. And then he goes on to the
second line and he defines what that light is. And he says, it’s the east.
And Juliet is like the sun rising in the east, OK. And I think that’s
clear enough. And then it gets a little
more complicated. “Arise, fair sun, and kill the
envious moon.” So he says, rise up Juliet, and kill the
moon, who’s jealous because the moon is not as beautiful
as you are, as fair, as beautiful as you
are, all right. And the moon is already sick and
pale, sick and white and sickly and ugly with sadness,
because you, her maid– and you can look thou her maid,
what is her maid?– thou her servant. You, her servant, are more
beautiful then she, OK. And then he says, “Be not
her maid, since she is envious,” OK. So don’t be her servant,
since she is jealous. “Her vestal livery.”
OK, there’s a word we should look up. What is a vestal livery? We’ll find out that that is what
devotees of the Goddess Diana would wear. It’s a vestal livery, a very
chaste, virginal sort of uniform that a devotee of the
Goddess Diana would wear. “Her vestal livery is but sick and
green and none but fools do wear it,” OK. Only fools wear that chaste
sort of garment. Cast it off. And what I love in this little
clip that I show you is when he says cast it off, there she
does, she takes off her robe. And he gets to see
a little action. What does Juliet look like when
she’s getting undressed and getting ready for bed? And then the last line, “It is
my lady, O, it is my love!” He’s just saying,
that’s my girl. That’s the girl I’m
in love with, OK. And it’s kind of simple when
you break it down. And I hope that it wasn’t
too obvious. But if you just kind of
translate it into your own words, it just helps you
understand, what is this kid going through? He’s still a kid. He’s a teenager. What is he thinking? He’s just looking at the girl,
he’s in love, and trying to process that. The other thing I wanted to
mention, just as we go, as you follow the thought a lot of time
Shakespeare constructs his language in the form
of an argument. To be or not to be is an
argument with Hamlet sort of weighing the choices. Should I kill myself, should
I not kill myself? And that’s a lot of
time what he does. So he’s uses a lot of rhetorical
devices and things that help construct
an argument. So you might think as you
follow the thought, is Shakespeare constructing an
argument, trying to persuade someone, or trying to
weigh the options? And you can kind of see that
in a lot of the language. And we’ll kind of see some
of that later on today. But that’s the first step,
follow the thought. And if you do that and translate
it into your own words, you’re already miles
ahead of the person who didn’t take the time to do that.

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