Undusting a Language

Hamlet: Lyre vs Prose

Undusting a Language

Hamlet: Lyre vs Prose

by: Nóra Kardos

“To be or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: To sleep;…”

(Act 3, Scene 1, 1603)

Familiar words, right? Many people reading these lines could say for certain that these are Hamlet’s words. More precisely, Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s words. At this point, recognizing this piece is expected general knowledge for many. The reason behind that does not only lie in the fact that these sentences have been repeated on stage, in movies, quoted by heartfelt Shakespeare-lovers way too many times, but because Hamlet is one of the most common mandatory literature in schools all over the world. Students have to read their way through all 176 pages of the English play before even learning about facts like that Denmark is, up to this day, a kingdom.

“To be or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: To sleep;…”

(Act 3, Scene 1, 1603)

Familiar words, right? Many people reading these lines could say for certain that these are Hamlet’s words. More precisely, Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s words. At this point, recognizing this piece is expected general knowledge for many. The reason behind that does not only lie in the fact that these sentences have been repeated on stage, in movies, quoted by heartfelt Shakespeare-lovers way too many times, but because Hamlet is one of the most common mandatory literature in schools all over the world. Students have to read their way through all 176 pages of the English play before even learning about facts like that Denmark is, up to this day, a kingdom.

Consequently, it is no surprise that Shakespeare’s drama has lived on for so long. However, many students, let them be native English speakers or not, including myself a couple of years ago, encounter a language barrier whilst reading. Hamlet was written in 1603, four hundred and eighteen years ago. The English that Shakespeare was employing when writing his plays and the English that many speak and learn today is almost incomparable. Why do I call Shakespeare’s word of mouth dusty? Just like many other literary pieces, Shakespeare’s works stood the test of time. The universality of their content is what makes these pieces so important from many perspectives. In the case of Hamlet, it deals with drama, politics, identity and trust issues in a way that is found relevant and relatable, also today. The only problem is that Hamlet communicates his dilemmas in a language that not many really understand anymore. Nay matt’r how hard thee tryeth, thee cannot relateth to a playeth text in lyre yond thee wouldst constantly needeth the holp of a dictionary f’r[1]. Hence, Hamlet in its original form is destined to be shrouded in a thin layer of dust that prevents it from full contemporaneity.

‘Why make such a difficult reading mandatory for children then?’ could one be asking. Well, the answer to that would be ‘Because it’s a classic. It is part of the canon.’ The opposition we are facing here is a hard one to crack. When the ministry of education integrates a work in the educational curriculum, their goal usually is for the children to get to know the national general knowledge, in order for the cultural heritage to live on. They say Hamlet is timeless on many levels. But how can a piece be timeless if the pupils, for whom it is compulsory to read, don’t even understand it?

[1] No matter how hard you try, you cannot relate to a play text in lyre that you would constantly need the help of a dictionary for.

Consequently, it is no surprise that Shakespeare’s drama has lived on for so long. However, many students, let them be native English speakers or not, including myself a couple of years ago, encounter a language barrier whilst reading. Hamlet was written in 1603, four hundred and eighteen years ago. The English that Shakespeare was employing when writing his plays and the English that many speak and learn today is almost incomparable. Why do I call Shakespeare’s word of mouth dusty? Just like many other literary pieces, Shakespeare’s works stood the test of time. The universality of their content is what makes these pieces so important from many perspectives. In the case of Hamlet, it deals with drama, politics, identity and trust issues in a way that is found relevant and relatable, also today. The only problem is that Hamlet communicates his dilemmas in a language that not many really understand anymore. Nay matt’r how hard thee tryeth, thee cannot relateth to a playeth text in lyre yond thee wouldst constantly needeth the holp of a dictionary f’r[1]. Hence, Hamlet in its original form is destined to be shrouded in a thin layer of dust that prevents it from full contemporaneity.

‘Why make such a difficult reading mandatory for children then?’ could one be asking. Well, the answer to that would be ‘Because it’s a classic. It is part of the canon.’ The opposition we are facing here is a hard one to crack. When the ministry of education integrates a work in the educational curriculum, their goal usually is for the children to get to know the national general knowledge, in order for the cultural heritage to live on. They say Hamlet is timeless on many levels. But how can a piece be timeless if the pupils, for whom it is compulsory to read, don’t even understand it?

[1] No matter how hard you try, you cannot relate to a play text in lyre that you would constantly need the help of a dictionary for.

35429602_197086377784671_229035856977985536_n

One solution would be renewing the language of Hamlet from 1603 into a version recognized in 2021. Thanks to the internet and many creative students who are struggling with interpreting Shakespeare’s work, hundreds of altered Hamlets, translated from English to English, are made accessible online. This is how websites like NoSweatShakespeare.com are born.

“The question for him was whether to continue to exist or not – whether it was more noble to suffer the slings and arrows of an unbearable situation, or to declare war on the sea of troubles that afflict one, and by opposing them, end them. To die.” (Act 3, Scene 1, 2021)

Once again, I am sure that I do not have to introduce this quote. It looks familiar but different, doesn’t it? This is NoSweatShakespeare’s version of Hamlet. If one is acquainted with the original, the quote is instantly recognizable. On the contrary, if a 16-year-old, who has to read the whole play by the next day, finds this online source and decides to, understandably, simplify their job and read this Hamlet in prose(!), it is hardly imaginable that they will ever pick up the Hamlet in lyre afterwards. Ultimately, the content may live on but not in its original form. The piece that is considered a classic lives on in an appropriated shape. The student consumes Hamlet, just not the one that is judged to be a part of the national cultural heritage. It is in this moment, the mission of the ministry of education has failed.

35429602_197086377784671_229035856977985536_n

One solution would be renewing the language of Hamlet from 1603 into a version recognized in 2021. Thanks to the internet and many creative students who are struggling with interpreting Shakespeare’s work, hundreds of altered Hamlets, translated from English to English, are made accessible online. This is how websites like NoSweatShakespeare.com are born.

“The question for him was whether to continue to exist or not – whether it was more noble to suffer the slings and arrows of an unbearable situation, or to declare war on the sea of troubles that afflict one, and by opposing them, end them. To die.” (Act 3, Scene 1, 2021)

Once again, I am sure that I do not have to introduce this quote. It looks familiar but different, doesn’t it? This is NoSweatShakespeare’s version of Hamlet. If one is acquainted with the original, the quote is instantly recognizable. On the contrary, if a 16-year-old, who has to read the whole play by the next day, finds this online source and decides to, understandably, simplify their job and read this Hamlet in prose(!), it is hardly imaginable that they will ever pick up the Hamlet in lyre afterwards. Ultimately, the content may live on but not in its original form. The piece that is considered a classic lives on in an appropriated shape. The student consumes Hamlet, just not the one that is judged to be a part of the national cultural heritage. It is in this moment, the mission of the ministry of education has failed.

clark-young-160446-unsplash

The dilemma has risen again. One couldn’t even say that the student at least experiences reading a drama. The above quoted version abolishes the dramatic format completely. Hamlet’s famous monologue transforms into a mere description of the Danish prince’s state of mind. There might be rewritings that do the original one more justice, but my choice of this particular one was intentional. NoSweatShakespeare is a website that was created with the exact purpose to support helpless students’ literary studies.

Can we still call it Hamlet though? One thing is certain: this is not Shakespeare’s anymore. Hence, the result is hardly the timelessness of national heritage. What is important to keep in mind though is the audience for whom the preservation of a national heritage is intended for. Not many authors write with the objective in mind for their work to live on forever and be relevant for the generations to come. Every era and author, even an individual work, can have its own specific target audience, its implied reader. The implied reader of a literary, and in this case a dramatic, work changes with time. That is universal. It cannot be expected of children/teenagers who are the motors of language renewal – by inventing slang, for example – to understand and be able to relate to a work that is unrecognizable to them, even though it was written in their native language. As opposed to the 17th century, more people are able to read, reach and understand literature. Information reaches the population much faster and in greater amounts. Consequently, the audience is larger and more diverse. People now have a bigger selection to choose from, decide which piece to consume and in what format. Hence, the perception of the implied reader has to be broader. Even though this transformation of Hamlet from lyre to prose hurts my inner drama geek, I am not at all surprised. Prose is a more common genre nowadays and so it is more relatable for many. The language of lyre is considered unfamiliar compared to that of prose, which is ironic since lyre is dustier in terms of age and time, meaning that it has been around for longer. But just as the use of language shifts and goes through a renewal every now and then, so does the literary audience’s personal preference for the most liked genre.

So, all in all… on the one hand, Hamlet is indeed timeless on many levels and is rightfully recommended for many to read. On the other hand, it is an objective fact that there is a recognizable and challenging difference between old English and modern English. Just like Hamlet has taught us, not every dilemma can be easily decided on. As for the ministry of education, I would suggest abolishing the goal of trying to make the national cultural heritage live on forever and instead try to get kids to like reading in the first place. The former is the job of the ministry of culture anyways.

The dilemma has risen again. One couldn’t even say that the student at least experiences reading a drama. The above quoted version abolishes the dramatic format completely. Hamlet’s famous monologue transforms into a mere description of the Danish prince’s state of mind. There might be rewritings that do the original one more justice, but my choice of this particular one was intentional. NoSweatShakespeare is a website that was created with the exact purpose to support helpless students’ literary studies.

Can we still call it Hamlet though? One thing is certain: this is not Shakespeare’s anymore. Hence, the result is hardly the timelessness of national heritage. What is important to keep in mind though is the audience for whom the preservation of a national heritage is intended for. Not many authors write with the objective in mind for their work to live on forever and be relevant for the generations to come. Every era and author, even an individual work, can have its own specific target audience, its implied reader. The implied reader of a literary, and in this case a dramatic, work changes with time. That is universal. It cannot be expected of children/teenagers who are the motors of language renewal – by inventing slang, for example – to understand and be able to relate to a work that is unrecognizable to them, even though it was written in their native language. As opposed to the 17th century, more people are able to read, reach and understand literature. Information reaches the population much faster and in greater amounts. Consequently, the audience is larger and more diverse. People now have a bigger selection to choose from, decide which piece to consume and in what format. Hence, the perception of the implied reader has to be broader. Even though this transformation of Hamlet from lyre to prose hurts my inner drama geek, I am not at all surprised. Prose is a more common genre nowadays and so it is more relatable for many. The language of lyre is considered unfamiliar compared to that of prose, which is ironic since lyre is dustier in terms of age and time, meaning that it has been around for longer. But just as the use of language shifts and goes through a renewal every now and then, so does the literary audience’s personal preference for the most liked genre.

So, all in all… on the one hand, Hamlet is indeed timeless on many levels and is rightfully recommended for many to read. On the other hand, it is an objective fact that there is a recognizable and challenging difference between old English and modern English. Just like Hamlet has taught us, not every dilemma can be easily decided on. As for the ministry of education, I would suggest abolishing the goal of trying to make the national cultural heritage live on forever and instead try to get kids to like reading in the first place. The former is the job of the ministry of culture anyways.

* * *

“Ha, ha! are you honest?” (Act 3, Scene 1, 1603)

 

‘Ha!’ he exclaimed. ‘Are you a virgin?’ (Act 3, Scene 1, 2021)

* * *

“Ha, ha! are you honest?” (Act 3, Scene 1, 1603)

 

‘Ha!’ he exclaimed. ‘Are you a virgin?’ (Act 3, Scene 1, 2021)

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