I have recently been enjoying the works of Shakespeare in a series from Yale University Press: “The Annotated Shakespeare.”
I have two volumes as of now: Hamlet and King Lear. I’ve actually had them for a year or two, but I finally managed to start reading them. I recently watched Justin Kurzel’s film adaptation of Macbeth on Amazon Prime, so that got me in a mood for Shakespeare.
I have not read Macbeth since high school, so I cannot make any informed comparisons between the movie and the play, which I barely remember. I liked the movie. The acting is superb, and the production team crafted some mesmerizing aesthetics, as the critics agree. The screenplay was lacking in some respects. It seemed to me that the ambition and overall pathos of Macbeth was not developed nearly enough, whether before [spoiler alert!] his murder of King Duncan or afterwards in his subsequent devolution into lunacy.
The biggest complaint from viewers is the difficulty of hearing and following the dialogue, which is taken directly from Shakespeare and is entirely without any modernization — in addition to thick accents and frequently whispered voices. However, the problem is easily solved by turning on the closed captions. Seriously, the captions make the movie an enjoyable instead of a frustrating venture. Trust me.
Yale’s Annotated Shakespeare
As for the Yale series, let me commend it to you, because I think it is important. It is important because Shakespeare is one of our great cultural treasures, and yet most English-speakers today do not have the capacity to read Shakespeare. The problem is not in understanding and interpreting Shakespeare, though that is not without challenge. The problem is simply that we do not speak his English. The problem is in terms of vocabulary and grammar.
The enormous value of Yale’s annotated series is the abundance of footnotes on each page, “translating” and, in some cases, explaining the more archaic English — both individual words and expressions. From Hamlet, here is an example:
In act 1, scene 3, Laertes is warning his sister, Ophelia, about Hamlet’s romantic advances. He says:
For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute. No more.
Most readers can get the gist, but the footnotes are helpful. “For” means “as for” — “trifling of his favor” means “dallying of his attention” — “Hold it a fashion and toy in blood” means “a pretense and fooling about of disposition/mood (modern usage: ‘of young hormones’)” — “a violet in the youth of primy nature” means “a flowering of a young man in his prime” — “Forward” means “precocious, ahead of its time” — “suppliance” means “diversion, pastime.”
As you read it with the footnotes, the meaning is clear, and the reader is not frustrated at not knowing what a particular word or expression means. As a result, Shakespeare is made far more accessible to the general reading public. The footnotes can be a bit excessive and, for many, unnecessary at times. But that’s a small complaint, and it will vary from person to person.
The annotation and introduction is by Burton Raffel (1928-2015), Endowed Chair in Arts and Humanities and professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In order to produce the series, he teamed-up with the legendary literary critic, Harold Bloom (Yale University), who writes an essay for each volume. There are 14 entries in the series, which you can get from Yale or from Amazon.