Yale’s ‘The Annotated Shakespeare’ series

March 28, 2016

Hamlet - Yale

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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.

Macbeth - Justin Kurzel

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.

15 Responses to “Yale’s ‘The Annotated Shakespeare’ series”

  1. Joel said

    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.
    Well, the archaisms can be tough, but it’s partly because Shakespeare was not first and foremost meant to be read. Reading him is great and sometimes the only option, but he wrote for the stage. A skilled acting company (Atlanta has one of the best in the US – I imagine Charlotte’s big enough to have a good one) can make his dialogue surprisingly accessible.

    I have the advantage of a college Shakespeare class and a general interest in literature, but I’ve taken friends to the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern who knew almost nothing of him and had a great time.

    • Joel said

      Eh, wrong italic tags…you can probably fix it.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Fixed the italics code.

      That’s an interesting point. I honestly don’t know. I can see how, as in the greats of the silent film era (e.g., Falconetti’s Joan of Arc), the performance can do most of the interpretive heavy lifting. Indeed, Kurzel’s Macbeth excels in that regard, for the most part.

      I’m probably just too analytical in some respects, thereby too easily frustrated without a more clear presentation.

    • Robert F said

      Yes, but Shakespeare’s plays are also poetry; we can perhaps get by on the understanding of the plot conveyed to us by a good acting company, but we will not appreciate the complexity, beauty and profundity of the the language itself, unless we acquire a working knowledge of its idiom.

      • Joel said

        Certainly there are things you can analyze in more detail on page. But some poetry is written to be read aloud (and Shakespeare’s is very meter-based), and a good actor can bring a lot of it to life. People may not understand every line, but most people can still understand quite a bit of the language beyond just the gist of the plot if it’s performed well.

        Also different actors’ interpretations can illuminate the poetry in new ways. I’ve seen three different acting companies perform As You Like It, and they all had different takes on the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech (all were respectful interpretations, not crazy deconstructive stuff).

        Of course reading Shakespeare and watching him on stage are not mutually exclusive. But I realize that for many people, the latter may not be practical due to time, money, or location.

  2. cal said

    I was hoping to see that rendition of Macbeth, especially because I think Fassbender is a superb actor. Especially in this role, the man does maniacal, imbalanced, and socially crumbling spectacularly!

    However, the comment about the dialog is sad. I tried to watch Coriolanus, a modern vision for an ancient play, but with all the archaic dialog intact. It even had Ralph Fiennes! But the dialog was too overwhelming and lost some of the emotional punch in trying to follow obscure insults and turns-of-phrase.

    I wish more movies would do creative adaptations for Shakespeare. While not terribly good, I thought “O” (with Julia Stiles and Josh Harnett) captured Othello in a modern context well. I wish more movies were like that and less interested in recreating the dialog.

    Joel’s right though. I saw Julius Caesar, it was extraordinary! The right acting troupe and it really comes to life.

    • Yes, I would like to see more creative adaptations as well. The Macbeth screenplay does, however, avoid most of the “obscure insults and turns-of-phrase” in its adaptation from the original. So, even though the dialog is (seemingly) taken directly from Shakespeare, it is selectively taken. I did enjoy it with the captions on; otherwise I probably would not have even finished watching. Fassbender is indeed excellent, as is Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. It’s a dream team for roles like these. Speaking of Marion Cotillard, I also recently watched ‘Two Days, One Night’ on Netflix, and she carries the whole movie.

  3. Ethan Shearer said

    I am a big fan of Hamlet. I always felt that it was Shakespeare’s most human play. I did theater up until college and I think it is meant to be performed and watched rather than just read. Good stuff.

    • Yes, the reader doesn’t get the full sense of the drama. But it’s wondrous to sit, ponder, and admire the way Shakespeare uses words, which can flow by too quickly in a production.

  4. Joel said

    One part of Shakespeare that really gets lost on paper is the comedy. Midsummer Night’s Dream is cute and amusing when read, but can be an absolute riot on stage. And even the tragedies have plenty of funny moments.

    • Good point — comedy of that sort is the hardest to convey through words on a page. I’ll have to be on the lookout for performances in my area.

    • CarterS said

      Indeed. 12th Night is a great example of this. I saw a live performance, where the line about “some people have greatness thrust upon them” was accompanied by a wonderful pelvic movement that really carried the meaning home 😂

  5. CarterS said

    I’d also recommend the Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart. Faithful dialogue but a strange, WWI Soviet-style setting that oddly fits, and some truly wonderful (and eerie) performances. It’s my favorite play, so I really can’t get enough of it. Thanks for the tip on the new editions.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks for the recommendation of Stewart’s Macbeth. I was curious about it. Amazon Prime Video has it, so I will definitely watch it.

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