As I write this blog teenagers all over the world are preparing to wrestle with Shakespeare’s words. They have been handed a copy of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, or Julius Caesar and they are dreading opening it.
How did this happen? How did one of the most compelling writers of the English language become an exercise in frustration and boredom?
It’s not for lack of effort on the teacher’s part. They have done everything they could to make Shakespeare a less painful chore – even to the point of using aids such as “No Fear Shakespeare” which demystify some of the words used but unfortunately flatten the metaphors, neuter the puns, and make the plots mind numbingly dull.
It doesn’t have to be this way! We are, for the most part, teaching Shakespeare completely wrong. We are teaching it as if it was in a form of English that any English speaker should be able to understand if given a few hints. Even though any casual observer to an English Lit 101 class could tell you that few, if any, of those adept English speakers can get past the first lines of Romeo and Juliet unaided.
The above lines would have been fast paced comedy to Shakespeare’s audience. He’s making several puntastic references to servitude, yoked oxen, venomous snakes, hot tempers, hard labor, fighting and sex. It is two young men who belong to the same house daring each other to start an illegal fight against some young men from an opposing house
If you happen to be fluent in Early Modern English then Shakespeare’s text creates a collage of cascading images that pull you in immediately. You can practically feel the blood beating in the over-heated temples of the young men.
Lets take the same lines and provide some visual and cultural context.
This is an image of a coal carrier or collier. They were at the bottom of the social ladder and had hard lives bringing coal to others so that they would have heat.
When Sampson says they will not be coal carriers he is daring Gregory to a fight by saying that it’s not their job to just to bear burdens and let others get the glory of a fight. Gregory agrees with him and says no, they are not colliers like the unfortunate lass pictured above, but he is also making a pun on the word “collar” or one who wears a collar in servitude like an ox.
Sampson – I mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw.
Here Sampson is making a reference to the medical and psychological beliefs of the age. Medical theory had remained essentially unchanged since Hippocrates, an Ancient Greek physician (460-370 BCE), recorded it.
For millennia people believed there were four temperaments or “Humours.”
“Choler” – short for “Choleric” – was thought to correspond to the element of fire. Someone in choler was hot tempered, quick to anger. One of the ways to cure someone of excess choler was to draw blood from them.
Sampson is saying that really, attacking those other men with blades drawn, is the healthiest choice under the circumstances. Note that the figure marked “colerick” above has his blade drawn. Here is an illustration of someone having their blood let for medicinal purposes.
1. Take off that fancy ruff you are wearing around your neck and lets fight.
2. Remove the yoke of your servitude to your masters and lets fight.
3. Stop screwing around (remove your penis from where ever you were sticking it) and lets fight.
At first glance this line is straight forward. He’s ready to fight once he’s motivated to do so. An image of a venomous striking snake comes to mind also, a commonly used metaphor in Shakespeare’s day for quick action, but there are deeper meanings still.
Democritus, an Ancient Greek philosopher, was one of the first in recorded history to posit the existence of something like atoms.
He believed sensations occurred via the agencies of tiny objects called idols which would move towards the sensory organs and strike them, which moved those atoms to strike against the soul, which then perceived the image. It was part of a larger discussion on what eventually became the science of physics. Back then here was a lot of disagreement over whether or not an open space, a void, where these “atoms” could move, did indeed exist. These atoms would not strike against the soul unless they were moved.
Finally there is a reference to the Ancient Greek Phalanx, a military formation, which once it began to move would strike. As opposed to other military formations such as archers, or engines, like cannons.
These Ancient Greek ideas would have been accessible to any reasonably educated person of the day and by educated I don’t mean they had to have gone to college. The Ancient Greeks were commonly read and discussed during the Elizabethan era. The reasons behind this are fascinating in their own right but deserve to be the subject of an entire course so I won’t go into anymore depth about that here.
Suffice it to say that the Elizabethans loved word play. There was no such thing as “correct spelling” or a universally accepted system of grammar. reading a text or watching a play was a game where the writer did everything they could to make the audience work out all the meanings, in jokes, and cultural references contained in the words.
Many Elizabethan writers did this but Shakespeare was, and still is, the master of this form of wordplay. This is why people who get hooked on Shakespeare never get bored. The layers of references seem to be bottomless. But back to our hot-headed lads.
Gregory – But thou art not quickly moved to strike.
Here Gregory is saying – fine buddy, put up or shut up. There may be more meanings here but you get the idea. Unfortunately a No Fear interpretation reduces the entire exchange to two young men just itching for a fight. It misses the incredible depth of wit that Shakespeare’s audiences would have heard.
There are several reasons that perfectly competent English speakers can’t just open up a Shakespeare text and learn it. It’s understandable when those of us in the 21st century aren’t hip to Democritus, but most of us have no clue what “choleric” means, or what a collier is. So we are shutout in the first two lines.
Shakespeare needs to be taught as an interactive puzzle. Fortunately in the digital age we have the answers to these multi-layered riddles at our fingertips. Instead of opening a butchered No Fear text we should be opening our internet browsers. We should be taking meandering paths through whatever rabbit hole Shakespeare leads us to. We should assume that each word, each phrase, has multiple meanings and that we need to see visuals to help the words stick. Shakespeare intended for his audience to have to figure out what he meant. It’s an active process. We must strike when we are moved.
Sampson and Gregory on the right picking a fight