Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In praise of footnotes; or, more grumping about No Fear Shakespeare

I posted a shortened version of this on LJ after my last-but-one venture into the wilds of No Fear Shakespeare, but it's still bothering me, so I thought I'd post it as a follow-on to yesterday.

So I was looking at the No Fear As You Like It, because I am a masochist, and I found this.

Real Shakespeare:

Touchstone: I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.

Jaques: O knowledge ill-inhabited, worse than Jove in a thatched house!

Touchstone: When a man's verses cannot be understood, or a man's good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

No Fear Shakespeare

Touchstone: Well, I'm out here with you and your goats, in the same way that the witty poet Ovid was abandoned to the barbaric Goths.

Jaques: Oh, knowledge put to such bad use is worse than a god cooped up in a hut.

Touchstone: When a man's jokes fall that flat, it's as depressing as getting a large bill for a short stay in a little room.

Obviously, there is Very Much Wrong with the No Fear version, but what strikes me, especially, is how much "translating" the text into contemporary English fails to illuminate it. With the exception of the phrase "seconded with the forward child" and the single word "reckoning," there's nothing that's actually difficult about the language of this passage. What makes it difficult is content knowledge: in order to get it all, you have to know a little about Ovid's biography, and enough Latin to get the multilingual pun on "capricious," and enough about classical mythology to recognize the story of Jupiter, Philemon, and Baucis, and some stuff about Christopher Marlowe. You know, the kinds of things that are best explained in footnotes. And the No Fear version doesn't even attempt to convey any of this cultural knowledge; in fact, I'd go so far as to argue it actually conspires to hide this knowledge from students. The wordplay and allusions are either left unexplained, or completely erased, or watered down out of recognition ("Jove" becoming "a god"). Now, this isn't disastrous if your sole purpose is comprehensibility, because you don't NEED to know any of this stuff to understand the plot of As You Like It. It's lagniappe. Fluff. Part of the game of wit that Shakespeare's characters engage in, incessantly, while we busy modern people wish they would get back to the plot.

Except. Since this is a comedy, lagniappe and fluff and games and wit are sort of the entire point. And at least one of those allusions isn't a throwaway; if you do know about Jupiter and Philemon and Baucis, you're going to see little echoes all over this play, in old faithful Adam, and in the Duke's invitation to Orlando to share in their poor feast, and in the way a literal god shows up out of nowhere at the end (but maybe there have always been gods in the forest; we just didn't recognize them for what they were). It's a lovely little set of grace notes. And you can only learn to hear them if you spend some time learning early modern culture, not plots or lists of characters or Analysis of Major Themes. And the only way to learn that -- in the absence of time travel -- is by reading early modern texts. A lot. And paying attention to the footnotes.

It makes me sad that anyone would discourage students from trying.


Bardiac said...


heu mihi said...

Well said.

I would add, too, that not exposing students to different cadences, uses of language, wordplay, levels of diction, etc. does them a great disservice when it comes to their own facility with self-expression. As a composition teacher, I always felt like I was struggling to overcome the effects of 18 years of not reading: so many students could write in exactly one register (or, at best, could lapse into a strained and incomprehensible Academic Voice), and I believe that that comes from not being exposed to a variety of modes of expression. When I was in high school, I actively aped the styles of my favorite writers, and looking back over my diaries I can tell when I was reading A.S. Byatt, or Thomas Mann, or Emily Dickinson (dashes were all the rage in the notes that we passed during the Dickinson/Sexton/Plath unit in 11th-grade English!). Why rob students of that? Why, as you say, discourage them from trying?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yes! And having access to different words and registers and modes of expression is empowering, in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with the literature classroom. (I mean, where would Dr. King have been without it?)