For the sake of accuracy I should, perhaps, have written my title as 'enigmas', in the plural, given how many of them exist. One of them, however, seems to predominate at the moment, and that is how best to ease access to his work which, after all, was written at least 400 years ago in a language which is increasingly hard to understand. Ms. Emma Rice, the new Artistic Director at The Globe theatre, is determined to drag poor old Will, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century - "Oh, brave new world"! To be fair, were old Will still cognisant, he might well be cheering her on because, I guess, like most 'luvvies' of any age, he would believe that there's no such thing as bad publicity!
I have recent experience of this problem having, until just recently, been working on the text of Richard II which I had hoped to direct next year, until "events, dear boy, events" intervened. There is nothing like directing one of his plays to bring you down to earth abruptly from the clouds of Shakespearean purity! John McWhorter, a "linguistics, philosophy, American Studies and music history" swot - pheeew! - touches on the subject in his critique of an RSC production of Richard II.
When Richard’s queen says, “Tis nameless woe, I wot,” only with previous study can we know that wot meant “know” in Shakespeare’s time. In a play in which keeping track of family relations is already tricky, cousin is used where we would use nephew and niece. Words such as appeach require context to understand, others such as appeal are used in ways unfamiliar today, and at times we even stub our mental toe on now-defunct usages of prepositions: Richard says “I have a king here to my flatterer,” meaning “for my flatterer.”
That's tricky but frankly it mostly sweeps over the audience who are not, 'lit-lang' critics aside, dwelling on each and every word. However, when faced with these immortal lines from Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice - a role I once played to thunderous snores - then there are real problems:
An they have conspired together, I will not say you shall see a masque; but if you do, then it was not for nothing that my nose fell a-bleeding on Black-Monday last at six o'clock i' the morning, falling out that year on Ash-Wednesday was four year, in the afternoon.
'Stratford, we have a problem!' Indeed we do but the instant you try to correct it you hit even more problems. The example above was written in prose and the director's red pencil can whizz through most of it without hesitation but when it comes to his verse lines then, to quote the old song, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing". Most of Shakespeare's lines are written to a rhythm called iambic pentameter which means five double beats (dee-DAH dee-DAH dee-DAH dee-DAH dee-DAH) to a line based on the syllables in the line:
Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more
Of course, there are variations (and when they occur a good actor/director will take note!) but that is the main driving force behind his verse. Why? Because it's very like the way we speak - and we do it unconsciously, not necessarily with strict compliance but the syllabic rhythm of spoken English remains. So, if you need to modernise an archaic Shakespearian word to help an audience understand then you must choose a replacement that maintains the rhythm. That, let me tell you, is not always easy! Particularly when you imagine the shade of William standing over you - glaring!
Well, directors will do what they always do, mostly muck things up, but if they do chop and change and they do it with love and respect, then I think old Will would approve.