Shakespeare’s As You Like It, edited by Demitra Papadinis

I received this as a LibraryThing Early Reader book, in exchange for an honest review.

(Warning – pretty much all the language I generally avoid in reviews up to now shows up here, en masse.)(In fact …)

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Now, see, they teach this stuff in school. In high school. And the kids sit there bored out of their minds in class. Little do they know.

The idea behind this edition of Shakespeare’s comedy – and, it appears, also Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet in the series so far – is to undo some of the “cleaning up” that the plays have suffered over the centuries. Papadinis has gone back to the earliest printed versions of the work (for this, to the First Folio) to suss out what the original punctuation looked like, trying to undo layer after layer of standardization and “correction”. Also, she combs through the text word by word with a few dozen reference books to hand trying to determine any and all alternate meanings for words and phrases. One of the first examples, given in the introduction, is the phrase Shakespeare used fairly often and probably most memorably in Hamlet, “country matters”. This is fairly commonly known, I think (I knew, so therefore I tend to assume anyone knows), to be a euphemism for sex; I always sort of assumed it was some sort of reference to the highjinks lads and lasses get up to in the meadow. Not quite. “Country” was pronounced as it is now, so for Hamlet to say this as he lays his head in Ophelia’s lap – emphasize the first syllable of the phrase, now … Get it, wink wink nudge nudge? That’s what I expect from wordplay in Shakespeare.

I’m a little dubious about the extent to which this idea is developed in this edition, though. It feels like a drastic overcompensation for bowdlerism. While I fully agree with the precept that the plays had to compete with bawdy houses and bear baitings and cockfights and executions to sell tickets, and that Shakespeare was more than capable of not only double but triple and quadruple entendres, and that, in brief, it was all much dirtier than we really understand it to be now (as in “country matters”) … I don’t think it was necessarily as steeped in sex and excrement as this annotation suggests. I do believe that there were an absolutely gob-smacking number of words which stood for sex acts and various body parts; if nothing else, plays had to be gotten past the censors. But – well, take Act one, scene one of this play as presented here.

On the surface, and as it is probably staged 99.9% of the time, this is a scene in which a younger brother, Orlando, complains bitterly about his lot, first to the audience and then to his oppressive older brother. It’s clear and straightforward, and easy to understand. Now, to be sure, it benefits from the idea of multiple meanings of words, with the end result that by the end of the scene it is clear that Orlando has been, as the editor says, “treated like shit” and has been, figuratively at least (I hope figuratively) pretty thoroughly buggered. (I sincerely hope this wasn’t in any way meant to hint that there actually was a forced incestuous relationship there; that would put a slightly different spin on what after all is a comedy…) But does this add anything to what a straight and straightforward reading brings? I don’t think so. Orlando has been treated like shit, and has been screwed out of his rights; I don’t think it’s really necessary to use that big a hammer to make sure the point goes home.

They say that to a man with a hammer everything begins to look like a nail; to a woman with a shelf full of Elizabethan reference books everything begins to look X-rated?

This annotated edition goes back to the First Folio for spelling and punctuation, for reasons she makes clear and which make good sense. I, however, am using text as found online, to make my life easier. So. In this first scene, there are:

– At least ten words and phrases which are defined as also meaning “buggers” or “fucks” or “screws”: grieves, shake me up, be naught, pezant/peasant; trained; “it” means “sex”; foil; give him the payment; go; search (to search is to probe, so there you go)
– At least five words and phrases which are defined as also meaning sodomy/sodomize/be sodomized: endure; villaine (eunuch, or pathic, which I now know is the passive participant in sodomy); offend; be patient; old dog (as in “be used like an”)
– At least six words and phrases which are defined as also meaning penis: (spirit; that; part; grace (with disgrace meaning castration); thing; life)
– There is a “shit” theme, too: “It”, besides meaning sex, also means “chamberpot”; somehow “nearer to his reverence” relates to turds in some way; “elder”, as in “elder brother”, is a purgative (a derivative of the elder tree); rankness; “clear all” is the equivalent to a purging; Kindle = candle = suppository = Orlando is a piece of shit. (I’m not tempted to change the name of my Kindle.)

“His horses are bred better” – “Horses” is a homonym for “whores”, of course.

“He lets me feed with his hinds” – with a little acrobatic definition of “hinds” it means that Oliver makes an ass of Orlando.

Take the line “I will no longer endure it”. Rather than meaning simply that he’s mad as hell and not gonna take this any more, it becomes something else entirely: He will no longer endure it = he will no longer be a “patient”, or “sodomite”, and suffer – allow himself to be buggered, as “it” is (as aforementioned) the sexual act.

Oliver asks Orlando if, having been given a pittance, he will beg when that is spent – and “spent” is made to refer to ejaculation, because “that” means penis.

Orlando says he will “buy my fortunes” – which refers to Lady Fortune, and Lady Fortune’s buy or bay = vagina.

“Some part of your will” = “On the other hand, perhaps Oliver means to fulfill his own will (lust, libido…) by giving Orlando’s part (‘division in the buttocks’…) his part (penis, testicles, and semen…) – i.e., to ‘fuck’ him.”

“Her cousin so loves her, being ever from their cradles bred together”: cousins = harlots; together = mutually engaged, as lovers; and that they “bred” (cherish, foster) each other’s cradles (vaginas): therefore Rosalind and Celia are lovers.

“Either you might stay him from his intendment or brook such disgrace well as he shall run into” = If Orlando “persists in his intendment” (“a purpose, an intent”…), he will suffer intendment (i.e. “be screwed”). “Tent” is “the penis” … to “tent” is “to probe”… Orlando will brook (bear or suffer) disgrace (sexual violation…) in the such (“pubic-anal area”…)…

“Entrap thee by some treacherous device”: entrap = screw; trap = female pudendum; device = emasculate (vice = penis
All – the whole – hole – arse hole
Nothing remains = nothing is left to do but ensure Orlando gets his remain = balance of sum of money = payment = fucked.

In case it wasn’t clear, many words do double duty, adding layers of profanity to the thing. (Not that kind of thing. The book. Get your mind out of the gutter. Well, no, don’t bother till this is over….)

Bang, bang, bang goes the hammer.

To me this is all a little like reinterpreting Dickens this way:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” = “It”, as we’ve seen, means “penis”, which leads naturally to “worst” as a homonym for “wurst” = sausage = penis. To “best” is to overcome – clearly = sodomy; “times” = rhythm of metronome or beating heart = rhythm = copulation.

Obviously this is not remotely a subtext of Tale of Two Cities – Dickens was a Victorian writing for Victorians, after all – whereas there certainly is a bawdy undertone (and, often, overtone) to Shakespeare. But to pick each word apart from the rest in its sentence and then reconstruct the line with alternate meanings … I don’t buy it. For one thing, it’s exhausting for nearly every line to have hidden significance. For another, context is so completely discounted that I find it hard to credit such verbal calisthenics to Shakespeare, who was, after all, first and foremost a writer.

There is no denying this is a lovely edition; it’s nice to have the play spread out luxuriously over a well-made thick trade paperback, with lots of room to breathe and such thorough annotation. So many paperbacks of the plays seem hell-bent on conserving space, squishing notes on the text into space dictated by the setting of the text itself. If scene ii takes up six pages, then the notes have to fit into whatever room is allotted over those six pages, no matter what. This edition goes in the opposite direction, fitting the play around the notes, and there’s plenty of elbow room for extensive background on allusion and quote. It’s fascinating to read the text as it was printed in the First Folio – and surprising to me how comprehensible it is. (YMMV: I’m a freak, remember.) And I’m impressed to the point of awe at the sheer scope of research that went into this project. I just wish the lterbigreverse-bowdlerism hadn’t been taken to quite this extreme. It puts me in mind of the two opposing images of Elizabeth I: the Virgin Queen, and the story certain anti-Stratfordians favor – that not only was she not literally a Virgin Queen, she slept with just about everyone and had secret bastards littering the landscape. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction: that’s Newton’s Third Law writ simple. This annotation is far beyond equal and opposite.

So: do I agree with this book completely? Obviously not. But c’est la guerre – and Shakepearean scholarship, from my little observation post, really does on occasion resemble warfare. Do I recommend this? Absolutely. The research is impressive and valuable. I look forward to getting hold of the other plays Ms. Papadinis has worked on.

 

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2 Responses to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, edited by Demitra Papadinis

  1. Beatnik Mary says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare lately (I’m doing a Shakespeare in a Year project) and I can’t recommend highly enough Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare on Toast. It’s hands down the best book I’ve ever read about reading Shakespeare. He stresses how Shakespeare’s plays were written for actors–not readers–and that the choices he made with punctuation, capitalization, indentation, metre, even pronouns, were all stage directions to the actors as much as they were part of the writing. It’s absolutely fascinating and completely changed how I read Shakespeare.

  2. stewartry says:

    Thank you for the recommendation! That sounds a lot like Ehren Ziegler of the Chop Bard podcast – it drives him crazy to have Shakespeare classed as literature and for there to be a concentration on simply reading it silently. I love it when he points out the breaks in rhythm which aren’t obvious on the page, but which effect the meaning of the scene. Great stuff.

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