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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Asimov Isaac

«Asimov’s Guide To Shakespear. Volume 1», Isaac Asimov



Volume OneThe Greek, Roman, and Italian Plays


Those of us who speak English as our native tongue can count a number of blessings. It is a widespread language that is understood by more people in more parts of the world than any other [Chinese has more speakers than English, but it is understood on a large scale only in eastern and southeastern Asia] and it is therefore the language that is most nearly an open door to all peoples.

Its enormous vocabulary and its relatively simple grammar give it un-equaled richness and flexibility and more than make up for its backward spelling. Its hospitality to idiomatic phrases and to foreign words gives it a colorful and dramatic quality that is without peer.

But most of all, we who speak English can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare, a man who is certainly the supreme writer through all the history of English literature and who, in the opinion of many, is the greatest writer who ever lived-in any language.

Indeed, so important are Shakespeare's works that only the Bible can compare with them in their influence upon our language and thought. Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms. (There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first tune and said, "I don't see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.")

I have a feeling that Shakespeare has even acted as a brake on the development of English. Before his time, English was developing so rapidly that the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, written shortly before 1400, had become unreadably archaic, two centuries later, to the Englishmen of Shakespeare's time. Yet now, after three and a half centuries, Shakespeare's plays can be read quite easily and with only an occasional archaic word or phrase requiring translation. It is almost as though the English language dare not change so much as to render Shakespeare incomprehensible. That would be an unacceptable price to pay for change.

In this respect, Shakespeare is even more important than the Bible. The King James version of the Bible is, of course, only a translation, although a supremely great one. If it becomes archaic there is nothing to prevent newer translations into more modern English. Indeed, such newer translations exist.

How, though, can anyone ever dream of "translating" Shakespeare into "modern English"? That would do, perhaps, if one were merely interested in the contents of Shakespeare. (It is, by analogy, in the contents of the Bible that we are interested, not in its exact syllables.)

But who can bear to have nothing more than the contents of Shakespeare's plays? What translation, even merely from one form of English into another form, could possibly reproduce the exact music and thunder of Shakespeare's syllables, and without that-

Yet in one respect Shakespeare recedes from us no matter how faithfully we follow the very syllables he uses. He wrote for all time, yes (whether he knew it or not), but he also wrote for a specific audience, that of Elizabethan Englishmen and -women. He gave its less educated individuals the horseplay and slapstick they enjoyed, and he gave its more educated individuals a wealth of allusion.

He assumed the educated portion of the audience were thoroughly grounded in Greek and Roman mythology and history, since that was part (and, indeed, almost the whole) of the classical education of the upper classes of the time. He assumed, also, that they were well acquainted with England's own history and with the geography of sixteenth-century Europe.

Modern Americans, however, are for the most part only vaguely aware of Greek mythology or Roman history. If anything, they are even less aware of those parts of English history with which Shakespeare deals.

This is not to say that one cannot enjoy Shakespeare without knowing the historical, legendary, or mythological background to the events in his plays. There is still the great poetry and the deathless swing of his writing. -And yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing was about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment?

This is what it is in my mind to do in this book.

It is not my intention to discuss the literary values of the plays, or to analyze them from a theatrical, philosophical, or psychological point of view. Others have done this far beyond any poor capacity I might have in that direction.

What I can do, however, is to go over each of the thirty-eight plays and two narrative poems written by Shakespeare in his quarter century of literary life, and explain, as I go along, the historical, legendary, and mythological background.