Who says they can’t read Shakespeare?

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The moment of inspiration came during an otherwise unremarkable breakfast in January 2010. I’d been mulling over a charge against Shakespeare; ‘intellectual snobbery’. Suddenly, as I went about my daily business, I knew then what I must do; ‘I must chill Shakespeare,’ I told myself ‘I must bring him to both the journeyman and the artisan. To the bankers and the breadmakers, for the gentleman and the gangsters…’

Developing the concept became a daily ritual. I wanted to see what else was out there and what their shortcomings were; it seemed to me that the mistake made by pioneers before me – Sparknotes, for instance – was that they had a habit of reducing Shakespeare to a poor soap opera of its former glory, by simplifying words to lesser equivalents. Furthermore there was a total absence of annotations, that is to say of references to specific historical fact. Without those, all that has been achieved is a gratuitous vanity on behalf of the author. Who could ever possibly hope to compete with the sheer perfection Shakespeare provides in his own choice of words? My blood curdles to think how many students simply read the translation and not the original Shakespeare when using these ‘guides’…

Furthermore, turn to any classroom edition of Shakespeare and you will find a pitiful little area devoted to terminology, probably no more than 8 – 12 definitions per page and even those are often ambiguous. I wanted to create something authentic, something comprehensive, something that could be used and enjoyed by both the veteran enthusiast and new-comer alike. So I chose three of my favourite plays – three tragedies – and set to work…

That summer, till late at night and from early in the morning, I was hunched over my laptop, some thirty various editions of Shakespeare stacked about me like it were Prospero’s cell, as I furiously worked through phrase-by-phrase, line-by-line, unusual-word-by-unusual-word.
Etymology quests became a matter of routine. It took approximately 3 hours to write a first draft for 16 lines, let alone the weeks or months spent brewing over the more baffling script. Every critical detail had to be addressed, every ‘specific-apparent-meaning’ defined. I put the annotations in brackets and filled the space between with more simple re-arrangements of grammar. Where adjectives or phrases of a particularly complex or ambiguous nature were used, I turned to thesauri to help me capture the core meaning. Often I would use the words from George Steevens or William Warburton’s, John Payne Collier or Alexander Dyce’s, Samuel Johnson or Edmond Malone’s very own annotations! This is an art, which require a careful series of words which must ‘trap’ the centralised meaning for the reader. We see this methodology used at the beginning and end of dictionary definitions.

Wherever there were conflicting ideas about what lines meant – or especially all those double / triple / quadruple meanings – I carefully accounted for each in turn: ‘she is stirring : 1. getting up out of bed 2. sexually arousing’ (Othello 3.1) or ‘he will prove a dear husband : 1. worthy 2. he will prove expensive for she will pay for his jealousy’ (Othello 2.1). Of course, Hamlet had by far the most multiples. ‘I know a hawk from a handsaw’ (Hamlet 2.2) achieved a whole page of explanation and many days of research besides. It was also interesting to see how many respectable sources and commentaries had missed the mark; the sun breeding maggots in a dead dog is a typical example of a much misunderstood line.

All in all, it was a tedious, tiring, difficult, up-hill struggle. Even when I had finished my first draft I spent the next year reassessing every page, adding new notes and ideas I had come across and generally refining the format. Googlebooks gave me access to different kinds of rare Shakespeare annotations – hundreds of years old – and to my delight I discovered a one-hundred and fifty year old private printed edition of my great-uncle’s, who incidentally, was also called Humphrey.

I wanted to create a resource, a tool. Both for the expert and the novice. Something that offered simplicity yet detail, clarity yet subtlety. I am not sure if I achieved that quite yet but one thing is for sure; I learnt a hell of a lot about Shakespeare along the way. If you would like to check out my work click here.

Humphrey Bartosik’s versions of Romeo and Juliet and Othello are available from The Shakespeare Bookshop. To purchase one and have it posted directly to you, please just send an e-mail to bookshop@shakespeare.org.uk

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Humphrey Bartosik is the creative director of African film-making company Sarras Production. He is also the co-founder of .44 Calibre Shakespeare. http://44calibreshakespeare.com http://sarrasproduction.com Twitter @DailyBard

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