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Shakespeare’s bawdy

William Shakespeare was baptized on this day in 1564 and what a life he led before he died at the age of 52 on April 23, 1616. He explored love and sex in his plays with a detailed vividness that leaves Masters and Johnson looking pretty skimpy, writes Simon Callow in the Guardian.

The Elizabethans were as prurient as the stereotypical Victorians were prudish. They loved bawdy and double entendre — and Shakespeare had to entertain his audience.

Sexual desire is rampant in the opening lines of A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Theseus tells Hippolyta he is impatient about having to wait four more days for their wedding. She says the days will pass quickly. Look at the imagery they use.

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Shakespeare On The Double! The Bard in plain English

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Shakespeare On The Double! Twelfth Night translated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

The greatest English playwright in plain English at long last! Now I can understand every word written by the Bard as long as I have a copy of Shakespeare On The Double! in my hand.

Shakespeare On The Double! The unusual format of this paperback edition of Shakespeare's plays makes him as easy to read as any current bestseller. Facing every page of the original text is another page which "translates" the text into modern English.

So on one page you have the original text:

If music be the food of love, play on…

On the facing page is the "translation":

If love feeds on music, play more music.

I am quoting the opening words of Twelfth Night (play, synopsis) spoken by Duke Orsino and "translated by" Mary Ellen Snodgrass.

It may not sound like Shakespeare. But the translation is useful when you run into more complex passages less easy to understand.

There are passages whose meanings might have been perfectly clear to Shakespeare's contemporaries but which have to be explained to us.

Take these words of Viola in Twelfth Night, for instance. She confesses her love for Duke Orsino to Olivia's jester, Feste. But here is the rub. She is disguised as a young man – and neither the duke nor the jester suspects she is a woman. And yet her confession draws no response from the jester. He merely asks her to wait while he informs his mistress that she has brought a message from the duke.

It is a dramatic moment – a "young man" confessing his love for another man. But we may not catch the meaning in the original text:

CLOWN: Now, Jove, in his next commodity of hair
send thee a beard!

VIOLA: By my troth, I'll tell thee, I'm almost sick
for one — (aside) though I would not have it grow on
my chin. Is thy lady within?

Snodgrass' translation makes the meaning clear.

CLOWN: When God passes out hair, I hope he gives you a beard.

VIOLA: I confide to you that I am lovesick for a man. (VIOLA in private) But I don't want hair on my chin. Is the Countess at home?

I have read Arden and other annotated editions which are useful for classroom studies, explaining words and phrases and allusions, putting Shakespeare in perspective.

But for simple enjoyment of his plays, Shakespeare On The Double! is hard to beat. The simple English translation is fun to read and makes one appreciate Shakespeare all the more. This could be a good companion to annotated editions for classroom studies as well.

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Shakespeare and his women

Shakespeare It’s a pity Shakespeare (1564-1616) is no longer compulsory reading in Singapore schools. So many girls here have the perfect figure to play the boy-girl roles of Shakespeare’s comedies. No offence meant. It’s just that Shakespeare is taken so seriously it throws people off. Lighten up, please, Shakespeare wrote for entertainment. One may ask where’s the fun in King Lear or Hamlet. Well, for now, I will confine myself to the comedies only.

The choice may seem curious, particularly on this day which may or may not be his birthday but is certainly his death anniversary. But we all have our favourites and I prefer the comedies.

I just commented on the figures of the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies. Obviously they couldn’t be DD cups if they had to pass themselves off as young men, which they did so well that other women fell in love with them. Much of the fun in Shakespeare’s comedies comes from the sexual confusion of the characters in the plays. In Twelfth Night, Orsino woos Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, who is in love with Orsino. No, Olivia isn’t a lesbian, she sees Viola dressed as the youth, Cesario. Now there’s no way Viola could have passed off as a youth if she had DD cups. Rosalind, in As You Like It, couldn’t have had an hourglass figure either — or she wouldn’t have been able to dress up as the young man, Ganymede. Not even her father, the Duke, nor her lover, Orlando, can recognise her.

One wonders about the men in Shakespeare’s comedies. They are silly putty in the women’s hands! Excluding Prospero the magician in The Tempest, of course. That’s why I love the comedies. They get the sex thing so right! I know, being a married man myself. Not that my wife could have ever passed herself off as a young man. Thank goodness, I wouldn’t have liked being fooled like Orlando!

But my wife has the same high spirits and vivacity as Rosalind. That’s what’s so attractive about the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies — their wit and vivacity and high spirits. I think that’s what Shakespeare prized most about women. He couldn’t have been one of those gentlemen who prefer blondes. The Dark Lady of his sonnets had to be a brunette. She could have even been black, according to the writer William Boyd. Shakespeare, of course, expressed mixed feelings about the Dark Lady. But the exotic appealed to him. Otherwise how could his most celebrated heroine be the Egyptian Cleopatra? He was alive to sexual attractions across colour lines and their tensions too, or he wouldn’t have written Othello. But I am straying from the comedies.

My wife prefers the tragedies. After all, she teaches Shakespeare in her college in Calcutta (Kolkata). But I prefer the high jinks of the comedies. And the fun doesn’t stop at cross-dressing. There are other complications too. Think of the shenanigans in the wood near Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Act II, Scene 2 and Act III, Scenes 1 and 2.

Shakespeare can be bawdy but not lascivious. I haven’t read Venus and Adonis and his Poems so I don’t really know, but I don’t think he wrote anything as explicit as some of the passages in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. 

My Shakespeare is far from perfect but I am grateful we had to do Shakespeare in school in India. So did my son for his Indian School Certificate examination before going to college in America last year. He and I both read Julius Caesar but he also had to read The Tempest.

By the way, yesterday was Lenin’s birthday.