Monday, May 23, 2005

Speak the Speech

Having taught high school and college drama, one of the biggest complaints I got from students was that the works of William Shakespeare were hard to understand because the language was archaic and the meanings of words then didn’t have the same meanings they did today. Indeed, even scholars well-versed in the language of the Elizabethan era still ponder over the meaning and syntax of words and phrases, much as our descendants five centuries from now will wonder what we were talking about. Even a simple phrase such as “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene 2) has been misinterpreted for centuries — Juliet isn’t wondering where her wandering boy is; she’s wondering why he’s named Romeo Montague. And that’s a simple bit of text; imagine how hard it is to understand some of the Shakespearean version of inside-the-Beltway humor and political intrigue, not to mention the fact that Shakespeare and Company were writing under the watchful eye of a monarch or two who wasn’t above taking forceful retribution against those who pissed them off. The works of Shakespeare have provided scholars with enough dramaturgy to keep grad schools running doctoral programs in theatre and English for years.

I bring that up because the King James version of the Bible — the source authority for most, if not all of the Christian teachings today — was commissioned by King James I in 1611. Assuming the language, grammar, syntax, and phrasing used to translate the Bible into English was the same as that used by Shakespeare, why is it that a great number of Bible-quoting Christianists who scratch their head at the meaning of Shakespeare and couldn’t sit through a production of Hamlet with a gun pointed at their head have absolutely no problem whatsoever knowing the exact meaning of every word in the King James Bible? They can quote chapter and verse, tell you exactly what the Lord God Jehovah meant when he said them, and claim with a straight face that those words are absolutely true. They blithely ignore the research of theologists and lexicographers going back several centuries who point out omissions (both unintentional and otherwise), poor sourcing, and just plain typos in the translation of the original work and base their faith and subsequent interpretations of scripture on this beautifully poetic but flawed work.

It’s probably a case of wishing-making-it-so, but as Shakespeare’s Sister points out (and who would know better?), it’s probably a stellar example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.