A couple of years ago I picked up Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary & Language Companion by David and Ben Crystal at a huge used book store in Jacksonville, FL. I am fan of Henry V and Shakespeare’s love sonnets. Those last one’s were especially helpful while dating my wife. In any case, when I saw this book I thought it worth the price given its comprehensive nature and its relevance to the English in the KJV.
In reading the preface to this work, written by Stanley Wells, I am surprised by the faithfulness of the Shakespeare scholars in their retention of the original language of Shakespeare’s work. Even with all the supposed False Friends many scholars and readers continue to insist on the use of the Early Modern English. In fact, it looks like such has been the case for centuries. Consider the following observations from the aforementioned preface,
“Throughout the twentieth century anyone concerned with Shakespeare’s language has had to rely essentially on out-of-date works deriving from the nineteenth century.”
That’s right folks, while 20th century students of Shakespeare are willing to study and even limp along on “out-of-date works” taken from the prior century, English-speaking Christians at the same time are told in the academy that the same Early Modern English in which the KJV is written is simply too difficult to understand even with mountains of commentaries, study helps, and hours of preaching – all contemporary.
In sum, Shakespearian academics continue to labor under “out-of-date” sources and while Christian academics can’t stop complaining about the same English as it appears in the KJV.
The major out-of-date source in Shakespearian studies was Alexander Schmidt’s two-volume set Shakespeare-Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary. Wells observes though that both of Schmidt’s works were
“completed without the benefit of the great Oxford English Dictionary.”
Schmidt’s work was finished nearly 50 years before the completion of the OED. In fact, 10 years after Schmidt had completed his work the OED was only to entry “ant”. Again, Shakespeare studies move forward with the OED while it seems Mark Ward, 150 years later and with the power of the internet, can hardly make an argument against the KJV without referring back to the OED. My point is, that neither updated sources nor the OED were necessary to do the work of Shakespeare studies and that without the internet, but Ward and those like him plead with KJV advocates to abandon their version of the Bible even though they have updated sources, the OED, and the internet.
So what has all this done for Shakespearian studies? Wells observes,
In the long period since the origination of Schimdt’s and Onion’s works, attitudes to Shakespeare’s text and to his language have changed, his readership has broadened, and the needs of readers have evolved alongside changes in the English language.”
So instead of shrinking because of that “unintelligible Early Modern English”, we see that the readership of Shakespeare has broadened. So what’s the deal? Why is it that readership broadens in Shakespeare but we are told by most evangelical scholarship that the KJV is simply too hard to understand and will drive people away? Me thinks it is not the language that is the issue but the Christian academic attitude and commentary about the language that is the issue.
But what about translations? Shouldn’t we have a translation of Shakespeare so that the plowboy can understand it? Wells observes,
“Every so often it is suggested that the time has come for Shakespeare to be translated into modern English.”
Yes, that is right folks, even Shakespeare students have their own Mark Wards.
In response, Wells observes,
“Though it is true that those who read the plays in foreign translation have an advantage over modern readers in the part of the work of comprehension has been done for them by the translator, the ambitious scope of the present study should not cause readers to suppose that Shakespeare is a closed book to all but readers who have undertaken laborious study of the language in which he wrote and of his particular use of it.”
Again, the comparison is stark. Ward tells us the KJV is a “closed book” to all but readers who have undertaken laborious study, but Wells here tells us that such is not the case in reading Shakespeare. It’s almost like Shakespeare students are smarter or more committed or more diligent than Christians in their study of the Bible. Either that or Mark Ward is simply off base.
On the point of study, what are we to do about the words we don’t know, or the word’s we don’t know we don’t know? Are we to throw out Shakespeare? Are we to update Shakespeare. What would Wells have us to do?
“As David and Ben Crystal acknowledge, ‘it is perfectly possible to go to a Shakespeare play, with little or no awareness of Early Modern English and have a great time.'”
If you find reading Shakespeare difficult, go hear someone speak it and with little or no awareness of Early Modern English you’ll have a great time. So Wells calls for more study. /GASP And what kind of study should you undertake? Go hear someone use the language in context. As Wells puts it,
“In the theatre, difficulties experienced on the page can melt away in the mediating solvent of the actor’s understanding.”
In like manner, in the church service, difficulties experienced on the page of Scripture can melt away in the mediating solvent of the pastor’s understanding and the Spirit’s teaching.
In sum, Wells resists everyone one of Mark Ward’s arguments regarding the KJV by commenting on the availability and enjoyment of Shakespeare.
Unfortunately, we see again that “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” [Luke 18:8]