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by Richard Nilsen
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We are losing Shakespeare. He is standing on the dock and our boat is drifting off into a fog; we look back and it becomes harder and harder to make out his figure standing there.
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What is happening to the Bard is what has already happened to Chaucer and what has now completely obscured the author of Beowulf. Our drifting boat is

Beowulf

language, and language drifts over time.

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So, what are fardels? A bare bodkin?
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And when Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, why do so many want to answer: “Here! Here I am.” Many an actress speaks the words “Wherefore ART thou, Romeo?” when it needs to be “Wherefore art thou ROMEO?” “Why are you Romeo, when any other name would be better?”
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“Now is the winter of our discontent” gets pulled out of context to mean, “We have arrived at the winter of our discontent,” when it is really just a noun-phrase and implies exactly the opposite: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”
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Words disappear and change meaning. When Hamlet says, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” the word “conscience” did not mean Jiminy Cricket. “Conscience” meant “consciousness,” and specifically “self awareness.” It wasn’t his scruples that prevented the Dane from killing Claudius, but his awareness of unintended consequences — in other words, what the whole soliloquy is about.
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By the way, fardels are burdens, something you might carry around, like a hobo’s bindle or an Aussie swagman’s  matilda.
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As for a bodkin, nowadays it is a type of sewing needle, but in Shakespeare’s time and before, it was a dagger. Chaucer says that “with bodkins was Julius Caesar murdered.” And in John Stow’s Chronicles (1565), it says “The chief worker of this murder was Brutus Cassius, with two hundred and sixty of the Senate all having bodkins in their sleeves.”
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A quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore tracks the etymology. In A Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakspeare and his Contemporaries Traced Etymologically to the Ancient Language of the British People as Spoken Before the Irruption of the Danes and Saxons, by Charles Mackay, printed in London in 1887, tells us that “bodkin” can be traced to the Gaelic biodag, a dagger, “But the anterior root is the Keltic and Gaelic bod, a sharp point that pricks, whencebodachean, a sharp-pointed instrument.”
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I can’t help quoting the rest of the entry, for a good laugh at Victorian squeamishness: “On this radical [root] word, that exists in many Asiatic as well as European languages, might be founded an instructive examination into the occult and deeply comprehensive meaning of the root words of all languages, starting from the fact thatbod signifies not only a point that pricks, but the divinely ordered instrument of human propagation, which none but physicians speak of without rendering themselves liable to the imputation of indecency and impropriety.
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As in, “Look at the bod on that lifeguard!”
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The first Shakespeare play I ever saw live was Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., when I was in seventh or eighth grade. It made quite an impression, but I was confused at several points, not the least wondering what kind of sect might be called “sleep-o-nights.” Was it like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks? I suppose my confusion counts as a minor mondegreen. “Let me have men about me such as sleep o’ nights,” says Caesar. I tried for years to figure out who these people were.
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We also studied in class the Merchant. I was spared the horror of Romeo and Juliet, the play that misguided educators believe is the best way to engage teenagers with Elizabethan drama. Then they have to explain what the underage protagonists were doing all night long together in Juliet’s  bedroom. Remember, when I was that age, it was at an era when the Rolling Stones had to bowdlerize the lyrics of “spend the night together” on Ed Sullivan, turning them into “spend some time together.” Mrs. Grundy, indeed.
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Shakespeare’s plays are not so far gone that a great performance cannot strike home. When excellent actors speak the lines, they can still make the dialog sound like conversation instead of declamation. But much verbiage will have to be glossed over by the audience, asked to parse out the meaning by context.
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Certainly it is more than just language that distances us from Shakespeare. Culture has moved, too. It is difficult to hear the implicit anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice, and it takes a wrenching deconstruction to make Taming of the Shrew bearable in a time of failing patriarchy.
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And then there are all those kings and dukes. When the exploits of the feckless Windsors fill tabloids, it is hard to sympathize with authoritarian monarchs offing each other and demanding succession for their kin.
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But more than anything, it is the language that makes the problem. Not just vocabulary, but speech patterns have changed, and continue to change over time. Just to beat a dead horse, compare Harry and St. Crispin’s Day with the incoherent ramblings of a certain orange president.
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Even ordinary people used to speak and write with more formality than we encounter today. Listen to those Civil War letters recited in the Ken Burns documentary and marvel at the elaborate sentence structures and the casually assumed cultural references. Or listen to one of those scratchy Edison recordings of politicians in the late 19th century or early 20th century and hear in them the rhetoric of Cicero translated to English. To speak like that nowadays is to court derision and perhaps a skit onSaturday Night Live.
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The French have an answer to all this impermanence in language: The Académie Française, which has the official power to define and preserve the French tongue. Or try. The conservatism of the Academie has been a losing battle in the internet age.
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Language always changes, sometimes quickly, sometimes over centuries. We have a faulty idea that Latin was the same in the days of Brutus as it was in the time of Nero or later, as written by Augustine. All of these Latins were different. And, of course, regional Latins morphed into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. They continue to morph (despite the Académie Française).
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So, is there anything we can do about it? Not really. Consider the speech of your teenage children, which sometimes seems like a foreign language. Their children will subsequently mystify them. And so it goes.
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Even the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt shifted over the centuries, despite the astonishing conservatism of that culture.
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So, when I hear complaints about the singular “their” or the use of “hopefully,” or “less” instead of “fewer,” I cannot get all pedantic. These are evolutions in our language. After all, there used to be a distinction made between “will” and “shall.” No one pays any attention to that anymore, nor should they. “Thou” and “thee” are still there to be used if wanted, but you would sound like a Shakespeare, and he lived 400 years ago. Tempus fugit.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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