A Tale of Two (or many…) Texts

I’ve heard it said there is no subtext in Shakespeare; everyone means what they say because the language is all. To this person, I say, “Oh! I guess you haven’t encountered sarcasm yet? Allow me to introduce you…” Language is not always direct. Shakespeare’s characters are coy, sarcastic, and often in disguise, costumed or no. Fools delight in double-speak to incite laughter, traitors excel at deceit to create tragedy, lovers employ double entendre to pursue their desires.

Words are mutable, not only because of delivery, but because of the passage of time. Will the Kit Marlowe references in AYLI move you because of his recent death? I’m guessing not, but I’m not going to replace these lines with Michael Jackson quotes to attempt to align our audience response with that of Shakespeare’s original crowd. It’s just not possible. Some authorial intent is only recoverable by scholarship.

But that’s not to say I’m giving up on mining those archaic words and allusions for their original meaning. That’s the challenge and the beauty. We’re still wonderfully adaptive with our language, as evidenced by the new-found, widespread ability to “heart” things. Regardless how archaic or new a word may be, its meaning remains communicable. It’s about spying all the opportunities to convey meaning within, between, and off the lines.

For example, “sluttishness” does not have the precise denotation in AYLI as it does now. “Sluttish” was used by Chaucer to describe an unkempt man. The term became associated exclusively with untidy women or female servants — “sluttes” or “slatterns.” Though Merriam-Webster’s website still lists a second definition for “slut” akin to “slovenly” and “sluttish” retains its “untidy” meaning for some in the UK, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone uttering the word in Evanston to mean anything but “sexually promiscuous” or “female dog.”

If our man onstage says “slut” onstage in an argument with a woman, you’re going to assume the same. Is it worth it to attempt to save the “untidy” meaning of “slut?” We don’t lose much by doing away with it – Audrey takes offense at Touchstone mentioning sluts, and the subject of sexual promiscuity is part of the debate. But there’s an opportunity to salvage it, if only a little: Audrey has a very different vocabulary than Touchstone. The country bumpkin might misconstrue the fool’s “courtly” definition of a slut as much as the modern audience might miss Elizabethan shades of meaning. It only lasts a moment, but we make this parallel misunderstanding part of the conflict onstage.

It’s just one way to embrace the two texts at work in any Shakespearean performance: the play’s words and the audience’s experience.

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