Hamlet: A Verse Translation

ISBN-13 9780983637929
190 pages
Full Measure Press

Previous Article:

Modernizing vs. Dumbing Down

Vocabulary and readability statistics for the Enjoy Shakespeare series

New Friends, False Friends, Strange Partners

Why Shakespeare is Difficult*

(*even if you are really smart)

In "Modernizing vs. Dumbing Down," I provided statistical evidence that translations such as mine do not dumb down Shakespeare. The numbers suggests that my approach will produce a text with a vocabulary range nearly identical to Shakespeare’s and a similar level of syntactic complexity. But this prompts another question. Is this equivalence because Shakespeare's language is not that difficult to begin with?

David Crystal believes it is not and has taken vocabulary figures similar to mine to build his case . Buy his 3000-word dictionary, internalize a few hundred facts about Elizabethan grammar, and you will be able to follow the plays proficiently. His book Think On My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language is one of his efforts to lay out what you need to know.1 While rejecting its central claim, I still recommend the book for anyone teaching Shakespeare. It will straighten you out on the size and nature of Shakespeare’s vocabulary and dispel many of the myths that have grown around Shakespeare’s language.

I doubt, though, that the book’s explanations will make Shakespeare much clearer for most. Language learning just does not work that way. A reader will quickly forget most of the facts by the time they read or see their next Shakespeare play.

New Friends

If the difficult part of Shakespeare extends only to the occasional unfamiliar word, Crystal will seem to have a point. English syntax, of course, has changed a bit, but we are pretty nifty at sifting through mixups in word order if things do not move too quickly. We learned to decipher Yoda’s backwards English a few seconds after we met him in the Empire Strikes Back (“Strong is Vader. Mind what you have learned. Save you it can”). But even one unfamiliar or garbled word in a sentence can render it meaningless. To counter this, Crystal provides statistics on how often we meet words that we do not know in a Shakespeare passage. I will call these unfamiliar words “new friends.”

When I read Hamlet’s 267-word soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1, for example, I am introduced to four new friends—contumely, quietus, fardels and bodkin.2 Contumely and quietus are supposedly still in use though not anywhere near California, where I live. So 4 out of 267 words, or 1.5%, are in the “it’s-anybody’s-guess” category for a retired English teacher from California. Crystal imagines that the load can go as high as 15% before there is a problem. I know of no research in readability that supports that level of new word density. Once the new word load approaches 3-4%, frustration sets in, but at least in this passage the new-word threshold has not been breached.

Crystal assures us that these isolated words are manageable and our understanding will not suffer much as long as we are not too particular about the specifics. To illustrate this, Crystal selects—well, cherry picks— a scene from Act 2, Scene 2 of King Lear where Kent is no doubt piling colorful insults onto Oswald, that “eater of broken meats.” Kent calls him “superserviceable” and “finical” among other slights nearly as impenetrable, but Crystal promises us that as long as we sense these are insults, we’ll get along fine and have a full enough appreciation of what Kent calls the “least syllable of” Oswald’s “addition.”

The magic of "context" supposedly rescues Crystal here. “Don’t use your dictionary. Use context clues. Use your word attack skills,” says the naive language teacher to a class of overwhelmed students. But in order for context to work, readers have to grasp almost 100% of a passage and context clues need to be close by, usually within the same sentence, to be of much use. And during a live performance, anyone hobbling along on the crutch of word attack skills soon falls off the pace.

Distant Friends

New friends are not the only bugs on the windshield. In the previous article, we saw that my translation of Hamlet matched Shakespeare’s original in range of vocabulary and readability. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Scores and Flesch Readability Ease Scores in Table 1 indicate that both versions of Hamlet's soliloquy are readable, adult-level passages. But these readability scores do not directly measure vocabulary frequency. And once we look at vocabulary frequency, Crystal’s thesis looks shaky. It’s the buildup of little bugs, not the splat made by one or two big ones, that makes the windshield difficult to see through.

Table 1: Readability Scores of Hamlet's Soliloquy

Shakespeare’s Version

Richmond’s translation

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level



Flesch Reading Ease*



*lower means more difficult

To analzye the vocabulary range and frequency of Hamlet’s soliloquy, I used the Range program. This software, available from the University of Wellington, compares a text to various lists of English words. The list I used, drawn from the British National Corpus, consists of the 3,875 most common word families in the corpus.3 A word family consists of a base word and its derived forms (such as boat, boated, boating, boats). All told, the list I used has 23,560 words.

The table shows the results of the Range analysis. Shakespeare’s version of the soliloquy shows a 56.0% higher number of less frequent words than my translation.

Table 2: Comparison of Less Frequent Words

Shakespeare’s Version

Richmond’s translation

Total Words*



Less Frequent Words

25 (9.4%)

16 (5.9%)

Words Carrying Content



Ratio of Frequent Content to Less Frequent Words

3.76 to 1

6.44 to 1

Less Frequent Words as % of All Content Words



*The total may be slightly higher than if you count by hand because the Range Program counts 's and contractions as separate words.

Of the 267 words used in Shakespeare’s version, 25 were outside the database. That means one out of every 10.7 words is a less frequent word, or distant friend. My translation runs one out of 16.9, a sizable difference. If we look at words that carry content, it becomes clear why Shakespeare strikes us as difficult. If we remove words that carry little content, the Shakespeare passage now runs a less frequent content word at the reader once every 4.76 content words. That works out to just 3.76 frequent words for every less frequent word. My translation has 6.44 frequent content words for every less frequent word.

A list with 3,875 word families will exclude many thousands of words that an educated speaker will not think of as particularly rare (such as cowards and heartache). But even if we expand the list to include nearly 40,000 of the most frequent words and 7,872 word families, the Shakespeare version still has 12 words outside the list.4 My translation has just 3.

These statistics show why it is such a chore to overcome the difficulty of Shakespeare’s language with word attack skills. The density of less frequent words is simply too high. Language change has forced words that may have been more frequent in Shakespeare’s day farther down the list of words we use today. That fact alone could explain why Shakespeare tires us quickly. Readers and theatergoers have to process a much higher ratio of less frequent words than is comfortable.

False Friends

So far we have looked at the difficulty of Shakespeare in a quantitative way. But a more insidious problem is what teachers call “false friends,” for false friends can hide even among the most frequent words in the language. False friends turn up because words that we think we know have different meanings in Shakespeare, and after 400 years of accumulation, there are a lot of these.

One common “false friend” is the word want. When Romeo says “A thousand times the worse, to want thy light,” he is not saying it is bad to desire Juliet; he fears living without her. Another false friend betrays us when Juliet says,

O, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name….

Of course, we should know better. Our current language still has the phrase the why and the wherefore. But try as we may, the word wherefore makes us think of where and has earned the status as one of the falsest friends in literature. Juliet is not asking “Where are you, Romeo?” She knows where he lives. She is asking why her true love has to be Romeo, an enemy. Misled by this false friend, the inexperienced see Juliet as a dreamy, if not dopey, lovesick adolescent when in fact her first thoughts go directly to the source of her conflict—the hatred between their families.

False friends are so common in Shakespeare that even counting them is a challenge. As a translator, I have learned that no friend can be trusted. What about Polonius’ admonition to “look thou character?” Can you trust “look” and “character?” Better not. It means something like “carefully record this.” In Hamlet’s soliloquy, what do you make of “this mortal coil” or “puzzle the will” or “native hue” or“the pale cast of thought?” With actors bellowing words at you 150 a minute, do you have the time to check the credentials of all these supposed friends?

Strange Partners

And then there are what I call strange partners.

The vocabulary of a language does not consist of words alone, for we all recognize that words often combine to form stable, oft-repeated phrases that express a single concept. Shakespeare contributed many of these “figures of speech” to the English language. When we say someone “vanished into thin air” or “is tongue-tied,” we are quoting Shakespeare. But Shakespeare also used countless expressions that have not survived. Even a careful reader may not pick up that Sampson’s “we’ll not carry coals” means “suffer humiliation patiently” or that “draw your neck out of collar” probably means “avoid a hanging.”

Obviously, Shakespeare loved such colorful phrasing, and they both delight and challenge us today. But Shakespeare, like all speakers do, made heavy use of a much more expansive kind of word partnership, one that linguists call lexical phrases, or collocations. A collocation is a word that tends to appear next to or near a particular vocabulary item. Some words partner with too many collocates to list. The color-word blue partners with nearly anything that is conceivably bluish. The color-word blond accepts few partners. We speak of blond hair but not a blond cup.

Knowing these partnerships is essential for communicating effectively and quickly. Take, for example, what you know about the word evidence. The noun evidence partners with the noun piece as in a piece of evidence, with verbs such as present, collect, find, hear, and provide, and adjectives such as convincing, damaging, incriminating, strong, and anecdotal. The sentence She presented several pieces of convincing evidence sounds quite natural to us and we can quickly process it. But what if I said it this way: She transmitted multiple slices of inducing evidence. The sentence seems creative but is so collocationally deviant that we struggle to figure out its meaning.

David Crystal believes that collocations help us decipher new friends and spot false friends. Because we partner the verb play with chess and other games, Crystal says we will know that tray-tip is a game when we hear Sir Toby say in Twelfth Night, “Shall I play my freedom at tray-tip and become thy bondslave?” I suppose the most intrepid of theatergoers, after 40 pages of this kind of detective work, would still be up to the task.

But collocations are just as likely to add even more bugs to the windshield. Rather than clarify the meaning of a false friend, they can obscure the relationships between words we might know. A good many of the more fixed type of lexical phrases, what we often call “expressions,” can be centuries out-of-fashion. Some examples are in fine (“to conclude”), make that good (“explain that”), say’st me so (‘you don’t mean that”), by mine honest (“truly”), and hundreds more. Naturally, our understanding suffers because these phrases are essential for linking ideas and showing speaker attitude.

And that brings us to strange partners. Strange partners occur when Shakespeare partners words outside of our expectation. Strange partners may sound odd and complicate our ability to determine which sense of the word Shakespeare intended. The word great, for instance, takes on unexpected partners in Shakespeare’s plays: great persuasion, great preservation, great of birth, a great natural, great leaves fall, great creation, great prediction, and great aspect. When he used great, did he mean gigantic, large, extensive, plentiful, high-ranking, extraordinary, chief, or main? Or consider all the things that Shakespeare’s characters can bear. They can bear a bang, bear fire, bear a good night, bear a poison, bear the balance, bear a gentle mind, bear my countenance, bear your fortune, bear such idleness, and so forth. Context, of course, can help us decide which of the 14 different senses of the word listed in Crystal’s dictionary Shakespeare intended, but since bear does not partner the same way today as it did in Shakespeare’s mind, we need extra time to sort through the possibilites.

In Hamlet’s soliloquy, strange partners turn up regularly, especially as the speech proceeds. The first few lines are so famous that the word partners are familiar to us. Most of us handle “nobler in the mind” and “suffer the slings and arrows” without much struggle. For that reason, I did not translate them. Later, as we venture into the part of the speech we have not memorized, the partnerships seem a little stranger. We’ll encounter “the spurns that patient merit of th’unworthy takes….”  I know I will need a few precious seconds to parse that sequence correctly, to link take to spurns, decide that of could mean from, and that takes means something like “is dealt.” Even if I can straighten out the Yoda-like English of the underlying proposition—Patient merit takes spurns from the unworthy—I am still not sure what patient merit means. Would Crystal say it is enough to know that Hamlet is fretting about something? Is Shakespeare great because the specifics do not matter?

If Only Our Schools....

Crystal believes understanding Shakespeare gets down to better schooling and that lessons in Elizabethan English will pay off in greater comprehension. But Crystal grossly overestimates our ability to retain language we do not use and underestimates the processing power it requires to understand Shakespeare on the fly. He provides an anecdote about elementary school children grasping a passage of Romeo and Juliet in the classroom, but these children are experiencing Shakespeare at the level of a Sunday School lesson covering a Bible verse. He provides no evidence that educated adults, let alone pre-teens, tagging along to a Shakespeare play will understand much beyond the gist. If it takes 4-6 weeks of handholding in a classroom for our brighter students to grasp a play that lasts a few few hours on a stage, that's evidence that our students are operating at the frustration level. And it means we will have to limit severely how much Shakespeare students are exposed to.

Certainly, students should experience Shakespeare’s originals to get a sense of the language’s history. We show them a few lines of what Beowulf looks like in Old English and a few verses of Chaucer in Middle English. Then we have them read literary translations because we want them to have a wide exposure to the content of this literature. Likewise, let’s have our students read part of a play in Shakespeare’s original, but then let’s speed things up a bit. Instead of reading just two or three plays in high school, why not read literary translations of most of Shakespeare’s major works? Who knows more about Shakespeare? A kid who spent six weeks on Romeo and Juliet in the 9th grade and another six on Macbeth in the 12th? Or is it a kid who, after reading a few scenes in the original, covered in those same twelve weeks ten Shakespeare plays in translation—four tragedies, three comedies, two histories, and the Tempest? Are Crystal and others unknowingly keeping our children away from the great gems of English literature? Are they letting a fetish for one variety of English cloud their thinking? Is Shakespeare a great writer only in Elizabethan English? Can't he be as great when translated into another language or dialect?

Kent Richmond

To get a sense of how frequently new friends, distant friends, false friends, and strange partners add bugs to the windshield in a passage, I have visually altered Hamlet’s soliloquy to highlight those elements. New friends and false friends receive coloration. Distant friends are bold-face, and strange partners are strike-through with italics to show non-adjacent partners. I have also underlined areas where the syntax is different or an element seems to be missing or added.


To be or not to be—that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?—To die…to sleep—

No more—and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to,—'tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—

To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffledoff this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment,

With this regard, their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.


1 You can find a debate between linguists John McWhorter and David Crystal over the need for translation at David Crystal's website. [return to article]

2 David Crystal accuses John McWhorter and others of "cherry picking" difficult passages to show the need for translation. I chose a famous, familiar, and accessible passage in order to avoid the accusation of picking a notoriously difficult one. [return to article]

3 I used baseword lists 1-5 for this analysis. [return to article]

4 I used baseword lists 1-8 for this analysis. [return to article]