Polonious. […] What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet. Words, words, words. (Hamlet, 2. 2. 191-192).
In the late nineties, as a student of English Language and Literature at La Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, I had the honour to attend a couple of courses which were held by Agostino Lombardo, Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Humanistic Sciences and one of the most eminent specialist of Shakespeare’s works and “Words” in my country.
As a scholar and translator of some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays ─ Antonio and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Macbeth and Hamlet, to name a few, he used to stress the importance of respecting the scripts and considered their historical context as well as criticism. He kept on repeating to us, with his quiet and deep voice, that, while reading, or analysing and studying Shakespeare’s plays one should never forget to give due importance to his “words”, which is to say, their etymological and poetical meanings as well as the sentence structure Shakespeare had chosen, with extreme attention, to compose his verses.
Professor Lombardo believed that Shakespeare wrote every single verse-line by carefully selecting its “words”, without ‘leaving it up to fate’. When translating Shakespeare, he was cautioned interpretations and misreadings of dialogues and monologues. For example, you can still find in Italy translations of the verse “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer” rendered into Italian as if the true meaning were (in English) “Whether he is nobler in the mind to suffer” ─ but who is the he being referred to in this translation? Well, that is the question.
More than ten years have passed since I took my B.A. – and two thirds of my life so far – since I started reading, studying, and Shakespeare’s works, and my dear late Professor Lombardo’s words are always vivid in my mind, not only concerning the problems of translation, but also the critical issues raised by native English-speaking scholars and Shakespeare studies too.
I recently bought a copy of a book which was first published in 1935: What Happens in ‘Hamlet’, by John Dover Wilson.
But I don’t to talk here about a critical text that most of Shakespeare’s readers and scholars surely know ─ and can discuss ─ far better than I. I just wanted to share my passion and my continually renewed awareness about the Shakespeare’s plays, while introducing myself to the public of Blogging Shakespeare, choosing a book as a symbol to illustrate what Shakespeare means to me. He is the most honest author ever who is able, like no other, to build terrific worlds with his plays, using “only” words, while declaring now and then in his works that words are, after all, useless, because lead to, among other things, endless interpretation.
And this book, first published man years ago, serves, in my opinion, as a good example of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal. To John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in ‘Hamlet’ I would add Lettura del Macbeth by my former professor, Agostino Lombardo, and Shakespeare: The invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World and James Shapiro’s Contested Will and 1599 can be added to represent biographical studies and the authorship discussion.
I just wanted to mention some must-read texts which so far have really helped me to understand Shakespeare and his Universe, whether they are made of ink and paper or of people, places and events.