Twelfth Night: A Verse Translation
A flighty duke, a scrappy female in disguise, a noble brother on the lam, a rascal of a drunk, a mark, a lovely Countess with a silly vow, a conniving steward, and a mischievous waiting-woman….They are all single, and that means two men too many. Join the laughs and music as Shakespeare finds a way to give these characters just what they deserve. Is it love at last or, as Feste the clown sings, only a lull in the storm—“For the rain it raineth every day.”
Kent Richmond's translation of Twelfth Night makes the language of Shakespeare's play contemporary while preserving the metrical rhythm, sentence complexity, and poetic qualities of the original. The blank verse is authentic Shakespeare, and the range of vocabulary is similar. [read an excerpt]
Number of Unique Words
Shakespeare's original: 3,045
Richmond's translation: 3,343
The aim is to capture the sound and sense of Shakespeare's romantic comedy without the need for glosses or notes—to use contemporary language without simplifying or modernizing the play in any other way.
You will forget that you are reading a translation as you experience this hilarious tale of mistaken identity and frustrated love.
from Act One, Scene 5
Viola, disguised as a man, has been sent as a proxy by Duke Orsino to woo Olivia. As in Shakespeare's original, the dialogue begins in prose but shifts to verse.
[Enter VIOLA (as Cesario) and ATTENDANTS]
VIOLA (masquerading as Cesario)
The honorable lady of the house, which is she?
Speak to me. I will answer for her. What do you want?
Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatched beauty….[stops reciting] Could you please tell me if this is the lady of the house? I have never seen her and am reluctant to waste my speech. For, besides it being excellently composed, I have taken great pains to learn it by heart. Beautiful ladies, let me suffer no ridicule. I take offense at even the smallest slight.
Where are you from, sir?
I can say little more than what I have memorized, and that question is not in my script. Good gentle one, give me reasonable assurance that you are the lady of the house so that I may proceed with my speech.
Are you an actor?
In all sincerity, no. And yet, into the very fangs of malice, I swear I am not the part I play. Are you the lady of the house?
If I have not abducted myself, I am.
Most certainly, if you are she, you are abducting yourself. For what is yours to bestow is not yours to hoard. But this strays from my instructions. I will continue my praise of you and then proceed to the heart of my message.
Skip to what is significant. You may omit the praise.
Alas, I took great pains to learn it, and it is poetical.
Then it is more likely to be fiction. Please, do not utter it. I was told you made a scene at my gates, and I allowed you in to marvel at you rather than to hear you. If you are utterly mad, be gone. If you have your sanity, be brief. I am not so in tune with the phases of the moon that I will join in such flighty conversation.
Will you hoist sail, sir? I have charted your course. [pointing toward the door]
No, good swabber of decks. I am to anchor here a little longer. [to Olivia] Appease your colossal protector, sweet lady. Tell me your intentions. I am a messenger.
Surely, you must have some hideous matter to convey when your courteous prelude is so menacing. Deliver your message.
It concerns your ear alone. I bring no declaration of war, no demand for tribute. I hold the olive branch in my hand. My words are as rich in peace as in significant substance.
Yet you began rudely. What are you? What do you want?
The rudeness that has appeared in me I learned during my reception here. What I am and what I want are as secret as virginity; to your ears, religious doctrine; to any other’s, blasphemy.
Leave us alone here. I wish to hear this doctrine.
[Exit MARIA and ATTENDANTS]
Now, sir, what is this divine text?
Most sweet lady,….
A comforting doctrine, and much may be said for it. Where does your text originate?
In Orsino’s bosom.
In his bosom? In what chapter of his bosom?
To answer in this pious format, in the first chapter of his heart.
O, I have read it. It is heresy. Have you no more to say?
Good madam, let me see your face.
Do you have instructions from your lord to negotiate with my face? You have wandered from your text, but we will draw back the curtain, and show you the portrait. Look, sir. It was of me as I am now. Is it not done well? [unveiling]
Excellently done, if it’s all nature’s work.
Deeply ingrained, to endure wind and weather.
It’s beauty truly blended, red and white
Laid on by nature’s sweet and skillful hand.
Lady, you are the cruelest living woman,
If you will take these graces to your grave,
And leave the world no copy.
O, sir, I will not be so hard-hearted. I will supply assorted indexes of my beauty. It will be inventoried, and every detail and item appended to my will. For instance, item: two lips, somewhat red; item: two gray eyes, with lids to them; item: one neck, one chin, and so forth. Were you sent here to appraise me?
I see now what you are, you are too proud.
But, if you were the devil, you’d be lovely.
My lord and master loves you. O, such love
Could not get fair return though you were crowned
The paragon of beauty.
How does he love me?
With adorations, ever-flowing tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.
Your lord, he knows my stance—I cannot love him.
Yet I assume he’s upright, know he’s noble,
Of great fortune, of fresh, untainted youth;
Openly praised as giving, learned, valiant;
And his proportion and physique create
A pleasing figure. And yet I cannot love him.
He should have grasped my answer long ago.
If I adored you with my master’s fire,
With such a suffering, such a deathly life,
In your denial I would find no sense.
I would not understand it.
What would you do?
Make me a hut of willows at your gate
And call to my soul’s mate within the house,
Write loyal songs of scorned, rejected love
And sing them loud though in the dead of night;
Shout out your name to the resounding hills
And make the babbling echoes of the air
Cry out, “Olivia!” O, how could you rest
Among the elements of sky and earth
And yet not pity me.
You might succeed.
What is your parentage?
Above my present means. My standing, though,
Is good—a gentleman.
Go tell your lord
I cannot love him. He must send no others—
Unless, perhaps, you come to me again,
To tell me how he takes it. Fare you well.
I thank you for your pains. Accept this fee. [offers money]
I need no payment, lady. Keep your purse.
My master, not myself, lacks recompense.
Your love deserves a man with heart of flint,
And may your fervor, like my master’s, be
Placed in contempt. Farewell then, cruel beauty.
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Duke Orsino and others
"Too often, unless we read a Shakespeare play beforehand, we process the language as if it were coming from a poorly tuned-in radio station. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays to be experienced impressionistically as ‘poetry;’ he assumed his language was readily comprehensible. At what point does a stage of a language become so different from the modern one as to make translation necessary? Mr. Richmond is brave enough to assert that, for Shakespeare, that time has come. The French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov—and now, we can truly say that we have our Shakespeare.”
—John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste
Olivia and Viola