In one of my favorite novels, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952), a chic lady anthropologist declares to Mildred, the spinster heroine, “I’m such a slut.” Helena, the anthropologist in question, means that she is untidy, in the same way that the fashion writer Katharine Whitehorn would use the term about eleven years later in a column for the Observer:
Anyone in doubt, however, can ask herself the following questions. Have you ever taken anything back out of the dirty laundry basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? How many things are there, at this moment, in the wrong rooms—cups in the study, boots in the kitchen—and how many of them are on the floor of the wrong room?
Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? And how, if at all, do you clean your nails? Honest answers should tell you, once and for all, whether you are one of us: the miserable, optimistic, misunderstood race of sluts.
But is Helena also being a little cute about this, and deliberately using “slut” in a somewhat archaic way? Re-reading the novel, I found it hard to tell. She certainly spends a lot of her time in the scene sharply distinguishing herself from Mildred—that while Mildred is frumpy, probably stupid, unmarried, and probably taking up more than her fair share of space, Helena is glamorous, intellectual, married, and can’t be expected to buy her own toilet paper (she uses Mildred’s instead). She will mention in their next conversation that she is thinking of leaving her husband for another man—so she wants Mildred to think of her as someone at least slightly above conventional sexual mores.
There are ways to get closer to answering this question, like studying the newspapers around 1952 for uses of “slut,” consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, or looking through other Pym novels to see if other characters use it. Wikipedia also informs me that “slut” in the untidy sense pops up in Bridget Jones’s Diary—so to problems of temporal shifts in meaning, we can add the differences between American English and British English.
What we can tell is that it has always meant both things. Even Katharine Whitehorn uses it both ways. (And many words for an untidy woman also imply promiscuity: See “slattern.”) So it will depend a little on what you want to think of Helena—if she is an intentionally malicious person, or just a careless one. Since I dislike Helena, toilet-paper leech that she is, I suspect her of cuteness; but I can admit that the evidence is thin, and that perhaps after this blog post comes up I will get a nice email informing me that this question is not really ambiguous at all if you, like the email writer, are a scholar of mid-twentieth-century English spinster literature.
A few weeks ago, Slate ran a wonderful piece by Isaac Butler titled, “Is Hamlet Fat?” In it, Butler considered the evidence for considering Hamlet to be a fat man, based largely on Gertrude’s claim that Hamlet is “fat and scant of breath.” “Fat,” for an Elizabethan, meant both “overweight” and “sweaty” (and also “full”). In the end, there isn’t a firm way to know whether or not the word indicates fatness or sweatiness or simply that Hamlet went to fence too soon after dinner. And as Butler points out, Gertrude also doesn’t call Hamlet “fat” in every version of Hamlet.
But we also know we began asking ourselves if Hamlet is fat when obesity started to acquire a negative moral meaning. Words are not the only thing to change when we want to interpret a text. If we want Hamlet to be a hero, suddenly we find it distasteful for him to be fat. Trying to answer this question brings you to the conclusion that there are multiple answers, all textually justifiable. So the “answer” to this question is—mostly—“it depends.”
Playgoers to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, however, may soon not have to ask themselves this question at all: The Festival is commissioning translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays. The idea is that, much like the “translations” of Chaucer that you can purchase in a bookstore, archaic words or phrases will be updated to their modern equivalents, though it will remain closer to Shakespeare’s English than something like the No Fear Shakespeare series. Instead, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will “create companion texts that allow audiences to dig even deeper into the themes, characters, and ideas by not getting derailed from the most incomprehensible and antiquated language.” Average playgoers will not be stuck asking themselves why Gertrude calls Hamlet “fat” when he’s being played by a thin man, why Juliet is asking “wherefore” when Romeo is right there, and so on.
It is probably a mistake that we ask modern audiences to encounter Shakespeare always in the purest possible form—something that at the very least we know his original audiences did not do. His plays have been abridged, expurgated, and sometimes (in case of King Lear) rewritten. From Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare to Richard Amour’s Twisted Tales from Shakespeare to Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, plenty of work has been done to render Shakespeare more accessible to the children who will (we hope) grow up to enjoy his plays. Movies of Shakespeare plays often abridge and adapt. A person who enjoys Trevor Nunn’s delightful, but heavily abridged, Twelfth Night movie is better off than the person who avoids the play because he finds it intimidating. Shakespeare is flexible; he can bend a lot before being broken.
However, the proposed translations seem to me to hunger for a purity of their own, and one which is perhaps less defensible than the purist instincts that lead someone to demand that you sit through a four-hour performance of King Lear or nothing at all. What the translations aim to achieve is something like the experience that a contemporary audience might have felt. The assumption is that when Shakespeare wrote “fat,” everyone knew what it meant. The assumption is almost that in their purest form, words only have one meaning.
But since Shakespeare invented words as often as he played with them, it’s not clear at all that his audience knew automatically what he meant. The pure experience of someone sitting through Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s time is not going to be replicated by a translation, or indeed by any cosmetic tweak. Shakespeare’s people are dead and beyond our recovery. What will be substituted instead is an interpretation of what they might have heard, presented under the guise of a higher authenticity. This is more misleading, I think, than the experience of hearing “wherefore” and first assuming that it means “where.” It is better to be incorrect in a context where the language is acknowledged as difficult than to assume understanding because it’s being presented to you as transparent.
Katharine Whitehorn, slut champion, complained that when her columns were brought over to America, the editors made her substitute “slob.” And if we substituted “slob” for “slut” in Excellent Women, it would certainly smooth out the reading experience. But I do think something would be lost, even if Helena is using the word with no malice (as she probably is, if I set my biases against her aside). She chose the word, and Mildred does find it off-putting in a way that “slob” might not entirely justify. The friction generated by the word might or might not have been the idea, but it adds to the reading experience at least by reminding us that we do not, in fact, automatically know the meaning of the words that we read. The very title of the book, Excellent Women, is ironic—“excellent women” are unloved women. It is not a compliment.
In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Iachamo wants to seduce the heroine, Imogen, and so win a bet he has placed with her husband. Both pondering whether he’ll be able to trick her into infidelity and also intending to imply to her that her husband has already been unfaithful, he says:
Sluttery to such neat excellence opposed
Should make desire vomit emptiness,
Not so allured to feed.
For all his duplicity, Iachamo believes at heart that all people are one thing—and that, in Imogen’s case, all women are truly unfaithful. His goal is to force these true meanings up to surface. But he is mistaken. So, at least for now, is a project of translation. There’s no key that is going to unlock Shakespeare’s real meaning once and for all. Shakespeare’s untidiness is part of his charm. So we can celebrate an ambiguously fat Hamlet. And we can be glad that English, like Helena, is exceptionally (even excellently) sluttish.