Intro to Shakespeare – 2

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: HIS LANGUAGE AND ART (PT. 1 OF 2)

SHAKESPEARE’S THEMES AND METHOD OF COMPOSITION

We might expect an active playwright like Shakespeare to deal directly with the flow of modern life, but unlike Ben Jonson and some others of his time, for the most part he doesn’t do that. London’s mercantile class was increasing, and nationalism was beginning to flex its muscles. So why don’t we find London’s social structure “ripped from the headlines” in Shakespeare? He deals with courtly environments and characters, and often at some historical distance, spanning from ancient Greece and Rome to the late Middle Ages in Europe: he represents monarchs as nearly unconstrained, not as having to deal with parliament as they did by his own day, and his treatment of rank reinforces this preference. Shakespeare concentrates on the parallel order of society and the grand cosmos, as in the Troilus and Cressida passage that runs “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows” (Norton 1.3.113-14). Kings and high nobles, not commoners, are the center of his tragedies and histories, but the same statement holds to a great extent for his comic and romance plays. This may be due in part to what was called above a degree of conservatism in his approach to life and to his propertied station. There’s also the fact that censorship was part of life in England: a dramatist’s scripts had to be cleared by the Master of Revels before they were performed, and it was safer not to try to deal with current political affairs or great personages.

QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS

To what extent do the main characters step out as strong individuals?

— Generally, in comedy we are dealing with characters who fit into some recognizable pattern or type, but does that truism do justice to the play you’re studying?

What do the characters seek?

— Consider the varieties of desire and objects of desire.

— Characters seek not only love but also transcendence, security, understanding, clarity, etc. (Evidently, there’s more to life than news, weather, and Cupid’s Arrow.)

What obstacles stand in the way of characters’ fulfilling their desires?

— There are both internal and external hindrances.

— That is, not everything is a matter of stern patriarchs getting in the way, etc.

How do the main characters react to the obstacles that stand in their way?

— Reactions, as always, can tell us a lot about a character’s depth and understanding.

What is the disposition of time and chance?

— Time is on the comic protagonist’s side, but what more is to be said in this regard  

about the comic or romance or history play you are studying?

— Are time and chance dealt with in a more or less realistic manner, or a fantastical one? Why might the playwright be dealing with these things in such a “non-verisimilar” or non-lifelike way?

METHOD OF COMPOSITION

Shakespeare’s plays fall loosely into four categories: comedy, history, tragedy, and romance (though this last category was invented by Edward Dowden in 1875). Shakespeare was clearly aware of basic theories about what a comedy or tragedy (the most “established” dramatic types) ought to be like, but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time worrying about whether he was conforming to such theories, and it’s extremely unlikely that he read Aristotle’s Poetics. As Coleridge says in a lecture on Shakespeare, “No work of genius dares want its appropriate form….”[1] That’s downright romantic organicism, but when it comes to Shakespeare, it makes sense to affirm it: Shakespeare, in spite of the occasional loosely constructed plot or odd reference or allusion, composed as something like a romantic poet. Although he rather unromantically started out by borrowing from some source or other (no one cared about absolute originality in his day) he saw all sorts of possibilities in that source material, and his plays took shape in accordance with the necessities of their own characters, events, and structure. We respond to a work of art as we create it, so that in a sense it “creates itself” processively. Form and meaning aren’t merely imposed upon the material in cookie-cutter fashion. Instead, they develop dynamically in accordance with the inner laws of the work itself.

The romantic theorists and poets understood the creative process well: imagine a sculptor facing his or her medium of blank stone. Soon, the first creative act is performed, and then the sculptor stands back and beholds the results in altered stone. This prompts another act, and on it goes in a sustained dialectic between mind and medium, until the demand for a “product” halts the process. Consider Beethoven starting with those famous four initial notes of the Fifth Symphony: GGGF. He followed those notes where they had to go—and where they had to go wasn’t always where listeners might have thought they should go. Beethoven consistently surprises his hearers in this way, and so does Shakespeare. In practical terms, readers and listeners need not seek a facile coherency in the material. Rather, they should be looking to tease out potential of whatever sort they find in one textual location and connect it to other locations in the same or other plays. Shakespeare is capable of logical precision, but that’s schoolboy stuff: what really drives his plays is the sympathetic, imaginative connections he makes between character and character, event and event, predicament and predicament. His brand of realism is psychological, not the realism of historical happening (though one can learn a lot about English history from his history plays, with due allowances for dramatic imperatives and poetical devices).

Above all, it seems best not to superimpose some scheme or pattern on any Shakespeare play prematurely—the plays make sense, but the sense they make isn’t reducible to neat formulae or critical principles. Those who consult online “note factory” materials should be mindful of this complexity. Such note material tends to be of variable quality, and it may let readers down when it comes to interpreting or contextualizing the most difficult passages: sometimes it’s evident that the interpreter has not understood the basic meaning of the passage, or writes in ignorance of the broader context in which the language is embedded. Even the better sort of online notes comes at us saying “Here are three key themes you can use to write a paper on The Merchant of Venice.” The themes identified may be worthwhile, but the more we allow ourselves to be bound by them, the less room will there be for our own perhaps eccentric and more interesting interpretations. Maybe we will notice something in Act 2, Scene 4 that relates to other things that happen in the play but aren’t really dealt with by the note-writers, either because they lack the sophistication to notice it or because they presume very few students consulting their notes have that level of expertise. But perhaps that “something” is what we should really be writing about. At bottom, good critics are good storytellers: they tell interesting, compelling stories about other people’s stories. Any resort to commercially produced notes should be made to open up possibilities, not to reduce complex works of art to facile comprehensibility. Few of us go to art looking for it to hand us simple solutions to painfully complex existential problems, so criticism shouldn’t proceed on the assumption that we do.

SHAKESPEARE’S LANGUAGE

Grammar and Rhetorical/Literary Devices.

See the Shakespeare Resource Center’s guide to Shakespeare’s Grammar as well as Grammarly writer Lindsey Kramer’s blog entries All about Alliteration and What Is a Rhetorical Device? See also Grammarly’s What Is Assonance? by Parker Yamasaki and What Is Consonance? by Matt Ellis.

A. Inverted or otherwise altered syntax:

“If’t be so, / For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind, / For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered…” (Norton Tragedies 930, Macbeth 3.1.64-66). The three Weird Sisters told Banquo that he would beget kings even though he himself would never be one. In his sharp desire to secure his ill-gotten throne, Macbeth can hardly afford to let that bit of information go undealt with. If we rearranged the above lines, they would run, “If it be so, / I have defiled my mind for Banquo’s issue (i.e. descendants); / I have killed the gracious Duncan for them.” But Macbeth’s mind has been in turmoil ever since he killed King Duncan, so he does not express his thoughts in tidy subject-verb-object order. The emphasis in the inverted lines is on Banquo and his descendants. Macbeth can’t believe he was so stupid as to destroy his own soul to put Banquo’s line on the throne of Scotland. He did it for them! And the Weird Sisters told him as much. In general, bear in mind that Shakespeare’s word order tends to be more flexible than our English today. Often, there’s a strong substantive reason for the syntactical inversions that occur in Shakespeare’s verse.

B. Literary devices such as the following:

Alliteration: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….” (Sonnet 30, Norton Romances and Poems 666). The repetition of initial consonant sounds in words close to one another. The consonantal sounds can be represented by different letters—it’s the sound that matters. “The seven cities of Cibola” is alliterative. There’s also consonance, in which the repeated consonantal sounds don’t have to be at the beginning of the words in question: “I acknowledge that Jack is back.” And there’s assonance, which involves repetition of vowel sounds rather than consonants: “Get it through your head that Freddy isn’t ready, Neddie!”

Allusion: “O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst / thou!” exclaims Hamlet in his mocking encounter with the king’s counselor Polonius. (Norton Tragedies Folio/Q2 390, Hamlet 2.2.329-30) The prince alludes to the Bible’s Judges 11-12. Judge and warrior Jephthah of Gilead had promised Jehovah that if He would grant victory to the Israelites over the Ammonites, he, Jephthah, would willingly sacrifice whatever exited his door first. Alas, “whatever” turned out to be his daughter, and he ended up having to sacrifice her just as he had promised. Hamlet knows that Polonius—who is more of a Machiavel than we give him credit for—is slyly sacrificing his daughter Ophelia’s affections in order to gather intelligence for King Claudius about the prince’s alleged madness. Indirectly, he is warning Polonius, “I know what you’re up to. Remember what happened to Jephthah’s daughter—are you really willing to ruin Ophelia’s life?”

Aside from biblical allusions, Shakespeare ranges from references to classical mythology, persons, and history to Gothic lore like that of the faerie lords Titania, Oberon and their helpers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are allusions to various professions and practices: heraldry, hunting, falconry, horticulture, farming, moneylending, etc. Shakespeare’s work is also full of allusions to English history (mainly via Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland) and to the kinds of ceremonies and stories he must have enjoyed in and around Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. In Shakespeare: the Biography,[2] Peter Ackroyd reminds us of Shakespeare’s intimate, lifelong appreciation of his native patch of English town and countryside. He relocated to London for many years, but he never really left Warwickshire behind, and indeed he returned there toward the end of his career and life.

Another allusion worth noting is a classical Latin citation from Horace in Act 4, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s intense revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. The boy Lucius delivers to the two sons of conquered Goth queen turned Roman empress Tamora some weapons along with a scroll that reads, “Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, / Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu” (Norton Tragedies 178, 4.2.20-21). Translated freely, this means, “He that is pure of life and free from faults / Has no need of any bow or Moorish javelin.” Shakespeare probably remembered this Horatian passage from days spent with his trusty Latin textbook, known as Lily’s Grammar. The original text is from the opening part of Horace’s Odes 1.22. One of Tamora’s sons, Chiron, says “Oh, ‘tis a verse in Horace. I know it well: / I read it in the grammar long ago” (Norton 178, 4.2.22-23). Aaron, Tamora’s lover and supposedly a “barbarous Moor,” immediately scans the verses and takes their measure: “The old man [Titus] hath found their guilt / And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines / That wound beyond their feeling to the quick” (Norton 178, 4.2.26-28). This is interesting—that the old Roman general Titus would know Horace’s verses shouldn’t surprise us. But that two Goths and the Moor in this play are also familiar with them may seem somewhat odd. Roman culture is common to them all.

What, then, is Shakespeare doing by implanting this real-life Roman allusion into his fictive Roman drama in a manner that shows its accessibility even to the play’s non-Romans? Most likely, he is suggesting that the empire, centered around its eternal city, Rome, was a cosmopolitan entity from its inception, and that the city itself was a hybrid, dynamic place, a place that brought together many people’s stories into an uneasy, ever-shifting association. There is no single, coherent history of Rome, no unified concept of Romanness. Moreover, given Shakespeare’s representations of Rome and the empire in several of his plays, we may safely assume that the playwright knew this. It should be noted, too, that the English often compared their own nascent Empire and their great city of London to Rome and its once glorious empire, so questions like “What was Rome?” and “What were the Romans really like?” would have been of great interest to many Londoners and English people more broadly. In sum, this is not a play that sets up Rome as a “civilized” place over against “barbarians” who must be repelled. Instead, Shakespeare seems intent on undermining any such binary notion. That sophistication on his part may be what saves this strange, ultraviolent play from deserving the strong and even dismissive reproaches of the likes of T. S. Eliot, J. Dover Wilson, and Samuel Johnson.[3]

Metaphor: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York,” as Richard Duke of Gloucester says to open Richard III (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-2), paying false, poisonous tribute to the brother and sovereign whom he is about to afflict with mortal grief. Metaphor clarifies or deepens the meaning of a first thing by ascribing to it or transferring over to it the qualities of a second, unrelated thing. Here, discontentment, an emotional state or condition, borrows the qualities of a pensive, anxious season, winter. Winter is a season that people soon tire of and want to put behind them: it threatens to deaden the soul. “Winter” (and summer, in the second line) is the figurative term, the vehicle, that Shakespeare uses to convey something important about the tenor, the thing to be understood, which here is discontent, an emotional state. (Tenor comes from the Latin verb teneo, I comprehend, keep, or hold.) The second line’s pun on sun/son adds an additional metaphor: the newly crowned Yorkist king, Edward IV, is said to be a “sun” that rises over the English people’s newly established summer-state of contentment. Metaphor grabs listeners’ attention, feelings, and even intellect in a way that less creative usages seldom do. If we were to write, “Now is our wintry discontent turned into summery satisfaction,” hearers would reach for the nearest basket of rotten tomatoes to toss at us. Mixed metaphors deserve mention as well. We’ve all heard Shakespeare’s most famous howler straight from Hamlet’s lips: “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” (Norton 396, Hamlet 3.1.58-59). Please don’t shoot the Renaissance lute-player—he’s doing his best.

Simile: “This old car balks like a horse trader’s mule.” Or, “Frank is as fearsome as a lion.” This device compares one thing to another. It isn’t as radically transformative or creative as metaphor in that it involves a mere comparison, not an equation or confounding of the two things. A Shakespearean example: When Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII realizes that his downfall is certain, he utters these haunting lines: “I have ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, / But far beyond my depth” (Norton Histories 930, 3.2.358-61). The once-great cleric compares himself to carefree little children playing in the water. Another good example of a simile being as effective as metaphor in a master poet’s hands is John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” He says of his and his lover’s souls, “If they be two, they are two so / As stiffe twin compasses are two; / Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if the’other doe”[4] Strictly, the first two lines involve a comparison—paraphrased, it would run, “our souls are two like twin compasses are two.” When Donne extends this figure to give us a sense of how the compasses actually work, he turns it into a metaphor: “Thy soul, the fixed foot….” Both parts of the quatrain work equally well.

Metonymy: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Norton Tragedies 320, 3.2.71), as Mark Antony says at the beginning of his masterful speech to stir up the plebeians against Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators in Julius Caesar. This figure entails replacing a word with another word closely related to it, but not simply a part of it. Here, “ears” replaces “attention.” (Note that in this instance, it does not replace “person.” That would make it a synecdoche.) A famous example runs something like “Let’s run it by the suits in corporate headquarters.” The word “suits” is not a part of a corporate attorney the way an arm or a leg would be, but it is something we associate with attorneys: They usually wear suits.

Synecdoche: “All hands on deck!” The Monty Python players would represent that sentence by showing us a row of hands moving across a ship’s deck. Here, “hands” stands in for “sailors.” Another well-worn synecdoche would be “twenty sail” for “twenty ships.”

Elliptical expressions: “And he to England shall along with you,” says Claudius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet (Norton Tragedies 408, 3.3.4) The verb “go” is omitted: “shall go along” would be the standard way to say it, but Shakespeare’s expression is more elegant.

C. Grammatical irregularities:

Anthimeria. One part of speech is often substituted for another. This happens especially with nouns and verbs. For example, in the first act of The Tempest, Prospero asks Miranda, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (Norton Romances 400, 1.2.49-50.) The word “backward” is an adverb, but it is used as a noun here, producing a verse that is both beautiful and apt since Prospero is asking his daughter to recall her remote childhood—something hazy and mysterious, yet intimate.

Pronoun irregularity: “Yes? You have seen Cassio and she together?” Asks suspicious Othello of Desdemona’s companion Emilia (Norton Tragedies 566, 4.2.3.) Instead of “Cassio and her.” If a student wrote this in a paper, we would mark it down. But Shakespeare? We dare not.

Archaic pronoun and verb forms: The familiar or intimate second-person singular forms are thou/thee, as in, “I tell thee (direct object) that thou (subject) art mistaken.” The possessive form is often “thy/thine” (and “my/mine” for first person): “thy book is before thine eyes.” As for verbs, the second-person familiar suffix is often (e)-st, as in “Thou speakest or speak’st, while the third person singular is often -eth, as in “He/she speaketh.” Key verbs like “to be,” “to have,” “to do,” and “to say” can have odd forms: “thou art, he/she is”; “thou dost, he/she doth; thou sayest, he/she saith; “thou hast, he/she hath.” Here’s a fine example: When Hamlet berates his mother Gertrude for marrying his uncle Claudius, she begs him to stop, crying out, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!” (Norton Tragedies 414, Hamlet 3.4.157.)

Omission of relative pronoun: “I have a brother is condemned to die,” says Isabella to Angelo in Measure for Measure (Norton Comedies 916, 2.2.35.) Ordinarily, this would read, “I have a brother who is condemned to die.”

Verb number: “Three parts of him / Is ours already” says Cassius of the worthy Brutus in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies 300, 1.3.154-55).

Antithesis: This quality of Shakespearean verse accounts for no small part of its overall impact. Shakespeare consistently uses it as a literary figure to lend emphasis and shape to his characters’ speech. Hamlet characterizes antithesis as “setting the word against the word.” For example, Brutus says in Julius Caesar that he killed the dictator not from personal spite or envy, but from patriotism: “not that I loved Caesar less,/ but that I loved Rome more” (Norton Tragedies 319, 3.2.20-21). The effect of antithesis (implied or direct) is to render an utterance emphatic. Consider the following part of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, which offers multiple antithetical pairings to strengthen its appeal: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York, / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-4). Reading the rest of this passage down to line 13 will reveal several more such antithetical pairings.

This quality is partly what makes Shakespeare’s verse memorable: the words are knit together by antithetical imagery and concepts, with alliteration also accomplishing much the same effect. This is strong blank verse, the sort of stuff one can speak boldly without losing the sensitivity and psychological subtlety necessary for the representation of a complex character. Rhyme is another way of lending shape to verse and making it memorable, though Shakespeare mostly uses rhyme for special effects. The end of a scene is a good place to serve up a rhyme, as in Hamlet’s quip, “The play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Norton Tragedies 394, Hamlet F1/Q2 3.1.523-24), or his wicked uncle Claudius’s anguished conclusion to a prayer for absolution, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (Norton Tragedies 410, 3.4.97-98). Such rhymes often have the effect of medieval moral sayings known as sententiae, summations of a moral principle or lesson.

Further Observations on the Distinctive Qualities of Shakespeare’s Language:

Shakespeare’s language is growing increasingly remote from us. It isn’t as remote as Chaucer’s middle English, or the Old English of Beowulf, but it’s sufficiently far from today’s standard “newspaper English” to turn our heads. In some cases, an utterance may puzzle us because we are missing key knowledge of some ancient social custom or bit of folklore or history, or we lack an understanding of the symbolism of flowers, or terms relevant to the craft of heraldry, hunting, medicine, law, etc., so we miss the overall meaning of the passage as well as its relation to the action. But even aside from such specific things, every reader of Shakespeare has probably had the sensation of being perfectly able to scan all the words of a passage for their modern sense and yet not being able really to understand the passage as a coherent sentence or expression.

To a large extent, this difficulty may be due to the quality that critics often say best distinguishes poetry from prose: compression. Good poetry is remarkably efficient language. People who don’t like poetry sometimes accusing it of being “flowery” or overly loquacious, but the truth is closer to the opposite: poetry is often sparing, even stark, in its approach. Compared to prose, verse packs in a great deal of meaning in very few words. This quality may be what lends poetry its special ability to achieve heights of elegance or depths of emotional impact that even the best prose rarely achieves, but it also undeniably makes poetry harder to read at the surface level than most prose. Unless we are dealing with texts by Modernist or postmodernist authors such as Joyce, Beckett, Pynchon, or David Foster Wallace, we generally expect prose to make immediate and full sense. We don’t expect the same transparency from poetry—we expect it to challenge our understanding, startle us out of stale truisms, and so forth. Prose does more of the work for us, while poetry expects more work from us.

Here is an instance of such difficulty from Shakespeare’s romance play Cymbeline: at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 3, the heroine Imogen says to her husband’s servant Pisanio, “I would thou grew’st unto the shores o’th’ haven / And questioned’st every sail. If he should write / And I not have it, ‘twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is” (Norton Romances and Poems 226, 1.3.1-4). Some parts of this speech are easy to understand: “haven” means “harbor,” the word “sail” is a synecdoche (part for the whole) for “every ship,” which in turn seems like a metonymic expression for “everyone on every ship in the harbor.” Or it could playfully mean, “I’d have you plant yourself on the harbor’s shore and scan every ship’s sail, waiting—what if Posthumus, now that he’s sailed to foreign shores, sends me a letter by ship and I never receive it?” So far, so good.

But what about “’twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is”? It’s a beautiful expression and in terms of vocabulary not mystifying, but its exact meaning is not apparent. In context this phrasing seems to mean that if Posthumus should write a love letter and Imogen doesn’t receive it, she will, as the Norton editors suggest, feel like someone who has been offered mercy but somehow has either not accepted it, or has not actually received word because it arrived too late. So Imogen will feel bereft, deprived of consolation and confidence. In such cases, it really helps to have as your reading text a good copy like the Norton, Arden, or Folger editions: they offer the sort of contextual and grammatical notes that can help you sort out expressions that might otherwise frustrate your efforts. It’s good to try to work such passages out on your own first, but if you don’t meet with success, the notes are there to guide you. Free online texts seldom offer this level of assistance, and a dictionary alone won’t help much because the problem isn’t that you don’t know the basic meaning of the words.

Another example occurs later in the same play, Cymbeline. In Act 3, Scene 3, old Belarius tells Arviragus and Guiderius, Cymbeline’s’ two sons whom Belarius, enraged at being falsely accused of treason, had long ago stolen from court to raise in the countryside, that the life they’re living now is much better than any to be had at some corrupt court. Here is part of the relevant passage: “Oh, this life / Is nobler than attending for a check, / … / Such gain the cap of him that makes him fine, / Yet keeps his book uncrossed” (Norton Romances and Poems 255, 3.3.21-22, 25-26). “Check” here means “rebuke,” and “gain the cap” means “get the workman to tip his cap and thereby show respect for his customer.” The expression “keeps his book uncrossed” means that the customer thus treated so deferentially still owes the workman money, and the workman’s entries in his ledger show it. The further point is that courtly, ambitious people often mistake the flattering treatment they’re getting for genuine respect, when in truth it’s all purely transactional—they’re getting taken for fools, and they’re too vain to recognize it. Good notes need not, of course, provide so much detail; they just need to provide enough grammatical, vocabulary-based, and contextual assistance so that we can arrive at a reasonably accurate reading. The note in question allows us to do so.

One other point worth making is that while at times we may long for a patch of simplicity in Shakespeare’s verse, the more flowery or “purple” patches one finds are usually written as they are to suit the mentality of a silly or pompous character, a word-mangler like Dogberry from Much Ado about Nothing, or someone speaking in dialect, like Kent or Edgar disguised as Poor Tom in King Lear. Consider the arch temporal description like the one Benvolio offers Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet: “Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the East, / A troubled mind drive me to walk abroad…” (Norton Tragedies 213, 1.1113-15). Benvolio is no doubt putting on airs in addressing the wife of the Montague paterfamilias. Later in the same play, the time is described in a much lower register, when Mercutio scandalizes Juliet’s Nurse with the following classic: “the bawdy hand of the / dial is now upon the prick of noon” (2.3.101-02). Back and forth we go, from the high-toned to the profane and back again, in this ultimately tragic tale of two young but determined souls, forced to eternize their holy love by self-violence in a profane, dirty world. Shakespeare wrote both descriptions, and he wasn’t one to pass up a bawdy pun—such things pleased his audiences, and what’s more important, they often served his purposes thematically.

Under extreme pressure, too, a character’s speech may break down and become evasive or fragmented, as does Lear’s towards the end of King Lear. Indeed, Shakespeare’s ability to capture the fleeting processes of the mind under pressure in its relation to speech is praised highly by Harold Bloom.[5] There is even a deliberately hollow, brittle eloquence to be noted, particularly that of Macbeth as his life winds down and his only remaining strategy is to deaden his soul to the evil he has done: “My way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, / And that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have” (Norton Tragedies 963, Macbeth 5.3.22-26). He speaks beautifully, but the words mean little to him and are cut off from a vital orientation towards action. Shakespeare often seems to revel in the beauty of language in a way that seems almost foreign to modern sensibilities, but he does not exempt himself from chronicling the many ways this crowning glory of the species, language, often fails to keep us fully human, or even “indifferent honest.”

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Set of Four + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-26546-0.

Endnotes


[1] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius.”

[2] Ackroyd, Peter. Ibid. Ch. 8, 42-44.

[3] T. S. Eliot, “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation”, Selected Essays 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), 67. Eliot called the play “”one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all….” As for J. Dover Wilson, he wrote in his edition of the play that Titus Andronicus “seems to jolt and bump along like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells” (xii).

[4] Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Gutenberg public domain edition. Accessed 1/31/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/48688/48688-h/48688-h.htm.

[5] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1999. Bloom’s general thesis is that in the wake of Shakespeare’s breakthrough treatment of human interiority, this quality has become central to modern humanity’s self-definition.