Monday, April 23, 2018

Happy Birthday, WS!

Yesterday was not Shakespeare's birthday, but by 9 a.m. I had already seen two references to Shakespeare in the New York Times book section. One mentioned a review of a new novel based on the plot of Macbeth. The second cited a review of a new book whose title, "The Life To Come," is also taken from Macbeth. And I was only at the Table of Contents. A couple of hours later I heard a radio journalist describe a drama of conflict between Rwandans of the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, lovers who came from two villages "both alike in dignity," a quotation from Romeo and Juliet. And later in the day my neighbor told me that learning to read financial spreadsheets in her new job was a "sea change" for her. I don't know whether she knew she was quoting Ariel in The Tempest.

Shakespeare is with us every day. It's no wonder that last month a French foreign minister, asked whether France planned to "punish" Britain for implementing BREXIT,
replied, "Would we punish the nation of Shakespeare?" His implicit answer might have been "yes," considering the punishment Shakespeare gave Frenchmen in his plays. Their Shakespearean representation very likely influenced the creation of the ludicrous medieval French soldiers in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to mention only one less-than-respectful post-Shakespearean English version of the Gallic race. But the foreign minister's comment said something about Shakespeare's enduring global impact. You can't get rid of Shakespeare. For better or for worse -- mostly for better -- he changed our language forever. Lots of people have learned English just so they could read Shakespeare. And those who have read, staged, or seen Shakespeare in translation have also been "translated" by the stories he brought to the stage.

On Shakespeare's birthday it is usual for writers to list some of the many phrases he introduced into English. That is fun, and I will do it, but I am also interested in the whole way of speaking to which his plays introduced us. He turned nouns into verbs when he felt like it, he left words out for hearers to fill in, he juxtaposed long words with blunt ones, he adapted English to his purposes. When Cleopatra figures out Caesar's lying to her, she says, "He words me, girls. He words me." In The Winter's Tale, King Leontes hopes that his wife's ghost won't be "soul-vexed" if he marries another. Earlier, hoping only the smartest folks at court have guessed there is trouble in his marriage, he asks a servant, "Not noted, is't, but of the finer natures? By some severals of headpiece extraordinary?" Later in this same play, Polixenes insults his son's girlfriend by calling her a "fresh piece of excellent witchcraft." A more decorously phrased but no less cutting insult is given by King Lear's Kent, who tells the corrupt royal family, "I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant." Other good Shakespearean expressions of contempt include "Mad-brained rudesby!," and my favorite: "Much!"

You really can't improve on Shakespeare, is all I'm saying. He has appropriate things to say about and in every possible human situation, and he says them well. (And lest you think he has no comments for the digital age, please note that King Lear refers to his having "unfriended" his rebellious daughter.) Here are a few more of my favorite Shakespearean lines and phrases: "She was false as water" (Othello). "Let it go, all" (also Othello. That's so much better than "Let it all go!"). "Are you a comedian?," said sarcastically, is another useful insult, from Twelfth Night. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock gloats that Antonio "used to come so smug upon the mart"!  But now he's bankrupt, ha! Most often Shakespeare is not insulting, but eloquently descriptive. A skinny person has a "pin-buttock" (All's Well that Ends Well. This phrase occurs in a discussion of the three different kinds of butts people have, and the two other terms are useful, too). A modern-day horror is a "new Gorgon" (Macbeth). A naked man is a "forked animal" (King Lear). A painful burden is a "sour cross" (Richard II).

"Words, words, words," as Hamlet would say. Shakespeare isn't solely responsible for the fact that English is endlessly adaptable to various types of communications, flexible and capable of millions of shades of onomatopoeic effects. He lived at the right time, the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when English was growing, expanding, and changing fast and furiously. But he was in the language vanguard. He led the vanguard. He still leads the vanguard. So Happy Birthday, WS!

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