Shakespeare's Language
Frank Kermode
(Farrar Straus)

Part I
Pity the poor university English Major. He gets to immerse himself in the works of such drones as Milton, Dryden, and Pope. A weekend read might be the whole of Clarissa, Wuthering Heights, or Ulysses. In many graduate school programs he will be forced to read criticism in German, French, or original sources in Early Nordic or Late Saxon. He might have to write a thesis on the likes of Gammer Gurtin's Needle, The Adventures of a Gentleman, or the Northumberland ballads of the Hermit of Warkworth.

He is expected not only to read Middle English, but to understand it. He has to wade through all the Romantics, the pre-Raphaelites, the Edwardians, the pre-moderns, post-moderns, middle-moderns, anti-moderns, and the quasi-moderns. He will be required to answer questions by tired, tenured professors on such fascinating writers as William Congreave, John Mabbe, and Robert Surtees. He will be expected to differentiate between a sonnet, a trimeter, a tribrach, a rondel (and even a rondeau).

Most of all, he will be expected to be fully familiar with the twenty-three --- or is it twenty-eight? or perhaps thirty-six? --- plays of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare. Saints preserve us! For Shakespeare is best whip going for punishing laggardly students. and he's the wheel on which many a poor graduate student will be broken ... that word-monger from four centuries past, writing in a language that can scarcely be comprehended, in a style that is occlusive at best, on a variety of unpleasant scoundrels (Lady Macbeth. Iago. Richard III) set moving through vile acts of bondage, thievery, usury, rape, blackmail, sadism, including one caught in a singular act of plucking fresh eyeballs from the owners' very sockets --- PLOCK!

And all the while our whey-faced student will be engaged in adding to the growing garbage pile of M.A. or Ph.D. theses on the many facets of the Bard, writings designed immediately after completions to be shoved into the rat-hole, ignored forever by those in the profession of obfuscation and professional fretworking as soon as completed.

Indeed, after plowing through and writing yet another discourse on Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV, Part 1, or the mumblings of the dark Prince of Denmark, our sad student will begin to wonder if it would not be wiser to invest his future in mechanical engineering, or fixed partial dentures, or Serbo-Croatian geology ... even black holes, anything to get away from the all-too popular Bard of Stratford, for us failed English majors found that there were ultimately few --- a very few --- characters that one could want to unveil to the world: Mercutio, Lear's Fool, possibly his drunken porter or, most certainly, lovely Cleopatra, reveling in

    My salad days,
    When I was green in judgment, cold in blood...

Or telling the maids, if they see Anthony,

    If you find him sad,
    Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
    That I am sudden sick...

Or, as she is about to commit herself to the gods, asp against her bosom,

    Peace! Peace!
    Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
    That sucks the nurse asleep?

Outside of the likes of her, as far as we anti-Bards are concerned, you can take the entire First Folio and dump it in the Thames --- and thus spare future students the wheezing papers they are required to do on "Courtly Lovers in Shakespeare," or, "Justice in Measure for Measure," or "Concepts of Ageing in The Tempest."

There is perhaps one other redeeming aspect to the study of Shakespeare. It flows from those literate (and often poetic) scholars who write on some aspect of the plays and, in the process, create a work of art: the art of high criticism. Those who come readily to mind are A. C. Bradley on Shakespeare's tragedies, William Empson on ambiguity, and Harry Levin's wonderful Question of Hamlet.

They are joined now by the wise and learned Frank Kermode --- treating Shakespeare's poetry in a very poetic fashion. Rather than spend an evening at the Old Globe wrestling with the obscure pyrotechnics of King Lear, we'd suggest a quiet evening in the sack with a bottle of sack, paging through Kermode's fascinating volume, seeing the master through the eyes of another master.

For example, let's look at a short passage in Measure for Measure in which Claudio, "under sentence of death for fornication, agrees that his sister, the novice Isabella, might, with some hope of success, go to the deputy Angelo and plead for her brother's life,"

         for in her youth,
    There is a prone and speechlesse dialect
    Such as moue men...

Kermode then goes on to comment on the word "prone:"

    A modern reader may...agree that this passage, far from suffering a loss of sense from that "distortion of words" which " is not uncommon in our author," comes from the secret places of the Muse where distortions make poetry; that it is a wonderful piece of language, one of those that provoke the sort of attention T. S. Eliot had in mind when he spoke of the bewildering minute, the moment of dazzled recognition, from which one draws back and, having regained composure, tries to think of something to say about an experience too disconcerting to be thought of as simply pleasant.

For, he goes on, it would not be untoward for those reading this passage to begin to have an inkling that Claudio, on death row, thinks that his sister, the virginal nun, should be "moving men" --- moving them, that is, for pleasure. Indeed, "this last half-line," says Kermode,

    makes its point very calmly, with an air of knowing about such cases; and, indeed, I feel very indelicate in explaining Claudio's meaning.

Go on to Part II
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