The purpose of this lecture is to consider some of the reasons why Shakespeare is such a powerfully significant figure in literary history. We are not going to dwell overmuch on the historical context, which is reserved for the module Shakespeare in Time, which you will encounter in your second year. However, we are going to consider some of the formal elements – some of the techniques and styles – Shakespeare uses which sets him apart from almost any other known writer.
Hopefully, by the end of this session you will not only be able to recognise some the literary characteristics which make Shakespeare distinct, but you will also have gained some appreciation of some of the ways in which the writer has earned such a significant place in literary history.
1) Shakespeare’s language:
Shakespeare’s impact upon the development of the English langauge has been enormous. If it were not for Shakespeare, we would never know phrases like:
- a fool’s paradise;
- a foregone conclusion;
- a minstering angel;
- a sea change;
- a sorry sight;
- all corners of the world;
- all one to me;
- as dead as a doornail;
- as pure as the driven snow;
- at one fell swoop;
- bag and baggage;
- come what may;
- eaten out of house and home;
- turning of the tide;
- fair play;
- good riddance;
- high time;
- a charmed life;
- make your hair stand on end;
- love is blind;
- mum’s the word;
- the game is up;
- woe is me.
And it wasn’t only in turning a phrase that Shakespeare changed language. He invented many words which are now everyday, such as;
- accommodation, aerial, amazement, apostrophe, assassination, auspicious, baseless, bloody, bump, castigate, changeful, clangor, control, countless, courtship, critic, critical, dexterously, dishearten, dislocate, dwindle, eventful, exposure, fitful, frugal, generous, gloomy, gnarled, hurry, impartial, inauspicious, indistinguishable, invulnerable, lapse, laughable, lonely, majestic, misplaced, monumental, multitudinous, obscene, palmy, perusal, pious, premeditated, radiance, reliance, road, sanctimonious, seamy, sportive, submerge, suspicious
Shakespeare is rooted in the very language which we use, and his influence is part of what makes the English language as rich, varied and flexible as it is.
2) What Shakespeare can teach us:
“Shakespeare’s plays can stimulate thought about abstract issues such as heroism, government, and war; freindship and love; sexuality and gender; personal and public responsibility; humankind’s relationship to society and to the universe.”
Wells, S. (2003). ‘Why Study Shakespeare?’, in Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide, ed. By Wells, S. and Orlin, L. C.. Oxford: Oxford. P. 3
Shakespeare opens up new vistas in the ways that language can be used, manipulated, changed and moulded to fit new purposes and expressions. At the same time, Shakespeare is perpetually concerned in his plays with moral and ethical dilemmas which still concern us today – and which are rarely explored with such open-ended depth as Shakespeare presents us.
For example – what is worse? To commit murder, or to incite somebody to commit murder? Othello explores just this question. How do we respond to a situation where we know we have to do something, but the very thought of it appalls us? Hamlet considers just such a situation. What about love – how do we respond when we love someone while all the world tells us we can’t? Just look to Romeo and Juliet for an exploration of such a dilemma.
It is, of course, good to be brave – but then don’t even the bravest of us fear death? And when push comes to shove, how much would we be prepared to sacrifce in order to avoid it? Look at Measure for Measure if you want to see one of the most powerful expressions of this age-old question.
The moral and ethical dilemmas which run all through Shakespeare’s plays and poems have a universality about them. They are questions which humanity has been asking itself since the dawn of civilisation – and questions which we continue to ask ourselves even today.
One of the reasons why Shakespeare’s consideration of such issues remains relevant today, is that he always adopts an open-ended approach to them. It is actually very hard to try and determine exactly what Shakespeare himself thinks about anything very much. His plays do not preach at us, or assume a moral or religious answer which is right. Shakespeare presents us with characters struggling with issues to which there is no easy or obvious answer – and in most instances no real answer is ever really found.
Here are some examples:
Hamlet: Hamlet is a prince, whose father has died. His mother has since re-married Hamlet’s uncle. His uncle is now his step-father. But at the beginning of the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s biological father comes to him and claims that the step-father poisoned him. “If thou didst ever thy dear father love” says the ghost of Hamlet’s father, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”
In other words, kill your step-father and the husband of your mother. Not a pleasant situation to be in – to have to either kill your step-father and thus alienate your mother, or have the ghost of your real father popping up and claiming you can never have loved him if you refused to avenge his murder.
For almost the entirely of the remainder of the play, we do not see Hamlet devising various means by which he can bump off his step-father. Instead, the play consists of a minutely observed portrait of someone caught in a dilemma not of their own making, which has consumed their life and has stolen all the fun out of life:
..I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
Hamlet is a picture of life in which all the answers are wrong, and in which the central character is morally trapped. Should he murder his step-father? Should he confront him with what he knows? Should he forgive and forget?
The answers to these questions are not as important as the process of coping with appalling dilemmas – and anybody who has experienced any such dilemma has found in Hamlet some comfort, because the Danish prince (perhaps more than anybody else) understands the pain of not knowing what should be done.
Henry V: Henry V is one of the most stirringly patriotic of plays, isn’t it? A play about arguably England’s greatest ever military victory. Vastly outnumbered, tired and devestated by hunger and disease after a long campaign, few gave Henry’s troops a chance as they lined up against the massive French cavalry. However, inspired by their young and energetic monarch they trounced the French, with loses of between 1,600 (according to French sources) and 100 (according to English), while the French suffered losses of between 10,000 (French sources) and 11,000 (English). Even by Shakespeare’s time, Henry V had come to stand for all that was great about England. He represented the golden age of the nation – it’s greatest flowering, and a standard-bearer for itse sovereignty. Henry V was David Beckham, Winston Churchill and John Lennon all rolled into one.
When Shakespeare got hold of this raw material, he produced speeches which matched the legendary status of their subject, and which have been used since to rouse the nation in times of war, times of economic crisis, and even in times of international sporting events (you may recognise the passages in bold, even if you have never read the play):
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'
Not much room here for ambiguity, eh? It’s a case of England good, French bad, and Henry himself the ultimate hero.
But this is Shakespeare we are dealing with, and things are never quite so simple. Right at the centre of the play, the King disguises himself in order to wonder through his army unrecognised. He comes upon the character Williams, a common soldier. Discussion turns to the cause of the war – whether it is just or not. Williams makes the following startling assertion:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
Amidst all the clamour and the triumphant speeches, here is a heavy dose of reality. The truth of war is one of severed limbs, swearing and crying, orphans and widows – and the King is responsible for such horrors, so had better take good care before leading men to their deaths.
More astonishing still, a few lines later the King himself questions whether he is any better qualified for such responsibility than the common soldier:
What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
Even at the heart of a play of nationistic triumph, there is a stark message of fatalistic realism, and at the same time a daring critique of the system of monarchy coming from the mouth of the greatest monarchical hero in England’s history.
Shakespeare himself does not let nationalistic pride obscure reality, or reason. The victory of the nation should not be won at any cost, and the service due to a monarch should not be unquestioning.
3) Shakespeare’s Characterisations
“Shakespeare had an extraordinary ability to observe, and to transmute into art, the quirks and oddities of the way people talk and behave – an enjoyment of eccentricity, a tolerance of unconventionality, a delight in clever answers and sparkling repartee, in sexual innuendo and robust, knockabout humour, both verbal and physical.”
Wells, S. (2003). ‘Why Study Shakespeare?’, in Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide, ed. By Wells, S. and Orlin, L. C.. Oxford: Oxford. P. 3
Shakespeare’s characters have the capacity to completely convince us, and bring us close to them. Even after all the centuries have past, and even with all the difficulties of Shakespeare’s antiquated language to cope with, characters like Hamlet and Lear, Macbeth, Isabella, Romeo and Juliet have the capacity to move audiences deeply. At the same time, characters like Dogberry… retain the capacity to amuse.
Shakespeare was, uniquely for his time, indiscriminate with the class of character he portrayed. His plays are populated not only by princes and potentates, nobles and heroines; they are also populated by gravediggers and beaurocrats, sailors and commoners, brothel-keepers, vagabonds, drunkards and cowards – each one of which is portrayed with an element of sympathy. The gravedigger in Hamlet pretty much steals the show from the danish prince. The daft Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing ends up capturing the evil Prince John’s accomplices. Even the dastardly Pistol in Henry V is portrayed in the end as a figure of tragic bufoonery: a broken man of no resources whose underlying desperate sense of his own failings draws as much sympathy as it does comedy.
We have to wait until Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson begins writing to find characters from the lower ends of the social spectrum treated again so generously.
We have to wait until the arrival of Henry Fielding in the mid-1700s to find literature again demonstrating such a vast breadth of social humanity.
We have to wait until Charles Dickens in the 1800s to find such a range of characters so minutely observed, and with such a deft capacity to evoke a balance of loving and loathing, mockery and sympathy, disgust and admiraton from audiences and readers.
4) Shakespeare’s dramatic revolution
One of the things which has struck literary critics about Shakespeare through the ages, is the sense of vitalily and reality in his work. Alexander Pope, writing in 1725, wrote that “[h]is characters are so much Nature her self, that ‘tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her”. Samuel Johnson, in 1765, famously declared that “Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature”.
Now, such praise emphasied what was revolutionary about Shakespeare. Before him, imitating nature was not really something that dramatists and poets aimed at. The Greek philosopher Aristotle had established a set of rules for drama, in which he pointed out that nature should not be the aim of art at all. Nature is flawed and corrupt, while art should inspire people to improvement – inspire them by an ideal. Anything ‘natural’ is (according to Aristotle) “trivial” and more useful for comedy than for anything serious like tragedy.
The problem is, again as Alexander Pope so neatly phrased is:
To judge … of Shakespeare by Aristotle’s rules, is like trying a man by the Laws of one Country, who acted under those of another. (1725)
Shakespeare was revolutionary precisely because he managed to achieve exactly what Aristotle (and the countless poets and playwrights influenced by his ideas) did not believe possible: a tragic greatness of thought and action, blended with a naturalness of character and person. The fact that Shakespeare was known to have come from a relatively modest birth made this revolution all the more extraordinary to his contemporaries, and led Pope to consider the “very new opinion, That the Philosopher and even the Man of the world, may be Born” (presumably, instead of bred or tutored) (1725).
There is no greater or clearer example of the complex and powerful revolution of Shakespeare, that that provided by the eminent critic Frank Kermode in his book Shakespeare’s Language. In this book, Kermode takes us through Shakespeare’s career, demonstrating at each step how his writing becomes more dense, more varied and more extraordinary.
Here is just one of the examples Kermode presents us with.
It is important to know something about the contexts of English theatre before Shakespeare. Theatre was a space for rhetorical performance. Actors gained fame and reputation for their capacity to deliver a performance of language. Arms would flail around dramatically and the voice would swoop through all the range of available notes in order to accentuate the language being spoken.
As for the langauge, it was equally performative. The quality of writing was determined by the neatness of the turn of phrase, the grandeur of the simile or device being used. The more impressive the device, the greater the writing – so writers would pepper their language with impressive rhetorical devices: Asyndetons, Polysyndetons, Parallellisms and Chiasmus’, Hendiadys, etc..
A really good simile, for example, in a speech of power might be greeted with a round of appreciative applause just like the flourish of a batsman after the end of good cricket shot, or a fancy bit of footwork on a football pitch. Neither have any relationship to an outcome – they are just showing off – but the audience is there to be wowed by skills, not just by results.
Here is an example of how this works out in dramatic settings. This example comes from one of Shakespeare’s earliest works – the grisly Titus Andronicus. As we come to this scene, one of the central characters (Marcus) comes upon his neice Lavinia. Who has recently been raped, and had both her hands and her tongue cut out.
Who is this? my niece, that flies away so fast!
Cousin, a word; where is your husband?
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
If I do wake, some planet strike me down,
That I may slumber in eternal sleep!
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflowered thee,
And, lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue.
Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encountered with a cloud.
Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so?
O, that I knew thy heart; and knew the beast,
That I might rail at him, to ease my mind!
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.
Fair Philomela, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble, like aspen-leaves, upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch'd them for his life!
Or, had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropp'd his knife, and fell asleep
As Cerberus at the Thracian poet's feet.
Come, let us go, and make thy father blind;
For such a sight will blind a father's eye:
One hour's storm will drown the fragrant meads;
What will whole months of tears thy father's eyes?
Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee
O, could our mourning ease thy misery!
Now, various directors of this play have attempted various ways of handing this particular scene. Perhaps one of the more successful has been the recent film version with Anthony Hopkins. However, the clip from the BBC Shakespeare series demonstrates some of the problems it creates. It seems both strange and bizarre that Marcus, when faced by the mutilated, and still-bleeding figure of his niece should take such a long time to wax lyrical about the horror of the scene. He calls upon the planets, and likens death to sleep. He compares her body to that of a tree, with limbs “lopp’d and hew’d”. Those branches are ‘ornaments’, the protection of which has been sought by kings.
The blood which is even then flowing from her is like a ‘crimson river’ – or a ‘bubbling fountain’. Her molestor is compared to Tereus. Her stumps likened to ‘conduits’. Her face compared to that of Titan. And on and on, and on…
All the while, Lavinia herself has to stand (or lie) patiently – and presumably in all the agonies of hell while her Uncle goes through a catalogue of elaborate similes.
It is, quite simply, not believable. But then, believable is not the point. It is a demonstration of the power of rhetoric – and this speech would have drawn appreciative nods from an audience that was looking for this bit of grandeouse – and ostentatious – literary skill. It is a demonstration of a series of similes. Figurative language at its most luxurient.
By the time Shakespeare reaches the middle period of his career, though, something is changing in his use of language. Consider this speech from Richard II. Richard himself is langushing in jail, when he begins to ponder:
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, 'Come, little ones,' and then again,
'It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.'
The similes here are not rattled out with the thoughtless bravado of Marcus’ speech. Here, the similes are simply bound up with the internal thought processes of a mind which is delicatley, and believably, human. Thoughts begin, but never make it through to the end. The similes are questioning, and uncertain.
If Marcus’s speech is a showcase for the power of language, this speech demonstrates the powerlessness of language when faced with the complexities of human thought and emotion.
In other words, Richard’s speech betrays the inner workings of a real mind. Shakespeare’s revolution is the make the theatre about characters which live, breath and think like human beings. The use of figurative and rhetoric devices is intended to reflect the inner processes of the mind – and as such they are frequently confused and interrupted.
There is no clearer evidence of this than Hamlet’s speech to the theatre troupe visiting Elsinore castle:
Ham. Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as live the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the cars of the groundlings, who (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipp'd for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.
Player. I warrant your honour.
Ham. Be not too tame neither; but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show Virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak it profanely), that, neither having the accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.
Player. I hope we have reform'd that indifferently with us, sir.
Ham. O, reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villanous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready.
5) The Universality of Shakespeare:
The things which we have focusd on as defining Shakespeare as a writer are not unique to him alone. There are other writers who have gained a great cultural significance both in England and abroad (i.e. Chaucer, Malory or Dickens in England, Goethe or Luther in Germany, Sophocles or Homer in Greece, etc.). There are other writers, as well, that deal with moral and ethical issues. Milton dives deep into the morality of religious doctrine. Marlowe explores human ambition, and Swift human depravity. Dickens could certainly match Shakespeare when it comes to breadth of minutely observed characterisations, while Chaucer, Dryden, Milton and Wolfe could all claim to have revolutionised the way language is used in art.
It is questionable though, to what extent any can claim to have achieved all these things together in the way that Shakespeare does.