Tongue-twister Shakespeare

SETH LERER

A new book traces the origins of English—from the Anglo-Saxons to Eminem. In the excerpt below, the author explains how Shakespeare stretched English to its outer limits.

William Shakespeare
1564-1616

Shakespeare’s very name evokes the acme of the English language. People who have never seen his plays know phrases such as “sound and fury,” “the most unkindest cut,” “ripeness is all” and “to be, or not to be.” His tragic characters have helped define what it means to be a human being. His comic episodes make audiences laugh four centuries later. His sonnets stand as the benchmarks of love poetry. More than any other writer in the language, Shakespeare used the resources of English to their full. He coined nearly 6,000 new words; he juxtaposed Anglo-Saxon and Latin words for striking effect; he wrestled with the syntax of everyday speech until it almost broke.

Take the way he uses “assassin.” It came originally from an Arabic term meaning a “hashish eater.” Members of a certain sect would get high on their hash before committing violent deeds, such as the public killing of a public figure. The term floated into European languages with the Crusades, but rarely out of its specific, Middle Eastern context. In the early 16th century it appears in English, meaning someone who would kill for money. In the first years of the 17th century, it starts to appear to refer generally to a killer of a public figure. Shakespeare adds the Latinate -ion ending, in a soliloquy from Macbeth that rings with verbal innovation.

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
If it were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

Macbeth is contemplating killing Duncan. If it were over and done with when the killing was done, if there were no consequences, then fine—but, as Macbeth goes on to reflect, such actions do have long consequences. But his words also twist around the tongue. New terms, wild images, strange metaphors all concatenate to mime the snare-like logic of his meditation.


Shakespeare’s characters spinning their selves out of a language old and new. And no character shapes himself in language as much as Hamlet. He remains the exemplar of the modern character.


First, the repetition: done, done, done. The verb “do” was taking on new uses. Shakespeare deploys it here to mark the ambiguities of action: first, to mean the act of doing the killing itself; then, to mean over and done with; then, the act again. All the words in these first 1½ lines are Anglo-Saxon words: short, old, only deceptively clear. And then the new word “assassination,” which opens the door to verbal strangeness. A trammel was a kind of fishing net. The word first appears as a verb, meaning to bind up a corpse, in the mid-16th century. Shakespeare is the first to use it figuratively—to bind up what? The consequence? Look at the figurative diction here: the assassination would bind up in a net the consequences of the action, not letting anything escape. And then the next clause: if the assassination could ensure success with “his surcease” (that is, Duncan’s death). “Surcease” comes from “cease.” It appears in the late 16th century as a new coinage meaning an act of bringing to an end. But it also must stand here for its sound as much as its sense. Read these first 3½ lines aloud and hear the repetitions, the alliterations, the tongue-twisting (try saying “with his surcease success” three times). And then keep reading, as the mouth falls back into Anglo-Saxon: “that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all.” How familiar these words sound, how obvious their meaning. Yet Shakespeare made them up. “Be-all and end-all,” like phrases such as “bated breath” (Merchant of Venice), “salad days” (Antony and Cleopatra), “what the dickens” (Merry Wives of Windsor), “my mind’s eye” (Hamlet) and nearly countless others are Shakespeare’s gift to our sense of the colloquial.

But as Macbeth’s first sentence ends, we move to yet another area of the Shakespearean. This is the world of “and” that fills the mouths of tragic heroes. “This bank and shoal of time.” Shakespeare takes metaphor—here, the idea of time as a river—and splits it down the middle. We stand on the sandbanks and the shallows of time’s river. One word is not enough, just as one word would not suffice for Hamlet (“slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”). Standing upon those banks and shoals, “we’d jump the life to come.” “Jump” first appears in the 1500s; by 1600, people are jumping all over the place, but in this passage from Macbeth the word means something other than “to take a leap.” It must mean something like “risk” or “hazard,” but it also has to carry the literal sense. We’re standing on the shore, getting ready to jump. We’re ready to dive in.

Shakespeare’s characters spinning their selves out of a language old and new. And no character shapes himself in language as much as Hamlet. He remains the exemplar of the modern character. His speeches have bequeathed us rafts of figures that now border on cliché. Nothing, perhaps is so familiar to us as the great soliloquy:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

But was this really what Shakespeare wrote? These lines come from a tradition of texts grounded in the 1604 publication of the play (the Second Quarto edition) and in the First Folio of 1623. But in 1603, another version of Hamlet appeared, what scholars today call the First, or “Bad” Quarto: a short, seemingly garbled text, perhaps the record of an actor’s memory, perhaps the record of an earlier Shakespearean assay. In any case, the soliloquy is very different.

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
From whence no passenger euer retur’nd,
The vndiscouvered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.


Shakespeare is the most quoted author in the OED, and from these few examples we can see how Hamlet’s great soliloquy makes Shakespeare, and this play, the epicentre of the history of the language—as if modern character and modern English both emerged with Hamlet.


In the Renaissance schoolroom such questions as Hamlet’s would have been topics for debate. His opening words signal a command of the classroom, rather than a command of the soul. Resolved: to be or not to be. Take either side. Here, Hamlet argues in good rhetorical fashion each side of the argument. But for the speaker of the First Quarto version, this is not a question but a point. The ambiguities, the doubts, the back-and-forth rhetorical patterns of the familiar version absent themselves here. Instead, we get a set of statements. Every line ends with a bit of punctuation; there is virtually no enjambment, as there is throughout the Second Quarto/First Folio version, and where such a device creates something of a formal tension between the controlling patterns of the verse line and the flow of Hamlet’s language. The First Quarto soliloquy comes off, especially to those of us reared on the “better” version, as confused, ungrammatical, silly.

The Second Quarto/First Folio version has become a benchmark in the history of English. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary relied on it, often citing it as the first example for a word or idiom. Read on in the soliloquy: “to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / that flesh is heir to.” The OED defines the heartache as “pain or anguish of mind,” and gives this passage as the first use in English. “It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Look up consummation in the OED, and under definition four, “fulfillment, goal,” the dictionary gives this passage as the first use in English. “Aye, there’s the rub.” The OED has Shakespeare as the coiner of this phrase, and the dictionary’s subsequent quotations illustrate an afterlife of Hamlet in the mouths of later poets, politicians and poseurs. And when we come to the “undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns,” we can find in “bourne” a lexicon of Shakespeare’s influence. For definition three, “the limit or terminus of a race, journey, or course,” the OED notes: “Shakespeare’s famous passage probably meant the ‘frontier or pale’ of a country; but has been associated contextually with the goal of a traveller’s course.”

Shakespeare is the most quoted author in the OED, and from these few examples we can see how Hamlet’s great soliloquy makes Shakespeare, and this play, the epicentre of the history of the language—as if modern character and modern English both emerged with Hamlet. We have made our literary and linguistic history arc through the stars of Hamlet’s words. “To be or not to be” becomes not just a query about life but a statement about vernacular identity, about Englishness itself. And when we hold up these two radically different versions of the play and its soliloquy, we must ask ourselves which one is real, which one is truly Shakespearean or truly Hamlet-like: which one we might let be and which one not to be.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Seth Lerer. "Tongue-twister Shakespeare." excerpted from Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, Boethius and Dialogue. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.

THE AUTHOR

Seth Lerer joined the Stanford faculty as Professor of English in 1990, received a joint appointment in Comparative Literature in 1996, and served as Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature from 1997-2000. His research interests include medieval and Renaissance studies, comparative philology, the history of scholarship, and children's literature. He has published over one hundred articles and reviews and is the author of five books: Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, Boethius and Dialogue, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Chaucer and His Readers, Courtly Letters in the Age of Henry VIII: Literary Culture and the Arts of Deceit, and Error and the Academic Self: The Scholarly Imagination, Medieval to Modern. He is currently completing a History of Children's Literature under contract with the University of Chicago Press.

Copyright © 2007 Columbia University Press




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