Monday, March 10, 2014

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

"Brush up your Shakespeare
Start quoting him now
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow."

Cole Porter

Most of the people I know will tell you they only glanced at a Shakespeare play when they were assigned to read one in school — and some of them didn't even do that. Shakespeare was widely seen as having no real relevance to modern readers.

Those folks probably would be shocked at how often they actually quote Shakespeare, some on a daily basis. He had a far greater influence on our modern English than you probably think.

For instance ...

A few months ago, when the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, the word assassination was used a lot, right? It is the word that has always been used when a prominent person is killed by someone else.

Or is it?

A person who murders a prominent person has been called an assassin for a long time. That word has Arabic roots that go back more than a thousand years. But the act of killing a prominent person was not called an assassination ... until Shakespeare came along and used that word in "Macbeth."

When Shakespeare was writing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there was more freedom for writers to do what he did practically routinely — which was to take an existing word and sort of play with it, like a sculptor plays with clay, until a functional shape emerged. Thus, a noun like assassin became a verb (assassinate) — and yielded another noun to describe the action (assassination).

(Of course, we do quote Shakespeare in whole sentences or phrases, too, such as "all's well that ends well" or "foregone conclusion.")

When I was in school, I knew a lot of people who complained when they were assigned to read something Shakespeare had written. His language wasn't modern enough, they complained.

I'm not much of a linguist, but I am something of an historian, and I know that, if the idea was that Shakespeare wrote in Old English, that was plain wrong. Old English began to fall from favor several hundred years before Shakespeare was born.

(Old English really has a lot more in common with the Germanic mother tongue of the Anglo Saxons than modern English does.)

Shakespeare didn't write in Middle English, either. There were a lot of changes in the English language after the French–speaking Normans invaded in 1066, and Middle English came to prominence about 200 years before the Bard was born.

If my friends had to read the same text in both Middle English and Old English, they would find Middle English easier to comprehend — but not by much.

(If you don't believe me, try reading Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," which was written in Middle English. Here's an excerpt from the prologue: "To telle yow al the condicioun, Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, And whiche they weren, and of what degree, And eek in what array that they were inne, And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.")

In fact, Shakespeare wrote in what is known as Early Modern English. It came into use about a century before he was born and is nearly indistinguishable from the English that is written and spoken today.

Now, as you may have noticed, I have mentioned Shakespeare's birth a couple of times. That was intentional — or premeditated, to use another Shakespearean creation (from "King Henry VI, Part I") — because, in about six weeks, we will observe what is probably the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

I say "probably" not because it was a Shakespeare word — it might have been, I just don't know — but because it isn't known exactly when Shakespeare was born. It is known that he was baptized on April 26, 1564, and his date of birth, while not known for certain, has been traditionally observed on April 23.

If that is when he was born, then Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday because we know that he died on April 23, 1616.

The "Oxford English Dictionary" estimated that Shakespeare created some 3,000 words that one can find in the dictionary today — words like countless, for example (from "Titus Andronicus").

That is an astonishing influence on the language, especially when you consider there was no dictionary in Shakespeare's day. The dictionary came into existence about a decade before he died. Shakespeare was sparsely educated, but he would have had no more resource for studying the language he spoke and wrote than anyone else of his time. Grammar texts didn't come along until a century — or more — after his death.

I'm inclined to think that it isn't so much the words that Shakespeare used that tend to confound people — it's the way they're arranged.

Of course, one cannot disregard the fact that words do change meaning — and some fall from use entirely — over time, which can affect the reader's comprehension.

But I still think a lot of the negative reaction to Shakespeare stems from his habit of organizing words in sentences in ways that sound strange to modern ears — even if the meaning isn't altered.

Need an example? Take this five–word sentence: "The governor made a speech."

You could arrange those words in six unique sentences that essentially say the same thing but in different word orders. (Warning: Sometimes it reads like something Yoda might write.)
The governor made a speech.
The governor a speech made.
Made a speech the governor.
Made the governor a speech.
A speech the governor made.
A speech made the governor.

The key to reading and enjoying Shakespeare's work is not learning another language. It is using the language you already know, sometimes rearranging the words in an order that makes sense to you. It really isn't that arduous.

In the meantime ...

The next time you hear the word addiction ("Henry V") or elbow ("King Lear") or rant ("Hamlet"), you can thank Shakespeare.

Of course, someone might have come up with those words someday, anyway. But who knows?