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Language
No doubt Shakespeare’s plays contain the richest, most eloquent language to be found in any literature outside the Bible. The virtuosity of the technique, in combination with the immense, imaginative vocabulary, is dazzling. Yet Shakespeare also evinces concern for the very nature of language, how the words his characters use, as well as the structure of their sentences and verse, reflect their personality. No doubt Shakespeare’s plays contain the richest, most eloquent language to be found in any literature outside the Bible. The virtuosity of the technique, in combination with the immense, imaginative vocabulary, is dazzling. Yet Shakespeare also evinces concern for the very nature of language, how the words his characters use, as well as the structure of their sentences and verse, reflect their personality. In Richard II, for instance, the title character revels in his own extravagant usage, along with the expressions of others. In the opening scene, he orders that Bullingbrook, Richard’s cousin, and Mowbray, the King’s chief confidant, both of whom have accused each other of treason, be brought before him: High-stomach’d are they both and full of ire, In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire. (I, i, 18–19) He is intrigued with their verbal eloquence rather than with their charges. This impression is reinforced after Bullingbrook offers a scathing condemnation of Mowbray’s behavior, blaming him for “all the treasons for these eighteen years” (I, i, 95) and “the Duke of Gloucester’s death” (I, i, 100). To these statements, Richard replies blithely, “How high a pitch his resolution soars” (I, i, 109). He cares more about the sound of the words than about the devastating indictments that stop just short of blaming Mowbray’s superior, Richard himself, for treachery and murder. When Richard sentences Mowbray to exile for life, Mowbray muses bitterly on that aspect of the punishment which will wound him the most: The language I have learnt these forty years, My native English, now I must forgo, And now my tongue’s use is to me no more Than an unstring’d viol or harp… (I, iii, 159–162) For Mowbray, loss of language means loss of culture and heritage, a deprivation that will become more spiritual than physical: What is thy sentence [then] but speechless death, Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath? (I, iii, 172–173) In this play, then, language and self are inextricably tied. No one embodies that theme more than Richard himself, for at many moments during his fall from the throne, he seems more involved with his mode of expression than with his place in the hierarchy of the kingdom. For example, in his lengthy explanation of why he interrupted the one-on-one trial by combat between Bullingbrook and Mowbray (I, iii, 123–143) the word “peace,” first in line 132, then in line 137, is both subject and object of “fright” (137). Such tortuous syntax reveals the emptiness of Richard’s conviction, as well as his verbal skills at masking such hollowness. Subsequently, at the moment of abdication, Bullingbrook urges Richard to act quickly: “Part of your cares you give me with your crown” (IV, i, 194). Richard, however, focuses on Bullingbrook’s word selection and, rather than face the usurpation, amuses himself with a series of puns: Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down: My care is loss of care, by old care done, Your care is gain of care, by new care won; The cares I give I have, though given away, They tend the crown, yet still with me they stay. (IV, i, 195–199) Richard seems intent on showing that his linguistic skill, the mastery and understanding of language, manifests an innate royalty that the unimaginative Bullingbrook will forever lack. Moments later, after Richard has shattered the looking glass in which he searched to find his image, Bullingbrook comments: “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d/ The shadow of your face” (IV, i, 292–293). Bullingbrook struggles to match Richard’s eloquence. The King, however, trumps Bullingbrook, so to speak, by reflecting on the double meaning: Say that again. The shadow of my sorrow. Ha, let’s see. ’Tis very true, my grief lies all within, And these external [manners] of laments Are merely shadows to the unseen grief That swells with silence in the tortur’d soul. (IV, i, 293–298) Richard takes Bullingbrook’s play on words and carries it further, demonstrating how Bullingbrook does not realize the subtleties and implications of his own witticism. Richard also uses the word “shadow” to imply that matters on the surface of life, such as possession of a throne, are of less consequence than inner feelings. The King’s implication is that he, Richard, who is attuned to language and feeling, will always be superior to Bullingbrook, who is preoccupied with more obvious, less substantial issues. Even when he is alone in prison, awaiting death, Richard gives attention to language: 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. (V, v, 1–5) What stimulates him is the imagery of prison, not its reality. True, he is trying to come to grips with the course of his life, where he went astray, and how he might have acted differently and thereby succeeded. But above all, the metaphor spurs his mind. Another play in which language dominates the proceedings is Julius Caesar. Especially striking in this text is how certain oratorical devices dominate the rhetoric of virtually every speaker in the play. For instance, in the first scene, the tribune Murellus tries to rouse the disordered mob into support for Pompey by accusing them of ignorance: You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome, Knew you not Pompey? (I, i, 35–37) The anaphoric “you” creates an energy intended to envelope listeners in his passion, and the rhythm of the word patterns thereby becomes a weapon. Later, when orating over Caesar’s corpse, Antony uses the identical verbal strategy, even invoking some of the same words: It is not meet you know how Caesar lov’d you: You are not wood, you are not stones, but men; And, being men, hearing the will of Caesar, It will inflame you, it will make you mad. (III, ii, 141–144) Persuasion is the goal here, too, as, indeed, it is on the part of speakers throughout the play. Consider another section of Murellus’s tirade: Many a time and oft Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements, To tow’rs and windows, yea, to chimney-tops, Your infants in your arms, and there have sate The livelong day, with patient expression, To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome… (I, i, 37–42) He conjures up glorious memories, inviting his listeners to lose themselves in the maze of images. Here language creates a world of memory that allows Murellus to infuse the audience with feelings of greatness. Later Cassius, seeking to rouse action against Caesar, uses the same tactic with his friend Brutus, seeking to bring him to the side of the conspirators: Age, thou art sham’d! Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! When went there by an age since the great flood But it was fam’d with more than one man? (I, i, 150–153) The sense of the words is less significant than their sound, which is aimed at rousing Brutus to action with his own stature. That soaring ego, Cassius hopes, will salvage Rome’s glory. Caught up in the speed and force of Cassius’s language, Brutus does not stop to ponder what sentiments lie behind the glorious words. We should also note Brutus’s funeral oration over the murdered Caesar (III, ii, 13–34). Brutus has foolishly ordered that he be permitted to speak first, failing to grasp that the final address always has the most impact. In any case, his attempt to justify the actions of the conspirators falls far short of the mark, primarily because Brutus speaks in prose. His ideas lack the passion he seeks to communicate, so he is reduced to repeating the feeble word “honor” several times to legitimize what is, after all, a heinous act. If any single character may be said to epitomize the power of language to define someone, that figure would be Parolles, Bertram’s shifty confidant in All’s Well That Ends Well. Like Falstaff in Henry IV, Parolles falls into the tradition of miles gloriosus, the “braggart soldier” from Roman comedy. More to the point, his name means “words” in French, and thus, not surprisingly, language is the key to his character, for he hides corruption and cowardice behind bombast. Yet whereas Falstaff helped humanize his young charge, Hal, Parolles tends to reinforce Bertram’s bigotries. Lafew, the wise old lord who serves as Bertram’s conscience for much of this play, even says of Parolles that “the soul of this man is his clothes” (II, v, 43–44). That image of dressing, of disguising one’s nature, whether under words or raiment, is the essence of Parolles. As we see when he counsels Bertram to run away rather than be trapped by the King’s directives about war and women: Use a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords; you have restrain’d yourself within the list of too cold an adieu. Be more expressive to them, for they wear themselves in the cap of time, there do muster true gait; eat, speak, and move under the influence of the most receiv’d star, and though the devil lead the measure, such are to be follow’d. (II, i, 50–56) Parolles is preoccupied with appearance rather than substance, with the veneer of bravery more than with its actuality; thus his use of words that are seemingly eloquent, but ultimately shallow, reflects his shamelessness. The method for deceiving Parolles is most fitting. With Bertram’s permission, two French lords send him off on a fraudulent mission to retrieve a drum, but before he exits, Parolles says with unintentional irony: “I love not many words” (III, vi, 84). The second lord sees him differently: “No more than a fish loves water” (III, vi, 85). In any case, just as Parolles is about to salvage any drum available, he is captured by French soldiers, whose nonsensical ravings fool Parolles completely. Instinctively turning coward, he promises to betray his comrades: Oh, let me live, And all the secrets of our camp I’ll show, Their force, their purposes; nay, I’ll speak that Which you will wonder at. (IV, i, 83–86) Under questioning by these same troops, still threatening him in babble, Parolles reveals all he claims to know, and even confesses to have written a letter in which he insulted Bertram. The latter is outraged by this treachery, but so overwhelming is Parolles’ parade of fraud that one lord is moved to admit: “I begin to love him for this” (IV, iii, 262). Yet when all have been unmasked, Parolles is still unrepentant: “Simply the thing I am/ Shall make me live” (IV, iii, 333–334). In his steadfastness to his own bluster, trickery, and general unscrupulousness, Parolles emerges with minor dignity, a quality that the perpetually slimy Bertram never achieves. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the one that seems to revel most in the imaginative possibilities of language is Love’s Labor’s Lost. From the King’s opening declaration (I, i, 1–23), phrased in overbearing, convoluted verse, the wordplay and sentence structure in this text is amazingly varied. Consider the “fantastical Spaniard” Armado, whose foppery and conceit are matched by his overblown speech, as the King suggests: One who the music of his own vain tongue Doth ravish like enchanting harmony … (I, i, 166–167) We see as much in the letter read by his servant, Costard, who is accused of dallying with the maid, Jaquenetta, the object of Armado’s affections: “So it is, besiged with sable- colored melancholy, I did commend the black op pressing humor to the most wholesome physic of thy health-giving air; and as I am a gentleman, betook myself to walk …” (I, i, 231–235) Here, too, sheer verbosity disguises intellectual and emotional hollowness. When Armado accepts advice from the youthful Moth on affairs of the heart, their imagery of dance reflects the world of this play, in which most human activity, in particular courtship, is a stylized, insubstantial ritual. We can imagine Moth putting both himself and Armado through a series of physical contortions to communicate proper technique, but the comic highlight is Armado’s own ludicrous sentiments: A most acute juvenal, volable and free of grace! By thy favor, sweet welkin, I must sigh in thy face: Most rude melancholy, valor gives thee place. (III, i, 66–68) Contorted language is also characteristic of Holofernes the pedant, Shakespeare’s satiric portrait of perhaps either the scholar John Florio or his own schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins. Here Holofernes comments on the seemingly simply activity of watching a hunt: The deer was [as you know] sanguis, in blood, ripe as the pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in the ear of caelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven, and anon fallen like a crab on the face of terra, the soil, the land, the earth. (IV, ii, 3–7) Moments later, he attempts to create romantic verse: The preyful Princess pierc’d and prick’d a pretty pleasing pricket; Some say a sore, but not a sore, till now made sore with shotting. (IV, ii, 56–57) This pretentiousness reflects the foolishness of Holofernes, and once more we are conscious of how a melange of words can conceal a scarcity of thought. Holofernes’ pomposity is contrasted by the tone of the letter from the lord Berowne to his love, Rosaline: If knowledge be the mark, to know thee shall sufffice; Well learned is that tongue that well can thee commend, All ignorant that soul that sees thee without wonder; Which is to me some praise that I thy parts admire. (IV, ii, 111–114) From the beginning of the play, Berowne has tried to deny his romantic feelings by scorning romance. How fitting, then, that as he falls more deeply in love, his language becomes more direct, so much so that by the end of the play, after the women have mocked their suitors who have disguised themselves as Muscovites, Berowne dismisses poetic pretension as an extension of male ego: O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d. Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue, Nor never come in vizard to my friend Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper’s song! (V, ii, 402–405) These lines are an accurate reflection of the presentation of language throughout Shakespeare’s plays. When we come across speakers who cannot or will not articulate thoughts clearly, who hide behind clusters of words and obscure constructions rather than speak forthrightly, their deception manifests fundamental weakness. We conclude here with the chief example of this phenomenon: Polon ius in Hamlet. The advisor to King Claudius is at times a comic figure, as in his first lines, when he responds to the query about his son Laertes’ plans: H’ath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave By laborsome petition, and at last Upon his will I seal’d my hard consent. I do beseech you give him leave to go. (I, ii, 58–61) Already we see the wordiness and convoluted manner that characterizes Polonius. More important, though, is the moral deviousness that his style masks. Like his sentences, Polonius perpetually meanders, skulking about the palace to spy on his daughter, Ophelia, and conjuring up theories to explain Hamlet’s behavior. For instance, when he reads a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, but obviously composed by the Prince in a purposefully graceless style, Polonius cannot resist remarking on the awkward use of language. Ironically, though, he remains blind to his own twisted expressions, as when he explains matters to the King and Queen: But what might you think, When I had seen this hot love on the wing— As I perceiv’d it (I must tell you that) Before my daughter told me—what might you, Or my dear Majesty your queen here, think, If I had play’d the deck or table-book, Or given my heart a [winking,] mute and dumb, Or look’d upon this love with idle sight, What might you think? (II, ii, 131–139) He seems incapable of uttering a straightforward sentence. We are not surprised, therefore, at Polonius’s manner of death: caught behind the curtain in Queen Gertrude’s room, and stabbed by Hamlet who has taken him for Claudius: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune; Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger… (III, iv, 31–33) Hamlet sees Polonius’s fate as perfectly appropriate to the way the man conducted his life. For Polonius and the other figures discussed here, as well as for virtually all characters in dramatic literature, language and personality reflect each other. In life, too, our words and syntactical constructions reveal more of ourselves than we can possibly know.
 
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