The Power Of Shakespeare's Language

by V.S. Ravi - Jul 16, 2021 08:46 PM +05:30 IST
The Power Of Shakespeare's Language(Flickr)

Every time I read some passage of Shakespeare, I notice some new expression, or imagery or usage of certain words, so utterly fascinating that it strengthens my conviction that no other poet in the history of literature could have created them.

In Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, addressing the corpse of Caesar, says:

This was the noblest Roman of them all

All the conspirators save only he,

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.

He only in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world 'this was a man'

The last line of this passage had kept troubling me for a long time. Then one day it struck me that Churchill had used this phrase in his most acclaimed war speech. I shall quote the relevant portion of Churchill's speech: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will still say this was their finest hour".

The echo is unmistakable.

An example, in which a metaphor is used in an extraordinary and charming way, is in Romeo and Juliet. Describing Romeo, Juliet says:

When he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so bright

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

For a long time, this passage also had bothered me because in many editions the second word in the first line is ‘he’ as indicated above and not 'I'. This did not seem appropriate. Juliet was so passionately in love with Romeo that she obsessively craved for union with Romeo. Why then would she talk about his death!

Then when I consulted one of the earliest editions of the play I found what I had been looking for. The line read “When I shall die”!

Juliet's love for Romeo was so great that when she died (incidentally, "die" in Shakespeare's time was slang for orgasm) she wanted all the parts of his body to be near her, even as they dimmed the brightness of the sun!

In Julius Caesar, Portia tells Brutus:

Make me acquainted with your cause of grief

Within the bond of marriage tell me Brutus

Is it excepted I should know no secrets

That appertains to you? Am I not your self

But as it were in sort of limitation

To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed

And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs

Of your good pleasure, if it be no more

Portia is Brutus’ harlot not his wife. Brutus comforts her by saying:

You are my true and honourable wife, As dear to me as are the ruddy drops That visit my sad heart.’

Portia continues,

Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em.

I have made strong proof of my constancy,

Giving myself a voluntary wound

Here in the thigh. Can I bear that with patience

And not my husband’s secrets?

Brutus says to himself

"O ye gods,

Render me worthy of this noble wife".

To my mind no other poet has spoken about the sanctity of marriage, and the character of a noble couple better than Shakespeare has in these lines.

In Julius Caesar there is another scene in which Shakespeare shows his amazing dramatic skill. Following Caesar's assassination, Decius asks Cassius whether anyone else (obviously referring to Antony) has to be killed. Cassius opines that Antony should also be killed as it was dangerous to spare his life. But Brutus brushes aside their fears saying:

"Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,

To cut the head off and then hack the limbs ---

Let us be sacrifices but not butchers".

Then comes the coup de grace.

Mark Antony addressing Caesar's body whispers,

"Pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth

That I am meek and gentle with these butchers" using the very same word 'butchers' when referring to the conspirators !

Shakespeare's characters are not ‘puppets’ controlled by unseen strings. They are real persons in whom good and evil mingle (unlike as in ‘types’) and who act on their own, once created e.g Hamlet, Falstaff, and Brutus, and, Portia, Viola, and Lady Macbeth. You have to hear only one sentence, and you can immediately guess the identity of the speaker. In the entire history of literature no other dramatist has achieved this unique feat.

This feature is particularly noticeable when Shakespeare creates two similar characters in a play --they are remarkably discriminated in his hands.

De Quincey observes that "murder in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life”.

Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him---"But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion -- jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred -- which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.

And as De Quincey further observes: “In Macbeth, in order to gratify his own inordinate and teeming faculty of creation, Shakespeare has introduced two murderers and as usual in his hands they are remarkably discriminated”.

This remarkable ability of Shakespeare to discriminate between even two similar minor characters also in a play can be seen in Antony and Cleopatra. One can easily distinguish between the two hand maidens of Cleopatra. Charmian is given to making racy jokes on every available pretext, she is also deeply loyal to her mistress. She advises Cleopatra on how to deal with Antony. Iras is somewhat more subdued a character than Charmian, but is just as able to make a pun, with sexual innuendo.

In Julius Caesar, two tribunes -- Flavius and Marullus -- scold the crowds for having come to see Caesar’s triumphant march into Rome. They both love Pompey and hate Caesar. The former assumes leadership and authority and even organises a plan to diminish the celebration of Caesar's return.

Marullus, on the other hand, is emotional. He attempts to drive the crowds from the streets, reminding them of their former love for Pompey.

Shakespeare is a wizard in drawing metaphors from any human activity. A soliloquy in Macbeth which I find fascinating is the one in which Macbeth admits to himself that he has no moral justification for committing the murder of King Duncan. He first specifies the reasons he has for not killing him and then candidly acknowledges in a suspended metaphor his only reason for murdering Duncan by saying: I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, except vaulting ambition, that overleaps itself and falls on the other.

One aspect of this soliloquy that’s often overlooked but which struck me is how much of it relies on imagery, derived from horse-riding:

The word ‘trammel’, summons the idea of binding a horse’s legs together, while the sentence ‘I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent’ suggests a rider kicking his horse to make it gallop. Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’ other’ calls to mind an over-hasty horse which trips because it is jumping too far, too fast !

Some scholars think that this metaphor 'prick the sides of my intent" may mean an inexperienced and rather clumsy horseman, who tries to mount a horse but vaults so ridiculously that he sails over the saddle and falls in a heap on the ground. However, in my view, Shakespeare meant the two images mentioned earlier. Macbeth is foreseeing that it will be a serious mistake to murder Duncan just to achieve his ambition.

At another place Macbeth asks 'if we should fail?'

Lady Macbeth answers:

'Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we shall not fail'.

It’s an image from a crossbow (the type used by William Tell) whose string is pulled taut by turning a wooden screw. Only when the screw is turned to its fullest extent — its sticking place — the crossbow is ready to fire.

However, in the traditional bow/long bow, the type used by Robin Hood, the bow is bent, the string pulled back along with the arrow and then the arrow is shot.

Lady Macbeth, is referring to the crossbow, and saying that Macbeth needs to generate the required courage, which like the arrow of a crossbow, is fixed in the sticking place, for being fired.

In Shakespeare's time 'Bear baiting' was a popular sport. A bear was tied with a rope to a sturdy post inside an arena filled with spectators. Then a pack of aggressive dogs or lions were let loose and a bloody fight to the death ensued. The bear was unable to escape or defend itself.

Macbeth says,

"I am tied to a stake and must bear-like fight my course'

Macbeth invokes this image as he anticipates that he will soon be attacked by Malcolm's forces and he has no alternative but to fight to save himself.

Shakespeare coined over 1700 (according to some estimates the figure is much higher) of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. Constraints of space would permit me to quote only a few.

Macbeth, on looking at his blood-smeared hand after murdering Duncan screams out in horror.

In my opinion the following two sentences from Macbeth best represent the power of Shakespeare's language:

"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine making the green one red"

Shakespeare makes, a magnificently poetic, verb out of "incarnadine," a sixteenth century adjective meaning "pink." (The Latin root carn-refers to flesh, and thus, in its derivatives, to flesh color.) "To incarnadine" is thus to turn something pink or light red — what Macbeth imagines his bloody hands will do to Neptune's green ocean.

After Shakespeare, the verb and adjective have both come to refer to the colour of blood itself — crimson — rather than to the light red of a bloodied sea. Macbeth has come to recognise that his guilt can never be washed off, even if the blood can be washed from his hands. Instead, his guilt will poison the world around him, which he compares to an ocean. (Some scholars are of the view that Shakespeare devised the verb "incarnadine" from the Italian word 'incarnadino' carnation or fleshy to colour,' to express 'stain carnation-red colour"). Whatsoever might be the etymology of the word" incarnadine", the expression " multitudinous seas incarnadine" is unrivalled in power and music in all literature.

According to the Shakespearean scholar Shapiro, The 'un'-prefix is something Shakespeare created (at least he was the first to use it in print or on stage). That means he invented the words unaware, uncomfortable, undress, uneducated, unwillingness, unsolicited, and unreal.

In Henry IV Part 1, there is the best example of usage of words beginning with the prefix "un". Shakespeare uses the prefix in two lines thrice.

"And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,

He called them untaught knaves, unmannerly,

To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse."

Lady Macbeth requests the' spirits that tend on mortal thoughts' to 'unsex' her, take away her femininity and give her masculine courage necessary to murder Duncan.

One would be right in concluding that the word "unknown" was unknown before Shakespeare.

According to Richard Lederer, Shakespeare coined or was the first to use the words, assassination, baseless, castigate, dislocate, eventful, frugal, generous, hurry, indistinguishable, laughable, multitudinous, obscene, premeditated, radiance, and sanctimonious.

He bequeathed to the English language such now familiar double plays as barefaced, civil tongue, cold comfort, eyesore, fancy free, high time, itching palm, foul play, green-eyed, tongue-tied, sea change, short shrift, towering passion, primrose path, love affair, and laughing- stock. If you carry within you, the milk of human kindness, and a heart of gold (even though you know that all that glitters is not gold ) laugh yourself into stitches, make a virtue of necessity, know that the course of true love never did run smooth, and if you don't budge an inch, you are standing on that tall tower of strength, that be-all and end-all of phrase makers, and the magician of words, William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare makes Iago utter the following lines in Othello:

"Who steals my purse steals trash. ’Tis something, nothing:

’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed".

No other dramatist in the history of literature, has had the courage to make a wicked man like Iago" (with "motiveless malignity" a phrase coined by Coleridge) express such a noble sentiment!

No other dramatist would have dreamed of adding to the pathos — of increasing our appreciation of Lear's agony, by supplementing the wail of the mad king with the mocking laughter of a loving clown.

Shakespearean scholars have been racking their heads over the question of the authorship of the plays, for a very long time, and some have argued that Marlowe is the real author. However, it occurred to me that Ben Johnson in his poem addressed to Shakespeare says:

“I should commit thee surely with thy peers

And tell how far thou didst our Lyle outshine

Sporting kid or Marlowe’s mighty line.

To my mind these lines clearly prove that Shakespeare and Marlowe were different persons and that Shakespeare outshone Marlowe's "mighty line"

This specific reference to Shakespeare having outshone Marlowe proves beyond doubt, that Shakespeare and Marlowe were two entirely different persons, and that Shakespeare was considered to be much superior to Marlowe by Ben Johnson. I was surprised how this simple fact had been overlooked by even great Shakespearean scholars who could have easily rebutted the claim of authorship of Marlowe. I must attribute this discovery of mine to incredible luck!

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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