Thursday, 13 November 2014

I shall lose my life for want of language

The Renaissance 
Just as the visual arts in Italy gave Europe a High Renaissance 1490 to 1530, so England produced a Language Flowering 1580 to 1625 during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. This period turned the remnants of Middle English into Early Modern English and the wordsmiths were fed hungrily and fed each other with a kaleidoscope of utterances as a result of:
  • the expansion of printing
  • the import from abroad of goods, ideas and foreign phrases
  • the agitations and traumas of the religious and parliamentary schisms
It was essential, as Warwick advises Henry IV, that
                    gain the language
‘Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learn’t

Influences on Language in Jacobethan times

Shakespeare’s contemporaries
Hugh Craig in the Shakespeare Quarterly Spring 2011 reported admirable computer-based research on a good number of Shakespeare’s fellow writers to compare how many unique words they used. Guess what? Shakespeare didn’t come first! Does this diminish him? Not in my book. It just shows in what an extraordinary linguistic cauldron he was living. Shakespeare came SEVENTH!  After Webster, Dekker, Peele, Marlowe, Jonson and Greene. Shakespeare’s vocabulary numbers are often quoted as HIGHER simply because of the VOLUME of work he produced. But if you only count the average numbers of UNIQUE words, then Shakespeare is by no means top.
Marlowe, Webster, Dekker, Peele, Jonson and Greene
How crucial was a university education? (Not a lot!)
Not only that, but the snobs who deride Shakespeare’s authorship because he didn’t go to university should be flabbergasted to know that John Webster, the most linguistically able of the Jacobethan playwrights  didn’t go to university either. He was a coach-maker’s son. Ben Jonson, prisoner, mercenary and bricklayer as well as playwright, who teased Shakespeare about his classical learning, also never made it to university. Going to university (then and now) was no guarantee of linguistic ability, talent or common sense.
Commemorative stamps: Tennant, Sher, Oyelowo, Scofield, Kestleman, Annis, McKellen
Greater than the sum
Aristotle’s Metphysica contains the concept that the Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts. That’s the way I feel about Shakespeare. Knowing that he didn’t go to university, knowing that he suffered family tragedy, knowing that he got tangled up in financial disputes, knowing that he nicked a lot of his material, knowing that some bits of his work are vulgar or rubbish, knowing that he didn’t use as many unique words as six other writers at the time – all these factors make him more culpably human. Or should I say admirably human? Or vulnerably human? Or disgustingly human? Or splendidly human? Or just human? His soundscapes and landscapes seduce me and inspire me. Because if nothing else his work shows the many sides of everything it is to be human.
He was “not of an age but for all time!”
Ben Jonson’s words (in the subheading above) in the Preface to the First Folio speak truth. Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well says “I shall lose my life for want of language.” I say I don’t know how my life would be without Master Shakespeare. After my family and friends, he is the greatest love of my life. Sad, maybe, but true.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Suit the action to the word

It’s not what you’ve GOT, it’s what you DO with it

Despite stealing most of his plots from other books, Shakespeare’s linguistic reputation relates to what he does with his sources, what he does with the language, how he portrays characters in action and how he reveals issues and themes in narratives that thrill and delight 400 years later. THAT’S the nature of his GENIUS.

For Example: Mercutio, Jacques, Malvolio, Aaron

Mercutio is mentioned in Shakespeare’s source for Romeo and Juliet but is in no way like the brilliantly funny, meteoric and doomed character in the play we now have. Certain characters appear to be completely original but they are essential to the texture of the plays we know, especially when staged: Jacques in As You Like It, Malvolio in Twelfth Night and the baby-loving Aaron in Titus Andronicus - all original characters.
Ben Affleck as Mercutio, Alan Rickman as Jacques, Tim Crouch as Malvolio, Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor with Jessica Lange as Tamora, Queen of the Goths
A Source and What Shakespeare Did
Plutarch’s version of Cleopatra’s barge-ride (translated – from a French version by Amyot – in 1579 by Thomas North) is pretty good writing:

. . . she disdained to set forth otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, oboes, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of her self: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus, commonly drawn in picture: and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. 

And this is what my hero did with North's/Aymot's/Plutarch's prose in Antony and Cleopatra:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion – cloth-of-gold of tissue – 
O'er picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-color'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Images of Cleopatra, including Harriet Walter and Kim Cattrall
He’d be in trouble with copyright laws today, but doesn’t it make you gasp? The sheer hutzpah!  And how brilliant, in comparison with the original, are phrases like “Burnt on the water.… Purple the sails…. winds were love-sick…. to the tune of flutes kept stroke…. It beggar’d all description…. pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids…. glow the delicate cheeks….” And the use of the blank verse, the bold opening of “The barge she sat in….”? The way the rhythm pulls like the pulling of oars on a river? The way this speech is given to the semi-cynic Enobarbus, so it does, indeed, beggar all description? Sheer genius!
Elizabeth Taylor, beggaring all description....

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

You Taught Me Language....

To Infinity and Beyond - quick number summary

With 200 words – you can survive (toddler language)
With 850 words – you can thrive (competent 8 year old)
2000 words – the total used by the average modern-day Jill or Joe (teenager base words)
With 4000 words – the Janet or John who reads will function successfully (educated teenager base words)
12,000 to 17,000 words – the number of base words used regularly by a modern adult with average intelligence
25,000 words – popular writers with numerous works
50,000 to 75,000 words – ALL the words known by a modern adult including all the plurals, negatives, derivations, declensions and conjugations (for example counting "is," "was" and "wasn't" as well as "be") [Some of these words will never be spoken but they will be understood when seen or heard in context.]

28,829 words....

My big reveal is that Shakespeare in fact used FEWER words than the number known and understood by many educated modern adults. He used over 65,000 words (compared to 75,000 for the highest ranking modern person) if you count all variations. With the help of computer technology, we now know he used 28,829 unique word forms and 12,493 of those words forms occur only once.  Interestingly, the top 100 most frequently occurring words (the same 100 words back in Jacobethan times as in modern times) make up 53.9% of his entire output.  Put another way, 50% of Shakespeare's work is made up of language used by the average modern 2 year old.

Not such a hot shot linguist then?

Anti-Stratfordians sometimes argue that Shakespeare’s lack of a university education is evidence that the son of a glover and a brewer descended from farming stock in the Midlands could not write the works in the First Folio.  But as I have demonstrated above, around 50% of his work is very simple, basic English.

Robber and partner

We also know chunks of Shakespeare’s work was adapted, sometimes closely (nicked you might say), from the works of other writers: Plutarch, Plautus, Holinshed, Arthur Brooke, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Chaucer to name the most obvious and famous examples. Shakespeare was a jackdaw writer, stealing fragments, nicking words and phrases, adapting plots, robbing motifs and plagiarising plot devices.  We know also that he was a collaborator, working without doubt on some plays with Middleton, Fletcher and George Wilkins.  Possibly Nashe, Peele and Munday too.  (Let me know if you want the evidence for any of the statements in this paragraph….) This doesn't lessen his achievement in my eyes. Michelin star chefs today are not thought rubbish because they are using ingredients that have been used before....
Sources and Collaborators

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it

Stealing from others for creative and artistic reasons is not a cop-out. As one of my favourite writers, Alan Garner, memorably wrote: "Originality is the personal colouring of existing themes." Shakespeare’s linguistic reputation relates to what he does with his sources, what he does with the language, how he portrays characters in action and how he reveals the themes and issues in stories that thrill, surprise and delight 400 years later. Poor vocabulary, maybe, in comparison with a modern reader; but, oh my, the way he puts those words together!
You taught me language and my profit on't is
I know how to curse....
Caliban in The Tempest

Thursday, 6 November 2014

I shall remember this bold language

Superhero-use of vocabulary

In the television series Heroes one of the characters in Season One says “you don’t have to have superpowers to be a hero.” Why is Shakespeare a hero of mine? Well, apart from
  • the income generated for the country by Shakespeare tourism and culture
  • the endless types of characters and plots he created that scriptwriters and other artists are still inspired by 
  • the vast numbers and the scope of the themes in his plays and
  • the memorable words and phrases he recorded
I'm also in awe of My Boy Bill’s superhero-use of vocabulary.

From 200 to 4,000 spoken words

A child between the ages of 2 and 3 rapidly picks up about 200 words to survive and thrive when speaking. 850 is the widely-agreed number of words in Basic English – the number that all native speakers have been shown to be able to recognize, use and understand. A less-educated rarely-reading adult eventually speaks between 2000 words and 4000 words, depending on the type of reading they do (this number is of base words, not declensions, conjugations and variations.)

If you count reading and writing, the numbers go up: 50,000 and counting

A native adult can recognize about 12,000 base words and a regular reader will take pleasure in being able to use about 17,000 words. If you count all the derivations of base words the numbers known and understood goes up to 50,000 but not all of these are actively used in either writing or speech. (Camp is a base word but it doubles if you count the noun and the verb and then quadruples if you count the subtle differences between different meanings; using “camp” to mean an iron age fort is not so familiar a noun as the verb “to camp” meaning to put a tent up and stay in it for a bit….! And as for the meanings of “camp” associated with flamboyant cultural excess, well you can see the complications of counting vocabulary use….)  

Shakespeare did not understand a Freudian slip (although they appear in his plays)

David Crystal suggests 50,000 to 75,000 is the kind of number an educated, native, 21st century reader of English would know and understand (even if they didn't use most of them.) Many of those words, of course, are based on inventions, substances, concepts and neologisms created since Shakespeare’s death in 1616. We can forgive Shakespeare if he would not recognize the words iPod or lycra or Watergate/Plebgate or Pluto (as a planet – or dwarf planet – or minor planet – even new nouns shift meaning on a daily basis.)  
David and Ben Crystal's fine book

Academic word counting

Computer technology has now allowed researchers to track with some accuracy the vocabulary in the works of different writers around the world. Average writers in any language in any era notch up around 20,000 to 25,000 words – and they are the ones who produce popular and extensive catalogues of work. Shakespeare’s total vocabulary is not actually as impressive and extensive as many people think - it's not the number of words he used that mattered - it's HOW and WHY he used them the way he did that makes him a hero to me.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Something Rich and Strange

Time and Space

Retirement is a strange experience for me. Now I wonder how I ever managed to fit work into the day during my working years. What with catching up with friends, rediscovering the British countryside, trying to get fitter, reading and writing, decluttering the house, learning new recipes, cooking and cleaning, watching TIVO and Netflix, going to the cinema, playing piano, doing jigsaws, training my body to sleep properly…. And realising that, although I thought I was pretty well informed about the Man from Stratford, Planet Shakespeare remains a wonderful place to explore in life and dreams….

The collapsing shelves

The clearest analogy I have of my working life as a teacher is that my brain was filled with stacks and stacks of bookshelves and each one had to be read or edited. 

The books were piled up to the ceiling of my mind, most of them double-stacked, some of them triple-stacked, and as each academic year went on the piles got crazier, got wobblier, got more precarious and definitely in danger of falling. The shelves were ready to collapse at any moment and destroy my heart and soul.

In the months since retirement, the shelves have been emptying. They’re being dusted down and I’m starting to rearrange my prized possessions on them. Shakespeare’s presence is a great retirement comfort. Was anyone more creative with language than Shakespeare?


With thanks to Bernard Levin, Robert Demeger and Assemblies "What I Wrote" for school....

If you cannot understand my argument and declare "It's all Greek to me!" then you are quoting Shakespeare. If you claim to be more sinned against than sinning or if you recall your salad days when you were green in judgement, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into air, into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare. Of those phrases, "lost property" is probably the most common and it is quite true that it may have been spoken before Shakespeare used it, but it was in The First Folio that the phrase was recorded in print for the first time. 
A-Level Language students know that it is when words start to appear in print that they really spread locally, nationally and internationally. No-one had used the word assassination in English Literature before Shakespeare did in Macbeth, the word assassin having its origins in 8th century Arabic – but it was Shakespeare who turned the individual killer, assassin, into an abstract noun meaning the whole event – “assassination.” Other words that Shakespeare coined that are still in everyday use today are even-handed, far-off, hot-blooded, schooldays, well-respected, useful, moonbeam and even subcontract. We wouldn’t have the word accommodation without Shakespeare, nor abstemious, discontent, or reinforcementIf you have ever refused to budge an inch, or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, been tongue-tied, been a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle. If you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play or not slept a wink, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, it’s a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it and as happy as the day is long) quoting Shakespeare. Even film titles steal phrases from him – Murder Most Foul, The Darling Buds of May, Under the Greenwood Tree, What Dreams May Come, Band of Brothers, The Dogs of War, The Evil that Men Do, All Our Yesterdays, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Sound and the Fury, Brave New World, This Rough Magic, Cakes and Ale, Journey’s End, All’s Well That Ends Well, To Be Or Not To Be, Something Rich and Strange.

Even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was as dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing-stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot! Then – by Jove!  Tut! Tut! For goodness sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! It’s all one to me! These words and phrases are all creative writing nuggets from Shakespeare.