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
                             ....to 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.