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Review Shakespeare

Review: Shakespeare’s Words By David And Ben Crystal Essay, Research Paper

Reading while you’re wonder-woundedShakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companionby David Crystal and Ben Crystal628pp, Penguin Shakespeare wrote when the English language was young, supple and full of energy. He changed it as he used it, inventing new rhythms, new ways of thinking and expressing thoughts, new windows into newly discovered minds. The Crystals, and Stanley Wells in his introduction to their new glossary, argue that Shakespeare’s language has lately become more difficult for the general audience to grasp. Wells even suggests that foreigners who have good translations have easier access to the master than his compatriots, and raises the question of Shakespeare translated into modern English. It is hard to imagine such a translation not being as lumpen and haunted by vanished wordpower as the New English Bible. Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots; language is his power. His characters are precisely the words they speak. As Iris Murdoch’s sad failed writer, Bradley Pearson, says in The Black Prince, “Hamlet is words and so is Hamlet. He is as witty as Jesus Christ, but whereas Christ speaks, Hamlet is speech.”The attention Shakespeare’s words have accrued through the centuries resembles the attention the Holy Book has had. He has been bowdlerised, annihilated by Baconians and Marlovians, decoded and glossed. Every possible error of every typesetter has been diligently scrutinised in an impossible attempt to establish his exact final script – something that amuses me every time an American editor rewrites my writing line by line, as though writing were a democratic undertaking. In my mind’s eye Shakespeare is a huge, hot sea-beast, with fire in his veins and ice on his claws and inscrutable eyes, who looks like an inchoate hump under the encrustations of live barnacle-commentaries, limpets and trailing weeds. There was fascination in the yards of footnotes I read as an undergraduate for every few lines of King Lear or Macbeth. But I don’t think that at that age I should have been answering questions on textual variations or foul copies. Those are for specialists. I should have been reading more words. George Steiner has said that literature might regain energy if secondary commentary stopped for 10 years, and Shakespeare might again look glossy and supple if this impossible event ever took place. A good glossary is a necessary and a useful thing. Words fail and go out of use. I remember at 13 turning on my tongue the Ghost’s words “unhousel’d, disappointed, unannealed”, which are rarely now spoken on stage. This glossary tells us what they mean. The Crystals – a distinguished linguist and his son, an actor and a scholar – have eschewed both etymological and interpretative information, and have made lists of words, giving the most frequent uses first, and simple translations. They have also included lists of things like plants, stage directions, expletives and weapons. They are usually helpful with obsolete words – I looked up cain-coloured, caitiff, falchion, losel, ouph and ousel, serpigo and others, and found the information I would have needed. I checked on “the multitudinous seas incarnadine” and found a workmanlike paraphrase. But when I began to investigate complicated uses of words with many meanings, I grew unhappy. Many of the paraphrasing definitions seemed to stop off, rather than to elicit, a response to the poetry. Take Laertes’s cry, characterised by Hamlet as that “phrase of sorrow” which “conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand / Like wonder-wounded hearers.” The glossary defines “wonder-wounded” as “wonder-struck”. What use is this to a 13-year-old meeting Hamlet ? If he or she can’t understand “wonder-wounded”, why should he or she understand “wonder-struck”? If he can’t, he shouldn’t be reading the play. Dutifully writing down the paraphrase simply destroys the wonderful sounds of “wander, wonder, wounded” which should be singing in his mind. I also checked Troilus’s great speech on discovering Cressida’s doubleness – a speech that renders incoherence and struggling thought with absolute precision, mixing the most abstract and philosophical terms with sensuous metaphors. “A thing inseperate”, now Divides more wider than the sky and earth, And yet the spacious breadth of this division Admits no orifex for a point as subtle As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter. Division is not glossed; orifex is glossed as “orifice, opening, aperture”, which is useful, and “subtle” is defined as “fine, thin, slender”, which is surely only one of the two riddling meanings it carries in context. Again, a solid paraphraser would miss resonance and sense. I suspect that “division” should have had rhetorical and musical pointers, in terms of the whole language of that argumentative play. For Ulysses’s great speech about “degree” – “Take but degree away, untune that string / And Hark! What discord follows”, which is a clue to the whole language of the play, there is no guidance in the glossary to the word “degree”. There are also troubling jokey anachronisms. In Much Ado, Benedick’s toothache is ascribed to the working of a “worm”. This is glossed “germ, microbe, bug”, which might mislead my hypothetical 13-year-old into supposing that Shakespeare knew about germs and microbes, let alone the odd nature of “bug” in that context, where it is a metaphor for microbe and would have meant something quite different to Shakespeare. The Elizabethans believed that toothaches were caused by the gnawing of real worms, and it would have been more interesting to say so. There are other medical problems. “Humour” is defined, in its first sense, as “mood, disposition, frame of mind, temperament [as determined by bodily fluids]”, and “complexion” as 1 “appearance, look, colouring”; 2 “constitution, physical make-up, outward appearance”; or 3 “natural trait, disposition, temperament, nature”. There is no reference to the prevalent idea that there were four humours (hot, cold, wet and dry) with four bodily fluids (choler, bile, blood and phlegm), which determined the temperament – the complexion – depending on which prevailed. An inset panel on bodily processes would have been useful, and made the definitions clearer and more pointed. In fact, if the ideas of complexion and humour are properly taken on board, there is no real difference between the three definitions of complexion that the glossary carefully separates. It is easy to quibble. I taught 16th- and 17th-century English literature in a university from 1972 to 1984, and did find during that time an increasing puzzlement among students about meaning, replacing a response to sound and sense, rhythm and pleasure in language. This was partly because even the good ones seemed less well read each year. They knew passages, not whole texts; one Shakespeare play, not several. They do need to feel easy with the language. But they should not be relying on glossaries and making imaginatively end-stopped paraphrases. English speakers are still verbally inventive and quick – look at rap; look at the shape-shifting verbal jokes shared by city managers on the internet, which change as their codes become common property. Shakespeare needs passionate, imaginative teachers and curious readers, prepared to forage in etymological dictionaries. This glossary satisfies some of this curiosity, but seems quite often to inhibit it.· AS Byatt’s novel, A Whistling Woman, will be published by Chatto in September


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