Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog


SHAKESPEARE’S LANGUAGE

SHAKESPEARE’S LANGUAGE

The following article appears in the student study guide for Flings & Eros, and may be interesting to those looking to learn more about production.

THROUGH WORDS WE LEARN HIS INFLUENCE STILL LASTS
…Sir, You speak a language that I understand not.- The Winter’s Tale (3.2.78-79)

Flings Verona1

Mark Ettinger, Stephen Bent, Rod Kimball and Paul Magid

As stated by Zossima Karamazov in Flings & Eros, William Shakespeare’s written observations of life are profound, but often difficult to understand. When writing in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare had the genius to be able to manipulate language to suit the needs of the meter he was trying to achieve. He thoroughly enjoyed twisting and changing his words to fit his desired meter, and appreciated the beauty of language itself. During the times when his expansive vocabulary and linguistic skills were not satisfactory, he was able to alter or create words to fulfill his needs in a line. Many words we use every day were manipulated by Shakespeare, including: reliance, nerve, anchovy, obscene and tranquil. These words quickly became part of everyday speech, a testament to the influence of theatre on language: especially that of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is now one of the English language’s most quoted authors, and frequently without attribution. He wrote his plays and sonnets roughly 400 years ago, and yet his texts are still reflected in our everyday modern conversation. His works have staying power, which we can credit to Shakespeare’s love of writing and unique approach to capturing in words the lives he saw around him.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers

The Flying Karamazov Brothers

William Shakespeare’s language can be intimidating, or even off-putting to many readers and theatre-goers. His plays have intricate plotlines, characters disguising themselves and language that sounds foreign to 21st century ears. That said, he is still categorized as one of the most influential writers in the history of the English language. He is quoted millions of times every day by people who do not even realize they are speaking his words. His writings offer us countless opportunities for entertainment and moments of insight into the nature of the human condition and are therefore more than worth the small effort it takes to grasp the language more fully. The language and style of his plays seem to be the first hurdle for many observers having difficulty with his writing, but a quick overview of his approach to writing is helpful in understanding the Bard’s ingenious creations and his lasting influence.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers

The Flying Karamazov Brothers

Shakespeare’s plays were predominantly written in blank verse, with occasional instances of rhymed verse and prose added to change the tone or effect of a character’s lines. Blank verse refers to poetry that does not end each line with a rhyme. Shakespeare wrote mostly in verse to both follow literary traditions and to produce work that was easily memorized by actors through its songlike rhythms.

In order to more fully understand Shakespeare’s writing, it helps to first understand the way he constructed his lines. Shakespeare wrote in what is called “iambic pentameter.” In poetry, the word “meter” refers to a recognizable pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. A “metric foot” is the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables which forms a recognizable metric pattern. An “iamb” is a metric foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in “today”, where the “day” receives more stress than the “to” when pronounced. Therefore, iambic pentameter refers to a ten-syllable line of five (penta) iambs, as in: “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” in Romeo and Juliet

After repeating this line several times aloud, you will notice a very rhythmic sound whereby every other syllable pops more than the one before it. Try listening to the rhythm of syllables in a conversation and you will catch many words and phrases that follow this unstressed-stressed form of speech. Shakespeare wrote this way to mimic the way people naturally talk, but polished his language to make his dialogue more beautiful and engaging in his productions.

Shakespeare was aware that many syllables or even entire words are lost in a play’s performance. Therefore, he paid close attention to the stresses and wording of his key scenes to ensure that important tones and actions would be understood by his audience. Actors often play with the rhythms and tones when performing Shakespeare to further convey their character’s intentions or personality to the audience. Paying attention to which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed can also draw the attention of the listener to the important parts of a character’s speech. For example, think again of Romeo’s line: “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” If we focus on just the stressed syllables, as Shakespeare knew many audiences do, the message is still clear: soft, light, yon, win, breaks? Most listeners will still be able to understand that Romeo is asking what shining beauty is appearing at the window he is observing.

Some of Shakespeare’s characters do speak in rhymed verse, but usually not for extended lengths of time. Rhyming lines may be used by characters to convey a character trait, such as Puck’s singsong mischievousness in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the eeriness of the witches’ chanting in Macbeth. But Shakespeare did not rely heavily on rhyming his lines as he did not want the majority of his work to be interpreted as singsong or immature in tone.

Whether you know it or not, the shape of the English language was largely impacted by William Shakespeare. Thus, he is an influence on the lives of everyone regardless of whether we have sat down to read or see one of his plays. The truest test of this influence is evident when you look at all the words and phrases coined by Shakespeare. No other single author has his words spoken as many times per day as those of William Shakespeare.

Common Shakespeareian Verbiage 
My salad days Antony and Cleopatra
Lay it on with a trowel As You Like It
Rhyme nor reason Comedy of Errors
The game is up Cymbeline
All corners of the world Cymbeline
Make your hair stand on end Hamlet
There’s method in my madness Hamlet
He will give the devil his due Henry IV Part 1
Send him packing Henry IV Part 1
Eaten out of house and home Henry IV Part II
Heart’s content Henry VI Part I
Mum’s the word Henry VI Part II
A dish fit for the Gods Julius Caesar
A charmed life Macbeth
A sorry sight Macbeth
Milk of human kindness Macbeth
Green eyed monster The Merchant of Venice
Love is blind The Merchant of Venice
Fancy free A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve Othello
Wild goose chase Romeo and Juliet
For ever and a day Taming of the Shrew
Such stuff as dreams are made on The Tempest
Fair play The Tempest
In a pickle The Tempest
Good riddance Troilus and Cressida
In stitches Twelfth Night

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1 Comment so far
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Indeed, Shakespeare’s language is an endless fascination which should be viewed as a challenge for everyone to want to experience his musical and spontaneous lines on stage. He wrote to be staged to be audited to be enjoyed. And there should be a bit of Shakespeare in everyone’s life!

Comment by Annie




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