On the 400-year anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, we reach the end of our ‘Shakespeare 400’ week with a book that I would consider an adult version (not with any Iago-level smuttiness, just with long words) of the Tales from Shakespeare gem that we kicked the week off with.
Through analysis of each of Shakespeare’s plays, Kermode tracks the progression of Shakespeare’s language from the rhetoric-heavy early plays to ‘a less settled representation of the movement of thought and emotion’, with Hamlet, ‘literature’s greatest bazaar’ (a bit like Edmonton Green Market), representing a ‘quantum leap in the development of English poetry and drama’ and the ‘fulcrum of Shakespeare’s career’. Kermode shares a wealth of information about Shakespeare’s wordplay from this point – such as the doubling of words to increase impact (known as ‘hendiadys’) and the repetition of words throughout a play to create atmosphere (such as ‘blood’ in Macbeth) – and how character complexity increased through this use of language.
For me, it was a treat to engage with each play on such a detailed level and be reminded of those lines that, even if we occasionally lose track of a long soliloquy, can still speak to us after 400 years. There are too many to repeat, but here are some that stood out for me:
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing
(Richard II Act V Scene V)
No man is lord of anythingThough in and of him there be much consistingTill he communicate his part to others(Troilus and Cressida Act III, Scene III )
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp’dDoth burn the heart to cinders where it is(Titus and Andronicus Act II, Scene IV)
On St George’s Day, it feels fitting to raise a glass to one of our greatest exports. As Kermode notes, ‘What we mean by ”Shakespeare” is not some semi-divine, inerrant individual but the corpus of plays we agree to call by his name.’ Here’s to you William Shakespeare, whoever you really were, whatever you really looked like and wherever your words may take us over the next 400 years:
How many ages henceShall this our lofty scene be acted overIn states unborn and accents yet unknown!(Julius Caesar Act III Scene I )