an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘London

Shakespeare and the English language

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Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre (my pic) – without the 16th century atmosphere

Canto: I think from time to time about Shakespeare – in fact ever since I was given a complete works for Christmas when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I used to read it on the swing in our backyard – congratulating myself on getting some of Falstaff’s witticisms. The Abbey Library Shakespeare. I still have it almost fifty years later, though I can barely read its minuscule print these days.

Jacinta: Yes I know you’re an admirer, but what do you think of all this stuff about Shakespeare’s massive contribution to the English language? I’ve always thought it was a bit exaggerated.

Canto: Interesting topic, because in one sense I agree with you. But this relates to all those awful people – Derek Jacobi was unfortunately among them – who seem to think that Shakespeare was too low-class to have written the plays. As a not very upper-class bloke meself I feel deeply miffed. Shakespeare’s plays run the class gamut because he himself was about as déclassé as a fellow in Elizabethan England could be, son of a successful businessman, educated in a relatively déclassé school, and, like us, motivated to learn by ear and by the lessons of life – an autodidact and a dilettante.

Jacinta: The counter-argument I’ve heard – to the idea that he must’ve been some Lord or other – is that upper-class education of that time, and perhaps in most periods, just wasn’t all that good. Not to mention the generally cloistered lives of scions of the aristocracy, who not only wouldn’t have been much exposed to a lot of ‘street-talk’, but would’ve been inhibited by their class pride to admit to such knowledge. Writers like Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney were more in the aristocratic mould, full of classical references, ancient legends, knight-errants and lords and ladies – not at all rough around the edges.

Canto: Yes it seems to me Shakespeare was more drawn to real life, and plays were the perfect vehicle for him, to present, in what he imagined were their own terms, kings, commoners and everyone in between. Which brings me to your question about his contribution to the English language. Clearly this was a guy who loved language, almost for its own sake, and he had a finely-tuned ear for it. He certainly read plenty, for his history plays and classically-themed plays, and travelled in his mind and through reading to Venice, Verona, Rome, Athens, Padua, Paris, Ephesus, Alexandria, Navarre, Troy, Messina, Marseilles, Inverness, Illyria – and that’s not a complete list of venues outside of England. I won’t go on with the English settings. I think this need or desire to set his plays in such varied and far-flung places and eras is an indication of an all-encompassing mind, a wannabe space-time traveller, sampling human discourse and psychology in all its variety, and his interest in language was in keeping with that. As to his contribution to English, speaking quantitatively, the reason that I’m perhaps inclined to agree with you is that scholars, historians, lexicographers and so forth, probably tend to emphasise the written over the spoken language, and so under-estimate the inventiveness of the spoken word, and those who speak it. My uneducated guess is that many if not most of the new coinages we find in Shakespeare, including nouns from verbs and vice versa, may have been part of the ‘illiterate’ street discourse Shakespeare picked up in the London taverns where he conceived, and possibly even wrote, scenes for his plays. They just hadn’t been committed to writing before.

Jacinta: Yes, sounds like a class thing – the idea that the lower classes, not being formally educated, or literate as you say, couldn’t be inventive or creative…

Canto: Or simply indifferent to the ‘rules’ in their need to communicate. We know that new languages – creoles – are created by children, equipped by evolution with some unconscious sense of linguistic structure which allows them to bridge the gap between two distinctive language groups thrown together by chance or coercion. The urge to communicate overthrows any sense of linguistic purity or pride, which in any case is merely nascent in the child’s mind. I’m not saying that Shakespeare was tapping into anything so radical as a new language, and I’m not sure how polyglot London was in his time, but there was undoubtedly a diversity of classes and trades…

Jacinta: Some basic research gives a feel for the place:

The population of London had risen to 200,000 by 1600 and the city was evolving as the multicultural city that it is today. There was a Jewish community in Bishopsgate and a few thousand black people – servants, musicians, and dancers. There were also many Huguenot and Flemish refugees.

Southwark [site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre] was London’s entertainment zone… . The theatres, surrounded by inns, taverns, cockpits, gambling houses and brothels were in Southwark. Partly because of the influx of crowds, Southwark was a dangerous place to wander about in after dark, with muggers, drunkards and pickpockets everywhere.

Shakespeare would almost certainly have visited the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle street – the world’s first shopping mall. It was similar to a modern shopping mall,  a huge arcaded building with banking facilities and accommodation for more than two hundred shops and thousands of businessmen. One could buy wigs, jewellery, perfume, hats, shoes, breeches, shirts, ruffles, feathers, silks, drugs, wine, spices, paper, ink, candles, toys, and anything else you could think of.

Public executions were Elizabethan Londoners’ most popular spectator activity. Londoners had a choice among the different kinds of executions: they could go to Tower Hill where the upper class condemned were beheaded with a broadsword or axe or head to Tyburn or Smithfield to see some hangings of ordinary traitors and common criminals. There were about a thousand hangings a year.

Canto: Yes, so you could imagine all sorts of raunchy patois ringing in Will’s ears as he constructed plays set throughout Europe but full of the bustling energy of the city he’d made his home. This richness of language had never been set down in language before. Chaucer should no doubt be cited as a precursor, but the language had changed markedly in the intervening years, what with the ‘great vowel shift’ and the transformations from Middle English. These two great artists were stand-outs in preserving, and no doubt imaginatively adding to, much of the richness of ‘ordinary’ speech of their time.

Jacinta: Okay, two cheers for autodidacts and dilettantes…

References

21 Facts About Shakespeare’s London

https://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/changlang/activities/lang/chaucer/chaucerpage1.html

Written by stewart henderson

July 6, 2019 at 3:49 pm