“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” ~ William Shakespeare
“He was not of an age, but for all time!”
William Shakespeare is in the Poetry Lounge and his ghost haunts the pages of every book of poems by every poet that has written poetry in the past three hundred and eighty-nine years.
In the literary sense, Shakespeare’s words are written into the genetic code of every speaker of the English language and that language is woven into the neurons of our brains when we think, and drifts along the currents of our breath when we speak.
We cannot escape his influence on language and culture any more than we can escape the gravitational pull of the earth, for to do either would send us spinning off into the void.
In sooth, I can say with complete certitude that everyone with the desire to have a deep understanding of the myriad elements of poetic language will find no greater teacher than the Immortal Bard.
“The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good — in spite of all the people who say he is very good.” ~ Robert Graves (1895-1985)
Reckless hyperbole, you say? Ah, but remember that you are in the Poetry Lounge, where there can never be an overabundance of descriptive language.
Herein you will find the velocity of verbosity is akin to Einstein’s theory of relativity — it is the energy of words equaling the mass of poetic language times the speed of thought squared.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
William was a country lad from Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town in the county of Warwickshire, located in the West Midlands region of England.
He was born sometime between the 23rd and 26th of April in that plague year of 1564 that struck dead 237 residents in six months. Elizabeth had been Queen for five years when the infant poet arrived on the scene mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms and the first public theatre in London would not be built for twelve years.
As the son of a Stratford alderman, Will would have been entitled to a free education at the King’s New School in Church Street, where he would learn Latin grammar and rhetoric and hone his reading, writing and memorization skills in preparation for his future vocation.
However, the dialect of Warwickshire also found its way into his writing, most notably in Ophelia’s mad flowery prose in Hamlet and in various scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I imagine he had ample time to observe his surroundings as a boy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school, and later to contemplate the poetry of obsession as a lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad.
His plays are full of regional words, such as the couplet that completes the following example from Cymbeline:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Shakespeare was a wonder with the rhyming couplet and the ending couplet above provokes imagery with a double meaning.
In the Warwickshire dialect, the “golden lads” in the closing couplet are also dandelion flower heads and the “chimney-sweepers” are the dandelion seed heads that we scatter to the winds with our wishful breath when we are children.
Shakespeare also used heroic couplets, when two lines of a rhyming couplet are in iambic pentameter. Here is an example of three glorious heroic rhyming couplets, spoken by Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that make up six perfect lines of iambic pentameter:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
The study of Shakespeare’s use of the arts of language gives us access to every possible scheme of grammar and topic of invention we can possibly imagine and many so anachronistic, we never knew they existed.
As a native English speaker, partially schooled by the American system but mostly self-taught, I approach Shakespeare in the manner of a student approaching the study of a foreign language.
The difference, however, between the study of a foreign language and my love affair with the works of William Shakespeare is that I must also continually delve into the historical, mythological and literary sources of Shakespeare’s day to actually understand all the nuances of what he’s saying.
Shakespeare cannot be fully understood without a background check of his life and times — and there’s the rub. Most people don’t want to work that hard to read an author or a poet.
Furthermore, most people think of Shakespeare as writer of plays and not as a proper poet. But, back in the day, he was called a poet, as well as being known as a player and a play-maker.
Indeed, his most popular and best-selling works when he lived were two epic poems he wrote before he was thirty in the early nineties called Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece,
These poems were so popular with the youth of London (the average age of the citizenry in those days was twenty-five) that they were kept underneath bed pillows and literally read to pieces.
Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek’d Adonis hied him to the chase;
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-faced suitor ‘gins to woo him.
Shakespeare was a true rebel, bold and original. It’s estimated that he invented some 1,500 words and phrases, which seem to have made their debut appearance in his poetry and plays.
We are thinking and speaking Shakespeare whenever we await with bated breath the crack of doom or fight to the last gasp. When we finally recognize that jealousy is the green-eyed monster and we give in to the cold comfort of one that loved not wisely but too well.
In the salad days of our flaming youth, Shakespeare followed us whenever we went on a wild-goose chase. And, just as he was a rebel of invention, in many of his sonnets he bucked the conventional habit of comparing the qualities of women to such things as the sun and the moon and the stars.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? I think not.
Shakespeare’s wiry-haired mistress, with her reeky breath and unmusical voice, has been pushed off the Plutarchian pedestal and put in her proper place in the dirt where we all live.
But, the closing couplet rescues her from the mud, even though the goddess Venus in the heavens above doesn’t get an honorable mention.
Compare the first four lines of this excellent sonnet by Bartholomew Griffin, from his Fidessa sequence published in 1596, which illustrates the typical tradition of comparison:
My Lady’s hair is threads of beaten gold;
Her front the purest crystal eye hath seen;
Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold;
Her cheeks, red roses, such as seld have been;
Griffin’s example is lovely and well-written and follows the syllabic scheme perfectly, but I much prefer the mischievous Shakespeare’s sly satire of the form.
And, sonnets were still in vogue when Shakespeare was just beginning to make a name for himself as a play-maker and player on the London stage in 1592, though his own unauthorized sonnet sequence would not appear in print until several years later.
He wrote 154 sonnets, comprising 2,156 lines of pure poetry. This is one of my favorites:
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate,
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
As an actor, I prefer getting my Shakespearean poetry fix from his plays, which are filled with the finest expressions of poetic language ever writ down on paper in the English hand.
Speaking the language of Shakespeare gives shape to the imagery his words evoke and my approach to his verse began as an actor searching for a key to playing a character showing vulnerability.
I found that key in a scene from Romeo and Juliet, when the young lover from the house of Montague gets the news from Friar Laurence that, instead of being put to death for killing the cousin of his girlfriend from the house of Capulet, the Prince has been merciful and is merely banishing Romeo from Verona.
This proclamation sends the star-crossed lover into such a fine frenzy of hair-tearing that he cries out:
‘Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her;
But Romeo may not. More validity,
More honourable state, more courtship lives
In carrion-flies than Romeo: they may seize
On the white wonder of dear Juliet’s hand
And steal immortal blessing from her lips,
Who even in pure and vestal modesty,
Still blush, as thinking their own kisses sin;
But Romeo may not; he is banished:
Flies may do this, but I from this must fly:
They are free men, but I am banished.
And say’st thou yet that exile is not death?
Hadst thou no poison mix’d, no sharp-ground knife,
No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean,
But “banished” to kill me? “Banished”?
O friar, the damned use that word in hell;
Howlings attend it: how hast thou the heart,
Being a divine, a ghostly confessor,
A sin-absolver, and my friend profess’d,
To mangle me with that word “banished”?
And, at the end of the scene when Friar Laurence tells Romeo to arise and hide himself, when there is a knock at the door, Romeo says…
Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans,
Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes.
…the silence that greeted me at the end of the scene, followed by a collective exhalation of breath and a rousing display of applause, let me know that I had done justice to the emotional intensity of the character.
I had completely lost myself in the act of portraying Romeo and it was a magical act of expression that transported me into an entirely new state of being.
The play’s the thing…
This is how I got to know and love Shakespeare — through the poetic language of the plays.
Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter in the banishment scene directed me on how to speak the speech trippingly on the tongue, not to mouth it as if the town crier spoke the lines. I did not saw the air too much with my hand in the very torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of my passion, but rather suited the action to the word and the word to the action.
My study of Shakespeare’s use of language taught me when to pause and how to color words with meaning because he has embedded the emotional and psychological state of his characters in the language and rhythms of their speech.
That is the reason ’tis crucial that actors fully understand the rules of iambic pentameter. Understanding allows us to discover who our character is and the underlying meaning of their speech.
“In Shakespeare the birds sing, the bushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all. Sap and blood, all forms of the multiple reality, actions and ideas, man and humanity, the living and the life, solitudes, cities, religions, diamonds and pearls, dung-hills and charnelhouses, the ebb and flow of beings, the steps of comers and goers, all, all are on Shakespeare and in Shakespeare.” ~Victor Hugo
And all of this imagery is presented in the most excellent of poetic language. Moreover, Shakespeare is not merely a conjurer of imagery and writer of flowery verse.
With the plays we get all the witty wordplay, poetic punnery, and astonishing alliteration that makes Shakespeare so much fun to read and hear and speak.
Love’s Labour Lost, “perhaps the most relentlessly Elizabethan of all Shakespeare’s plays” (according to the editors of The Riverside Shakespeare) is a playground of the new language “filled with word games, elaborate conceits, parodies of spoken and written styles and obscure topical allusions.”
The title alone promises excessive alliteration to come and it makes good on that promise in the following passage, spoken to Nathaniel by the pedantic, Holofernes, as an epitaph to a deer:
The preyful Princess pierc’d and prick’d a pretty pleasing pricket;
Some say a sore; but not a sore till now made sore with shooting.
The dogs did yell; put el to sore, then sorel jumps from thicket,
Or pricket sore, or else sorel. The people fall a-hooting.
If sore be sore, then L to sore makes fifty sores o’ sorel:
Of one sore I an hundred make by adding but one more L.
This passage is a perfect caricature of proparalepsis — a rhetorical scheme that occurs when a few letters add an extra syllable to a word, such as Hamlet’s creation of the word climature from climate and temperature. In the example above, the added syllable is -el.
I can go on and on about William Shakespeare for another three thousand words and still only scratch the surface of his genius.
Somewhat like Hamlet’s advice to the players, when he tells them to speak the speech trippingly on the tongue, my advice to the reader is to read the history of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras and learn about the social, political and mythological influences that informed Shakespeare’s writing.
Read the plays and poems aloud with friends. Hear his words spoken and performed by skilled stage actors and watch televised and cinematic productions. Dive into the bottomless well of Shakespeare’s language and explore the depths of his imagination and invention.
One last warning about getting to know Shakespeare:
He may become an obsession if he isn’t already the Sweet Swan of Avon in your coffee. I know this from experience, for a day hasn’t gone by in nine years that I haven’t felt the presence of William Shakespeare in my blood.
Beware and have some perspective — and a sense of humor.
It delights me to read such a fervently orgasmic expression of bardolatry from this fellow named William A. Quayle, who wrote a book in 1900 that was called Some Words on Loving Shakespeare. From A hero and some other folk.
“We shall never overestimate Shakespeare, because we can not. Some men and things lie beyond the danger of hyperbole. No exaggeration is possible concerning them, seeing they transcend all dreams. Space can not be conceived by the most luxuriant imagination, holding, as it does, all worlds, and capable of holding another universe besides, and with room to spare. Clearly, we can not overestimate space.
Thought and vocabulary become bankrupt when they attempt this bewildering deed. Genius is as immeasurable as space. Shakespeare can not be measured. We can not go about him, since life fails, leaving the journey not quite well begun. Yet may we attempt what can not be performed, because each attempt makes us worthy, and we are measured, not by what we achieve, but by what we attempt.”
However, I absolutely adore this passage by 19th-century fanboy, Thomas Carlyle, which I beseech you to read aloud in a grand and bombastic style:
“And there are Ben [Jonson] and William Shakespeare in wit-combat, sure enough; Ben bearing down like a mighty Spanish war-ship, fraught with all learning and artillery; Shakespeare whisking away from him – whisking right through him, athwart the big bulk and timbers of him; like a miraculous Celestial Light-ship, woven all of sheet-lightning and sunbeams!”
The lights are dimming now in the Poetry Lounge but William Shakespeare’s words whisper forever from the stages of his pages; the best poet-actor in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.
Fare thee well, my friends. Get thee hence and get thy Shakespeare on.
The Bard has left the building.
More from the Poetry Lounge: