In the final part of his series commemorating the life and ideas of the Bard, Alan Woods looks at Shakespeare’s poetic genius and examines the revolutionary role played by the writer in terms of the development of the English language.
In the final part of his series commemorating the life and ideas of the Bard, Alan Woods looks at Shakespeare’s poetic genius and examines the revolutionary role played by Shakespeare in terms of the development of the English language.
A revolution in language
There are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language – although some estimates suggest a far higher number – perhaps a million or more (according to the Global Language Monitor, January 2014 and the more recent Google/Harvard Study). Whatever the true figure might be, it is clear that English has more words than any other European language. This is the result of its peculiar historical evolution.
Over the last thousand years English has changed more than any other European language. Anglo-Saxon, from which English is derived, belonged to the Germanic languages, related to Dutch, German, and the languages spoken in Scandinavia. If we go back a few centuries to the English spoken before 1066, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf would be as incomprehensible to most modern English speakers as Homeric Greek, as we can see from the opening lines of that work:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 Norman French became the language of the ruling class, while Latin was the language of scholars and the Church. But the mass of the population continued to speak the Anglo-Saxon dialect of German. One curious feature of the English language is that we use one word for a particular kind of meat and another, completely different word for the animal it came from. In every case the word for the meat is French while that of the animal is German, as in the following examples:
Cow (Kuh) | Beef (Boeuf)
Calf (Kalb) | Veal (Veau)
Swine (Schweine) | Pork (Porc)
Sheep (Schaf) | Mutton (Mouton)
Hen (Huhn) | Poultry (Poulet)
[*Old English refers to the form of English spoken circa 500-1100 AD]
This is a clear example of the class basis of the English language, since the peasants who spoke Anglo-Saxon knew the animals very well, but hardly ever ate meat, while the Norman lords who spoke French were only acquainted with the animal when it was served to them on a plate. To this day the English spoken by the working class contains a higher proportion of words of Germanic origin, whereas the “educated classes” use a higher proportion of words of a French or Latin origin.
There is in modern English even a kind of “upper class accent” that, if it is not entirely unique, is certainly far more pronounced in English than in other languages. The language of those who “talk posh” or who “speak with marbles in their mouths” offends the ears of most people, producing approximately the same disagreeable effect as the whining of a dentist’s drill. Although they cannot understand why, to ordinary folk it sounds completely alien – which in effect it is. It is a distant echo of the times when the upper class did speak a different, alien language.
Over a long period large numbers of French and Latin words entered the language. That is why it has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the languages of the Romance family like French, Spanish or Italian. The fusion of English (Anglo-Saxon) and French (Norman) that was already accomplished by the end of the 14th century is what makes the English language so uniquely rich, but also a rather strange hybrid animal that defies all logic.
The complex and frankly illogical nature of English spelling, which has driven generations of foreign (and also native English speaking) students of English to distraction, was the inevitable consequence of the fusion of two completely different languages. But the result is a wonderfully rich vocabulary that permits numerous nuances and plays on words that are difficult if not impossible to achieve in other languages.
This metamorphosis achieved its most perfect expression in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the first real masterpiece in the English language. But the language of Chaucer was a transitional stage. It was not yet modern English.
Even educated people would have problems understanding the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour […]
Although this is far closer to modern English than the language of Beowulf, very few English speakers today would be able to read Chaucer’s works in the original.
A language in transition
The period in which Shakespeare lived was a period of fundamental change in the evolution of the English language, which was still in its formative stages. English as we know it was a very young language then. Not so long before it had still been the language of the lower classes; the upper classes spoke French, while the language common to the men of learning was not English but Latin.
It was in the course of the 16th century that English really came of age. It was a time of blossoming of literature and poetry in England that had no parallel before and, arguably, has had no equal since. It was as if the English language had been suddenly thrown into a gigantic melting pot into which words from many other languages were thrown, mingled and transformed like the elements in some strange alchemist’s brew.
At that time the English language was a very flexible and malleable medium, like the lava that flows freely after a volcanic eruption. Shakespeare himself played an important role in the development of the English language at this formative stage. The Shakespearean critic Dr. Jonathan Hope comments: “He [Shakespeare] wrote during a transitional period for English grammar when there was a range of grammatical options open to writers.”
Like a skilful potter moulding fresh clay on his wheel, he transformed this wonderful raw material into something new and special. This is reflected in the tremendous richness of Shakespeare’s English, a richness that has never been equalled, with the possible exception of the King James Bible which was written about the same time. Creating new words and using old ones in a novel way, according to some estimates Shakespeare invented over 1,700 of our common words, changing nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives, joining words together to produce words never heard before.
Among the many words he invented are: auspicious, baseless, and barefaced (shameless), castigate, clangour (a loud clanging sound), dexterously (skilfully), dwindle (to get smaller; diminish), sanctimonious (hypocritical) and watchdog. In addition to these new words, Shakespeare is also the author of a surprisingly large number of common expressions and phrases, some of which have become proverbs. Here are just a few:
All that glitters isn’t gold (Merchant of Venice): things may not be as good as they seem.
Break the ice (The Taming of the Shrew): begin a conversation diplomatically.
Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve (Othello): to express one’s feelings openly.
A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor): To be considered a joke by many people.
In a pickle (The Tempest): to be in an awkward situation that you cannot easily get out of.
Fair play (The Tempest): to play fairly by the rules.
Some recent studies indicate that some of these phrases may have been in use before Shakespeare, although their first recorded use is found in his writings. Even these studies, however, accept that Shakespeare, nonetheless, created many new words or gave new meaning to old words. None of this, however, takes anything away from the greatness of Shakespeare’s writing. And in any case, merely to list these words and phrases does not do justice to Shakespeare’s genius and the miraculous way in which he makes the English language a unique vehicle for his poetry. It is a kind of alchemy or magic that is difficult to analyse and impossible to imitate. Let us take just one example, the word that Shakespeare invented: incarnadine – meaning to turn red.
In his play Macbeth, we find Macbeth horrified by the murder of Duncan that he has just committed. The imagery of Macbeth is dominated by two colours – black and red: night and blood. After murdering Duncan, his king and kinsman, Macbeth is transfixed by the sight of the blood on his hands, he realises that it can never be washed away. Rather, it will stain the entire ocean red (incarnadine):
Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
(Macbeth, Act 2, scene 2, 54–60)
Here Shakespeare takes an already existing word with a Latin root carn– referring to flesh, and thus, in its derivatives, flesh colour. From this original concept he fashions a new verb, “incarnadine,” meaning to turn something crimson. But this kind of linguistic analysis – interesting as it may be – runs the risk of taking us far away from the real Shakespeare and the magical way he uses the English language. For what we have here is pure magic that defies all definitions.
The never-ending torrent of words and the striking imagery reflected in them gives the impression of a man who is utterly intoxicated with words, which he combines in the most original and unexpected manner in his similes and metaphors. The image of Neptune’s green ocean being transformed into a sea of blood is so striking that it transcends any amount of word dissection. Here, and in all of Shakespeare’s work, the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.
Life, love and death in Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s plays we see the human condition approached from every conceivable angle. Here are the big themes of life, love and death dealt with in a profundity that has an almost philosophical character. In these plays we find a never-ending stream of striking imagery that wonderfully conveys the whole expanse of human passions and contains within itself the distilled essence of the human condition. This is what explains its universal appeal.
The entire compass of human experience is contained in Shakespeare’s plays. King Lear is a dark tragedy of old age, full of the most profound psychological insights. The tragedy of Othello is a tour de force on the theme of jealousy and passion in the relationships between men and women. And the various stages of human life are summed up in one of his most memorable speeches, in As You Like It:
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,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(As You Like It, Act two, Scene vii)
The theme of love is dealt with very movingly in Romeo and Juliet. This work had a profound effect not just on literature but on music. It inspired an opera by Gounod, a ballet by Prokofiev, an oratorio by Berlioz and a famous overture by Tchaikovsky. But Shakespeare is at his most lyrical in simple love songs, like the one sung by the clown in Twelfth Night:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
(Twelfth Night, Act two, Scene iii)
This is the voice of young love in full blossom. But the love theme receives a very different treatment in Antony and Cleopatra. Here the theme of passion is presented in an exotic and sensual guise that is completely different from the innocence of Romeo and Juliet. Every line in this play breathes the heady perfume of the Orient. The speech where Enobarbus describes Queen Cleopatra’s royal barge is poetry of the very highest order:
I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.
(Antony and Cleopatra, Act two scene ii)
This play, like Romeo and Juliet, ends in tragedy and in many of Shakespeare’s works the idea of love is tinged with the consciousness that all human existence must end in death. The idea that all that exists deserves to perish is implicit throughout.
Most of Shakespeare’s work consists of plays. However, he also wrote poetry of the very highest order, particularly the sonnets which are in a class of their own. There are 154 sonnets, exploring themes of love, sex and beauty in a profound and moving manner. They were probably written in 1592 when plague closed the theatres – a fairly common occurrence in those times.
Already a popular literary form in Italy, sonnets became popular in England during the Elizabethan period. Several of Shakespeare’s sonnets remain highly popular to this day, notably Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?). But all of them are works of exceptional poetic beauty and philosophical profundity. The main theme that runs through these poems like a red thread is the fleeting nature of life and love and the passing of time.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked elipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
There can be few examples of a poetic description of old age that transcend the powerful and moving sonnet number 73, that compares it to the coming of autumn:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
Even here, in these most intimate lines, we find echoes of the turbulent period in which Shakespeare lived. The “Bare ruined choirs” refer to the ruined convents and monasteries that were destroyed in the Protestant campaign of image smashing. This is a striking image of the impermanence of all things in nature and society, a theme that lies at the heart of the sonnets in particular.
I know of nothing that come equal to the devastating effect of the black nihilism of the lines spoken by Macbeth when he is informed of the death by suicide of his wife and he muses on the futility of human existence:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In the ten years before he died Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and that work of absolute genius The Tempest – plays that have a more serious, even sombre tone than the comedies of the 1590s. Unlike the tragedies, however, these plays end with reconciliation and forgiveness. This is the voice of old age, when the storms of life are over and men and women can afford to look back at their lives not in anger but with a philosophical vision.
In 1616, his health declining and sensing that the end was near, Shakespeare changed his will. His only son had died in 1596, and so Shakespeare left the bulk of his estate to his two daughters, with a grant of money for his sister, partners, friends, and the poor people of Stratford. An odd detail is the fact that to his wife Anne he bequeathed the family’s “second best bed.”
He died in Stratford-Upon-Avon one month later, supposedly on 23 April, 1616, the date of his 52nd birthday and also, by coincidence, St. George’s day – the national saint of England. In reality, the exact date of Shakespeare’s death is not known. It was deduced from a record of his burial two days later, 25 April, 1616, at Holy Trinity Church. His grave featured a stone-carved bag of grain to represent his family’s traditional occupation.
No one knows the exact cause of his death since there are no contemporary accounts of it. He had made his will a month before he died, in which he says he is in “perfect health.” Fifty years later the vicar of Stratford-Upon-Avon claimed that Shakespeare died of a fever contracted after a “merry meeting” where he “drank too hard.”
A recent BBC programme was devoted to an investigation of Shakespeare’s grave. As expected, it revealed precisely nothing. Nor does his will enlighten us but rather adds to the mystery. Why for example did he leave his wife his “second best bed”? We will never know, but will gladly leave empty speculation on such matters to other people with time to waste.
Seven years after he died, a collection of Shakespeare’s writing was published. This was by far the most complete version of his work. It was compiled by his friends John Heminge and Henry Condell. It contained 36 plays, including 18 never before printed. It is here, not under the stone slabs of Holy Trinity Church that we will find the truth about Shakespeare. They represent Shakespeare’s true monument – and what a colossal monument it is!
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus (Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene ii)
If one merely examines the plot and content of Hamlet or Macbeth, they would appear to be no different from the kind of blood-soaked dramas that preceded Shakespeare’s plays. But this entirely misses the point. What breathes such vibrant life into these plays is not the subject matter but the poetry of the language, which creates a kind of magic that is difficult or even impossible to explain.
It is astonishing to think that all of his plays are written in poetry, and this poetry achieved heights which were never subsequently attained by any other English poet. There is scarcely a line in these plays that does not contain in it a hidden gem. In Macbeth (Act one, scene ii) Ross has just come from the battlefield where Macbeth has defeated the Viking army. When asked where he has come from he replies:
Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold.
In these few words one feels a cold wind blowing and one can hear the flapping of the Viking flags blown by the wind, conveyed by the skilful use of alliteration. Little details such as this are the hallmark of a true poet.
Later in the same play, Lady Macbeth, now insane, recalls with horror the scene of the assassination of Duncan:
Out, damned spot! out, I say! — One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t. — Hell is murky! — Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account? — Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
The ghastly nature of the murder is expressed in a few simple words:
Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
This mastery of words resembles the craft of a great painter who with a few skilful brushstrokes accurately conveys the essence of his subject. Here we see a striking contrast with the cold, calculating and un-feeling murderess who tried to assure her husband that “a little water clears us of this deed.” Now driven to the point of madness by her nightmares, she cries out in despair:
Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this
(Macbeth, Act 5 scene i)
In Henry IV part one Shakespeare describes an imaginary conversation between the Welshman Owen Glendower and the rebel Englishman Hotspur. There is a complete contrast between the two: the Welshman is proud, political, mystical and superstitious – the Englishman (a Northerner) is brave, stubborn, prosaic, unimaginative and utterly unimpressed by Glendower’s flights of fancy:
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
(Henry IV part one, Act 3, Scene 1)
The complete contrast between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon character is conveyed with an acute eye for detail and a wry sense of humour.
The three witches of Macbeth
A poet for all time
“He was not of an age, but for all time.” (Ben Jonson on Shakespeare)
A contemporary writer, Greene, once famously dismissed Shakespeare as “a mere actor who thought he could write.” Greene was not the only one who failed to appreciate Shakespeare’s genius. For a long time after his death he was underestimated. Marx wrote: “A singularity of English tragedy, so repulsive to French feelings that Voltaire used to call Shakespeare a drunken savage, is its peculiar mixture of the sublime and the base, the terrible and the ridiculous, the heroic and the burlesque.”
To us today these judgements appear simply ridiculous. Shakespeare’s genius is universally recognised and has left an indelible mark on the world. Nevertheless, the extreme paucity of information about his life has even led to speculation that his plays were not written by him at all, but by somebody else. Marlow, Bacon and other even less likely candidates have all had their advocates at one time or another.
The evidence put forward to justify such theories is extremely thin and can be safely disregarded. But the proponents of conspiracy theories are extremely persistent and prepared to resort to the most incredibly convoluted arguments to prove their point. Some of them have even attempted to show that there are secret messages hidden in the text of the plays that allegedly point to the identity of the “real” author.
Why on earth this mysterious “real” author should go to such extraordinary lengths to reveal his identity to the public instead of merely announcing it is hard to say. The ridiculous nature of these claims was exposed very effectively when it was pointed out that one of the Psalms in the Bible begins with the word “Shake” and ends with the word “spear”, thereby proving that Shakespeare was the real author of the Bible!
Four centuries have passed since the death of William Shakespeare, and since then no writer has surpassed him in the glory of his imagination, poetry and psychological profundity. His contemporary and rival, the playwright Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” And that is the truth.
Shakespeare’s influence on world literature is indisputable. But it goes far beyond the literary sphere. The Guinness Book of Records lists more than 400 film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, making him the most filmed author of all times. He has had a major influence on a wide range of artistic forms from painting to sculpture to film.
Among these are such outstanding versions as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III; Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and an impressive Russian version of Hamlet using the masterly translation of Boris Pasternak, with the great Soviet actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Prince Hamlet. Leonard Bernstein also recast Romeo and Juliet in a strikingly modern context in his musical West Side Story.
The words of the Bard of Avon frequently make an appearance in the speeches and writings of politicians. Lenin referred to the bourgeois democratic politicians of the Provisional Government as “Those poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets [brandishing] their wooden swords.” And the widespread strike movement that occurred during the winter of 1978–79 in Britain was baptised “The Winter of Discontent”, quoting (or rather misquoting) the famous opening words of Richard III.
Shakespeare was one of Marx’s favourite authors, alongside Homer, Dante and the author of Don Quixote, Cervantes. Marx’s daughter Eleanor recalled: “As to Shakespeare he was the Bible of our house, seldom out of our hands or mouths. By the time I was six I knew scene upon scene of Shakespeare by heart.” Marx’s great admiration for Shakespeare is hardly surprising.
In my opinion, William Shakespeare was probably the greatest writer that ever lived. To my mind, the only writer who comes close to his poetical genius was Dante Alighieri, whose Divina Commedia was composed in the Late Middle Ages. In this judgement of course there is a large subjective element. Other great writers may have an equally strong claim to the title of greatness. However, it would be difficult to find another writer in world literature that had such an impact on the world of art, literature and music as Shakespeare.
Is it possible that such heights will be reached in future? Or must we conclude that he was a unique phenomenon, never to be repeated? Of course, there can never be another Shakespeare, just as there can never be another Aristotle or Rembrandt. Each made his own unique contribution to human culture in accordance with the period in which they lived. And since those specific conditions will never be repeated, the kind of artistic and philosophical products that emerged from them also cannot be repeated exactly in the same way.
In the course of human history, over a period of thousands of years, there have been very few geniuses like Shakespeare, Beethoven, Hegel, Marx or Einstein. But it is impossible not to conclude that the potential for genius has existed in the minds of millions of others who were compelled to a life of drudgery, forever cut off from the world of culture, art and science. Trotsky once asked the question: “how many Aristotles are herding swine? And how many swineherds are sitting on thrones?”
Shakespeare was the product of a revolutionary age, an age of transition that opened up new vistas for the human race, broadened its horizons and raised its imagination to new heights. But revolutions will also inevitably take place in the future. And the greatest revolution of all will consist in the emancipation of the human race from capitalist slavery, oppression and exploitation. Under socialism for the first time every man and woman will be free to develop whatever potential talent they have within themselves.
Socialism will open the door to art, science and government, which has been the monopoly of the privileged few for thousands of years. The reduction of the working day to a minimal expression will permit men and women to dedicate time to their own self-development. Of course, not everybody has it within them to become a Shakespeare or an Einstein. But we can be sure that from among the billions of people who have been denied access to culture and civilisation will arise new geniuses in many fields.
We will see the emergence of new Shakespeares, Beethovens and Rembrandts and an explosion of culture, art and music such as has never been seen in previous history. They will speak with a new voice reflecting the new conditions and that voice will resonate in the hearts and minds of men and women, just as Shakespeare did four centuries ago. The Shakespeares of the future have yet to be born. But we have every reason to hope and to believe that the writers and artists of the future will scale new heights that will put all the wonderful achievements of the past in the shade.