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Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language. Rhetoric, Wordplay, Forms. Shakespeare’s Language. Source of pleasure or Obstacle to appreciation?. Qualities of Shakespeare’s verse . Density and richness Characters express thoughts through abundant, powerful images and metaphors

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shakespeare s dramatic language

Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language

Rhetoric, Wordplay, Forms

shakespeare s language

Shakespeare’s Language

Source of pleasure


Obstacle to appreciation?

qualities of shakespeare s verse
Qualities of Shakespeare’s verse
  • Density and richness
  • Characters express thoughts through abundant, powerful images and metaphors
  • Figurative language: pleases the mind and senses - expresses one idea in terms of another
  • Connotative imagery: highly suggestive network of pictures and ideas resonating with other images, ideas, themes in play

There’s husbandry in heaven,

Their candles are all out. Take thee that too. [Gives him his belt and dagger.]

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep. (2.1.4-7)

a reading
A reading
  • Banquo speaks to his son Fleance
  • Heaven = an economical household in which all sources of light are extinguished
  • Powerful force (like lead) summons Banquo to sleep - but he cannot
  • Lines have resonance: husbandry, candles, summons, lead
  • Dagger appears in next few lines and later in the play
  • Banquo foreshadows the hallucinated dagger that appears in Macbeth’s soliloquy
  • Also the actual dagger Macbeth carries away from the murder
  • End of scene - ringing bell summons Macbeth to commit the murder
  • Lead - heaviness, foreboding the shadows the early scenes
lady macbeth
Lady Macbeth
  • Goes mad
  • Fears the dark
  • Carries a candle
  • Darkness - moral darkness -evil - principal theme of the plays
early modern english
Early Modern English
  • Technical difficulties for modern readers
    • verbs with inflected endings

hath, doth, goeth

    • forms were in transition from medieval to modern
    • pronoun problem - thee, thou, thy, thine
    • familiar vs.. formal - thou and you
      • Katherine and Petruchio
  • Another stumbling block for modern readers
  • Linguistic exuberance of the age
    • Lyle’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit
  • Shakespeare’s vocabulary: 29,000 words (twice that of the average student)
  • Many of his words have since dropped/changed from common usage: bisson (blind), proper (handsome), cousin (kinsman), silly (innocent)
  • Syntax - arrangement of words in sentence
  • Influence of Latin grammar
  • Move toward “simplicity” - Bacon > Orwell
  • Shakespeare created stage pictures out of poetry - issues of verse and prosody
    • iambic pentameter
    • rhythm, emphasis
    • characterization
let s look at hamlet
Let’s look at Hamlet
  • The Ghost speaks:

Sleeping within my orchard,

My custom always of the afternoon,

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,

With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leprous distillment. (1.5.59-64)

dangling modifier or suspension
Dangling modifier - or suspension?
  • Grammatically, the subject should be “I” but is in fact “thy uncle”
  • Error embodies initial problem: Claudius replace Old Hamlet
  • Suspensions heighten suspense - remember, young Hamlet is listening intently
  • Virtually every scene is enriched by such manipulations of syntax
  • Renaissance playwrights were committed to eloquence and grounded in study of rhetoric
    • Richard Reynolds, humanist educator (1563)
But to whom nature hath given such an ability, and absolute excellency, as that they can both copiously dilate any matter or sentence, by pleasantness or sweetness of their witty and ingenious oration to draw unto them the hearts of a multitude, to pluck down and extirpate affections and perturbations of people, to move pity and compassion, to speak before princes and rulers and to persuade them in good causes and enterprise, to animate and incense them to Godly affairs and business, to alter the counsel of kings, by their wisdom and eloquence, to a better state, is a thing of all most noble and excellent.
translating latin passages
Translating Latin passages
  • To English and back to Latin - had a profound impact on English versification
  • George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesy
  • Imitation led to creation in poetry of
    • Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson - and of course, Shakespeare
Shakespearean examples
    • Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew: Petruchio will dazzle Katherina with his verbal skills
    • Polonius, in Hamlet - vain about his rhetorical skills - Queen asks him to speak with “More matter and less art”
    • Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice
    • Mark Antony’s in Julius Caesar
c s lewis
C. S. Lewis

Rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors . . . . Nearly all our older poetry was written and read by men to whom the distinction between poetry and rhetoric, in its modern form, would have been meaningless. The “beauties” which they chiefly regarded in every composition were those which we either dislike or simply do not notice. This change of taste makes an invisible wall between us and them.

  • Tropes and figures - their names and functions - were known to the average Elizabethan playgoer
  • Renaissance delight in language
    • taste for copiousness or elaboration
    • pleasure in verbal games
much ado about nothing
Much Ado About Nothing
  • Beatrice enters seeking Benedick - who has just been tricked into believing she is in love with him
    • Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner
  • Benedick returns to the audience
    • Against my will I am sent to bid you to come in to dinner--there’s a double-meaning in that.
much ado about nothing20
Much Ado About Nothing
  • Benedick is mistaken - Beatrice means what she says and no more
  • But in a larger sense he is right - Beatrice has yet to acknowledge her attraction to Benedick - and that she has been sent by the same pranksters who fooled him
  • Double meanings - pranks and wordplay - are common in Shakespeare
other examples of wordplay
Other examples of wordplay
  • Romeo and Juliet
    • Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but ay,

And that bare vowel I shall poison no more

  • Henry IV, Part 1
    • Falstaff’s incessant punning
  • Macbeth
    • gild/guilt, surcease/success, done/Duncan
    • None of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth
forms of dramatic language
Forms of dramatic language
  • Two primary forms: prose and poetry
  • Dominant form of verse: blank verse
  • Example of Shakespearean prose
    • Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man”
      • rhythmic power from patterns of verbal repetition
    • Bottom’s suggesting how to frighten the ladies in the audience with a lion on stage
      • Nay, you must not name his name. . . .
shakespeare s prose
Shakespeare’s prose
  • Early in his career Shakespeare rarely wrote in prose
    • Richard III - 50 of 3500 lines are prose (2%)
  • Later, Shakespeare uses much more prose
    • Hamlet - 900 lines of prose (30%)
what distinguishes poetry from prose
What distinguishes poetry from prose?
  • Music and rhymed music
  • Rhymed couplets often end scenes
    • the play’s the thing,/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” -- Hamlet
  • Rhyme fills A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    • Helena’s first soliloquy (1.1.226-33)
    • Oberon’s chant as he applies magic lotion to Titania’s eyes (2.2.27-34)
blank verse
Blank verse
  • Sir Philip Sidney thought it especially suited to rhythms of English speech
  • Titania, speaking in blank verse, refuses to surrender the Indian boy to Oberon
The fairy land buys not the child of me.

His mother was a vot’ress of my order,

And in the spiced Indian air, by night,

Full often hath she gosipp’d by my side,

And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,

Marking th’embarked traders on the flood;

When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive

And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;

Which she, with pretty and swimming gait,

Following (her womb then rich with my young squire)

Would imitate, and sail upon the land

To fetch me trifles, and return again,

As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.

But she, being mortal, of that boy did die,

And for her sake do I rear up her boy;

And for her sake I will not part with him.


effect of these lines
Effect of these lines
  • Five-beat structure works on the ear
  • Smooth musicality of the meter
  • Regular repetition of unstressed and stressed sounds
  • Combines with other repetition (words, phrases, consonants, vowels) to create a mood of intense emotion - even awe
bending of the iambic pattern
Bending of the iambic pattern

v / v / v / v /

  • Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me

v /

your ears! [regular]

/ / v / v / / v

  • Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me

v /

your ears! [irregular]

language as theme
Language as theme
  • Shakespeare’s early plays - candid look at how he uses language
  • 1592 or 1593 - he discovers the power of language - an epiphany
  • Love’s Labor’s Lost and Richard III
    • sudden explosion of rhetorical ability
    • sense of exuberance
richard iii master of language
Richard III - master of language
  • Usurper, hunchback, infanticidal psychopath
  • He both attracts and repels us
  • Words speak louder than his actions
  • Richard gets what he wants with words
    • gets others to do his killing for him
    • heroic villain with an unparalleled gift for language
  • Richard is unforgettable because his words are unforgettable
richard s opening soliloquy
Richard’s opening soliloquy

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,

Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,

Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,

richard s opening soliloquy33
Richard’s opening soliloquy

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

Grim-visag’d War hath smooth’d his wrinkled front,

And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

richard s opening soliloquy34
Richard’s opening soliloquy

But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a woman ambling nymph;

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time

richard s opening soliloquy35
Richard’s opening soliloquy

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt be them--

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to see my shadow in the sun

And descant on my own deformity.

richard s opening soliloquy36
Richard’s opening soliloquy

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.


richard s opening soliloquy37
Richard’s opening soliloquy
  • Rhetorical fireworks - show Richard’s
    • self-conscious wit
    • Pleasure in patterns
    • taste for performance
  • Sweeping contrasts
    • war > peace, Lancaster > York, winter > summer
  • Stichomythia - he brags to his adversaries
    • tells Queen Elizabeth he will marry his daughter, whose husband he has killed
  • An actor
  • Also a kind of artist/playwright who writes a script to win the crown
    • Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous (1.1.33)
  • Creature of great yet perverted imagination
    • his descendant - Iago in Othello
  • We admire his wicked creativity and use of words - yet condemn his evil deeds
a lesson in richard
A lesson in Richard
  • Rhetoric, wordplay - power used for dangerous ends
  • Theatre creates the opposite - the positive and living power of language
  • Richard is an illusion, created out of historical material to please and frighten the audience
  • Language - beauties, power, weaknesses, dangers, pleasures - paradox of WS’s thinking

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