What does the Prologue say?

I taught Romeo and Juliet again this fall in ninth-grade English, after a bit of internal argument: should I choose a different play? Was I in danger of “phoning in” my classes because it was my third consecutive year of teaching it? In the end, though, I love the play so much – and it’s so perfectly suited to what I want to teach my ninth-graders about Shakespeare – that I went ahead, and one of my two sections seemed to fall in love with the play, in ways that I didn’t expect. So that was a heartening experience!

It looks like I’ll be teaching ninth-grade English again next year, so I’m asking myself the same questions, and reviewing my notes from this year’s teaching – which led me back to the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Specifically, that first famous description of the title characters: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life” (5-6). I’d forgotten that my students this year had an unexpectedly difficult time making sense of this sentence, because they tried to read the second line separately from the first (“A pair of star-crossed lovers commit suicide”) and then had no idea what to do with the first line. In class, we went through the sentence, reversing the order of the two lines so that it was easier to see how they fit together (“A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life from forth the fatal loins of these two foes”), which made it clear that the line was in fact about the birth of the title characters, and that was that. Until a few days ago, when it occurred to me to wonder: if this sentence is about the births of Romeo and Juliet, not their deaths, is there anything in the Prologue that actually tells us that Romeo and Juliet commit suicide?

It’s clear enough that they die, of course: after this point, the Prologue states that “with their death” Romeo and Juliet “bury their parents’ strife” (8), describes their “death-marked love” (9), and tells us that the only thing powerful enough to end the Montague-Capulet feud is “their children’s end” (11). But the idea that the lovers specifically commit suicide is only found, if it’s found anywhere, in a sentence that is at best a pun on the phrase “take their life,” not a straightforward acknowledgment that they do in fact kill themselves. It’s reasonable enough that my students read the sentence this way; in fact, it’s difficult if not impossible not to hear “take their life” as “commit suicide,” given the common nature of the phrase today, and given the way that the play has made its way into popular culture: before you ever read the play, you know that Romeo and Juliet are two teenagers who kill themselves for love. But to what extent are we reading what’s present in the line itself, and to what extent are we reading our foreknowledge of the play into the line?

My students, naturally, aren’t the only ones who have read the line this way: No Fear Shakespeare doesn’t hesitate in “translating” the line as “Two unlucky children of these enemy families become lovers and commit suicide,” while a more trustworthy authority, René Weis, remarks on “the key paradox of take their life” in the Arden Third Series edition of the play (123). But would this have been a paradox, when the play was first written? That is, did “take their life” actually mean “commit suicide”?

The play itself, it turns out, never uses this phrase anywhere else. Setting aside the host of euphemisms for suicide that it contains (such as “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight” [5.1.34]), the text most frequently describes the act of suicide by using the verb “to slay” in a reflexive sense. When the Nurse gives a garbled account of the duel between Romeo and Tybalt, Juliet cries out in horror, “Hath Romeo slain himself?” (3.2.45). In the next scene, the Friar demands of Romeo, “Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thyself” (3.3.115); later he says to Juliet, “If rather than to marry County Paris / Thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself, / Then it is likely thou wilt undertake / A thing like death to chide away this shame” (4.1.71-4). (It’s peculiar that the Friar sees Juliet’s offer of suicide as “strength of will” while chastising Romeo for lacking the “valour of a man” [3.3.126] when he makes the same offer. Perhaps because Juliet’s suicide – to prevent a second marriage to Paris – would be for the protection of her chastity? At any rate, it’s yet another reason that we should not read the Friar as a neutral authority on Romeo’s behavior.)

Shakespeare uses “to slay oneself” to refer to suicide elsewhere in the Shakespeare corpus, as well as “to kill oneself” and “to fordo oneself” (the latter, it seems, only three times, and two of those are in Lear: “lay the blame upon her own despair, / That she fordid herself”; “Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves, / And desperately are dead”). There’s hang oneself, stab oneself, do violence on oneself, Hamlet’s famous self-slaughter (which makes it into the corpus three times, in fact)I’m sure there are a host of other terms, too – but the one I haven’t been able to find in reference to suicide is “take one’s life.” The closest I’ve come is the account of Lady Macbeth’s possible suicide – “Who, as ‘tis thought, by self and violent hands / Took off her life” – but even there I’m inclined to argue that the phrase only refers to suicide because of the presence of “self and violent hands”; that is, that the phrase isn’t (yet?) capable of standing in for suicide on its own. This is because all of the other uses of the phrase I could find in Shakespeare involve a person taking another’s life. Without a cue of the sort given in the Lady Macbeth example, would an audience in the 1590s have heard suicide lurking under birth in the R&J prologue, the way we do today?

The OED’s first attestation for “take one’s life” as referring to suicide comes from 1669, apparently in Sir Robert Stapleton’s The Tragedy of Hero and Leander: “Who takes his own life, merits not my pen.” That doesn’t rule out its earlier use, of course. But it doesn’t rule in R&J’s “take their life” as referring to suicide, either. So I’m left with two questions: 1) Did “to take one’s life” refer to suicide when Romeo and Juliet was written? And 2) Even if it did, can we assume that Shakespeare meant suicide when he used the phrase, given that he doesn’t seem to use it anywhere else in this sense? If anyone has any leads for answering either question, I’d be happy to hear them!


Notes: My methodology, such as it is, was to use the search function at Open Source Shakespeare. I first searched directly for variations on the phrase “take his life” using the Advanced Search feature, which allowed me to search for the phrase as a whole. I then used the regular search function to search for “take” (and “took”) near “life” – which let me cast a broader net in case the words were separated in some way. In regular search, Open Source Shakespeare pulls up any word that has “take” in it – so “takes” and “taken” covered, but so is “mistake,” “undertake,” etc.

Texts: Romeo and Juliet, René Weis, ed. Arden Third Series, 2012.

– Other Shakespeare quotations come from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.com (Accessed 13 March 2016).

– No Fear Shakespeare quotation from http://nfs.sparknotes.com/romeojuliet/page_2.html (Accessed 15 March 2016).

– OED citation: “take, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 15 March 2016.

The Cumberbatch Hamlet and the missing rogue’s gallery

Like many, many other people (judging from buzz and cinema ticket sales), on Thursday night I went to see the Barbican’s recent production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, courtesy of NT Live. While I thought that Cumberbatch himself performed well enough under the circumstances, I wasn’t at all impressed with the production. In fact, it’s safe to say that it lost me from the opening moments: in this production, the play opens with Hamlet sitting alone on the floor, listening to old records (his father’s?) and weeping. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, you’ll remember that this isn’t how the play begins; it actually opens with two soldiers on watch, jumpy and afraid, waiting for another sighting of the ghost they’ve seen before. It’s always mattered very much to me that Hamlet doesn’t begin with Hamlet: that no matter the intensity of Hamlet’s own concerns, there is a whole world beyond him and outside him. It matters to me that in the original text, we meet Horatio as his own person before we see him as Hamlet’s friend. It matters to me that we first see Hamlet in conversation with other people, not brooding by himself. When you cut the first scene entirely, and open with Hamlet alone, you lose all that – and a production that doubles down on the idea of Hamlet as isolated loner just isn’t one that I would ever be interested in.

This sense of intensified isolation carried into the director’s decision to move up several of the soliloquies into the midst of ongoing action, with the other actors suddenly reduced to frozen figures in a shadowed background, while Benedict Cumberbatch was ringed in spotlight. The other characters were shoved into murky insignificance; nothing and no one else, the production kept insisting, is as real as Hamlet is. And this Hamlet didn’t even appeal more to the audience instead; for the most part, the soliloquies were for himself and himself alone.

Then there were the peculiar cuts and changes to the text. I could probably write an entire blog post on those all by themselves, but I’d like to focus on one cut in particular: one small example of the production’s continued focus on Hamlet’s solitariness, and why that focus isn’t necessarily a good thing. In the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet asked, “Who calls me villain?” then stood quietly for a few beats and wearily continued, “I should take it”: a vague and anemic hypothetical, hardly capable of catching his imagination. But here’s Hamlet in the original text, with the cut lines in bold (I’m quoting a bit beyond that point, because I’d like to take a look at the longer passage):

…Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by th’ nose? gives me the lie i’ th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

Ha? Why, I should take it: for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this,

I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal…         (2.2, TLN 1611-1620)

What gets lost, with these cuts, is Hamlet’s febrile, obsessive imagining of exactly how, and in what variety of ways, the outside world might call him villain. Other people, and how they see him, matter intensely to the Hamlet of this soliloquy; he pictures them heaping scorn on him, over and over and in the strongest ways possible. They don’t just give him the lie; they do it “as deep as to the lungs,” as if they’re shouting it from the rooftops. They’re jostling into his space, assaulting him physically – hitting him over the head, plucking at his beard, tweaking his nose – while he can only stand there and take these indignities. This isn’t a Hamlet who is safe in his own private bubble of thought, only seeing others as shadowy abstractions; other people are in there with him, challenging him, calling him to account.

One of the trickiest things about cutting Shakespeare is that you don’t just lose the general sense of the lines you take out: you lose their specificity and sound, too. Take a look at the intensity of those verbs in those cut lines: breaks, plucks, blows, tweaks, all aggressive, active words to go along with Hamlet’s aggressive questioning and choppy lines. (The cut lines are also full of caesurae, or pauses in the middle of lines: Who calls me villain? || breaks my pate across? These often indicate short phrases, and possibly thinking made less orderly by some strong emotion.) Then listen to their sound: do you hear the sharp ‘k’ at the end of “break,” “pluck” and “tweak”? That ‘k’ sound is what’s known as a plosive: a consonant sound in which the air is stopped by our lips or tongue when we make it. We sometimes call these “hard” sounds, and these verbs are full of them: the ‘b’ of breaks and blows, the ‘p’ of plucks, and the ‘t’ of tweaks are all plosives too. Say “Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face” out loud, and you can hear how those sounds practically explode out of your mouth, full of energy and anger; it sounds totally different from a line like Romeo’s “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand,” where the dominant repeated sound is that sighing “ee.”

If you look at the passage again, you see that it’s full of plosives. And what’s remarkable is that so many of them also fall within stressed positions in the lines, so the actor is putting even more emphasis on them when he says them aloud. Below, the bolded syllables are stressed and the underlined sounds are plosives; you can see how often the two coincide:

…Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by th’ nose? gives me the lie i’ th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

Ha? Why, I should take it, for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this,

I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal…

(That Shakespeare. He really knew what he was doing.)

You still get some of the plosives in the version of the speech that Benedict Cumberbatch gave, but the highest concentration, especially of initial plosives, is found in the lines that were cut. And that’s a lot of energy for an actor to lose out on.

People often suggest that we should “revere” Shakespeare’s verse without explaining why, or suggest that it shouldn’t be cut because it’s somehow sacrilege to do so – as though Shakespeare is simply precious in some empty, undefined way. And that attitude can understandably make people want to knock Shakespeare off of this perceived perch, or declare that the language doesn’t matter nearly as much as story and character. But language and verse are character: all of Hamlet’s intensity is there in the sound and structure of what he says, and the vividness of those verbs, even if modern listeners are a bit hazy on exactly what it means to give someone the lie. And this is why I teach Shakespeare the way that I do: inching through texts at what can seem like a snail’s pace, making my students pay attention to scansion and caesurae and consonant sounds in a way that some might see as arid or merely academic. Because when it works, and they finally get why they’re looking for all of these things, this is the payoff: there is so much to be learned about how a character feels by training a magnifying glass on the way he speaks.

Text: Since the textual history of Hamlet is so complicated, I’ve quoted here from the Folio text at the Internet Shakespeare Editions site, hosted by the University of Victoria, and modernized the spelling and punctuation slightly. See <http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/Texts/Ham/F1/scene/2.2&gt;. Accessed 17 October 2015.

Want a really authentic Shakespeare experience? Try not understanding some words!

At our recent Back-to-School Night, the parent of a former student wanted to know what I thought of a recent article he’d read about whether Shakespeare’s language should be translated “into English.” I hadn’t read the article (though that didn’t stop me from having an opinion about it!), but a day or two later I found the article in question: John McWhorter’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, in support of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent announcement that it planned to commission modern English translations of Shakespeare’s plays.

(If you haven’t seen it, the article is here:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-facelift-for-shakespeare-1443194924 )

McWhorter begins with an assertion that he ought to know is simply untrue from a grammatical standpoint – that Shakespeare’s English is too far removed from today’s English to be understood – and goes on to make much hay from fairly minor examples. I think most people can imagine how a mind might be described as “generous” even if they aren’t experts in early modern nuance, for example, and his worry that modern listeners can’t make the association between the word “character” and writing seems misplaced in the age of Twitter, where many people strive daily to contain their thoughts in 140 characters. McWhorter also spends a fair amount of time attempting to demonstrate that Macbeth’s soliloquy debating the murder of Duncan is so arcane that it requires translation to mean anything to an audience – but perhaps not so coincidentally, my last post on this subject was about this very scene, and the same thing I said then holds true here: that complexity and confusion are part of the point. Macbeth can’t express clearly what he cannot see clearly in the first place.

This round of arguing in favor of Shakespeare translations seems to be particularly focused on individual words: the idea that not knowing the early modern meaning of “generous” or “faculties” or “taking-off” prevents audience members (and, to a lesser extent, readers) from being able to grasp what’s happening. (McWhorter also seems very concerned about “faculties,” which Shakespeare uses a total of nine times across all of his plays. That’s about nine seconds of possible confusion in all of Shakespeare.) The suggestion seems to be that so many words have changed their meanings that Shakespeare is rapidly becoming impossible to understand (though there are far more words that haven’t changed their meanings). Behind this idea, though, lies a false assumption: that audiences in Shakespeare’s day understood every word of the plays, so we – in order to have the same kind of experience the original audiences had – have to change the text to make up for all of those differences. But in Shakespeare’s day, new words were being imported and created all the time. The flip side of the frequent assertion that Shakespeare invented many new words [1] is that such words must have been unfamiliar to the people hearing them for the first time – probably even more unfamiliar to them than to us, since many of those words have since been adopted into the English language! Early modern dramatists, Shakespeare included, were writing at the cutting edge of the English language, and coining new words when the old ones wouldn’t do. So how might audiences have coped with so much unfamiliarity?

Let’s take a look at two words that I’ve seen suggested as words that are too difficult for many people in a modern audience to understand: prorogued (in Romeo and Juliet) and abatement (in Twelfth Night). The thing that’s important to note is that these two words were considered difficult in Shakespeare’s day as well – at least according to Robert Cawdrey, the creator of what is often called the first English dictionary: A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604. Unlike modern dictionaries, however, Cawdrey’s only includes what he calls “hard English words, which [people] shall hear or read in Scriptures, sermons, or elsewhere.” The fact that “prorogue” (‘put off, prolong, defer’) and “abatement” (‘taking from, lessening’) are both in this book tells us that even in 1604, several years after the composition of both Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, these words were still thought of as “hard” and unfamiliar to a sizable part of the population. So it’s likely that quite a few people in the audience at the Globe would have heard them and not known what they meant. Those people could simply have passed over those words, of course; that’s always an option. But perhaps there’s something about the text itself that can help an audience member to understand what a word must mean even if he or she doesn’t actually know what it means.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo responds to Juliet’s worry about her kinsmen (“If they do see thee, they will murder thee”) by exuberantly declaring,

And but [=unless] thou love me, let them find me here;

My life were better ended by their hate,

Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love. (2.2.76-8)

Out of context, “prorogued” could mean practically anything. But in context, where it is part of a claim that Romeo would rather die than experience whatever “death prorogued” is without Juliet’s love, it becomes clear that “death prorogued” – even if we still have no idea what “prorogued” means – has to be the opposite of death: that is, life. If we stopped to break this down further, we could probably therefore deduce that “prorogued” itself has to mean something like “avoided” or “put off,” but in the theater, that level of detail isn’t necessary as long as you understand the general sentiment. (In English class you might be required to know what “prorogued” meant, after you’d figured all of this out; but then, in English class you’d just look down at the footnotes.)

Shakespeare’s use of abatement at the beginning of Twelfth Night is similar. After Orsino’s famous pronouncement that music might be “the food of love,” he demands an “excess” of that music, then describes the spirit of love as being so capacious that it takes in everything that comes its way and still remains unsatisfied:

…Naught enters there

Of what validity and pitch soe’er

But falls into abatement and low price

Even in a minute. (1.1.11-14)

This is a complex passage, because Orsino is trying to express a complicated idea; Keir Elam, the editor of the Arden third series edition of the play, refers in the footnotes to “Orsino’s baroque conceit” (162). But we still don’t need to know what all of the words mean in order to make sense of it. “Pitch,” for example, is a term from falconry; I certainly did not know this the first time I read the play! However, if you keep his larger point in mind, “validity” and “pitch” must be the opposite of “low price,” that is, “value”: no matter how valuable something is, its worth will fall off sharply. (This entire image makes a lot more sense in the moment because it comes after Orsino’s much simpler exclamation that the music he just finished praising is “not so sweet now as it was before”; he’s now trying to figure out why and how such a change could happen so quickly. Context really is everything in Shakespeare; you should always use it to help you understand what’s happening, rather than trying to take each word or line on an individual basis.)

But what about “abatement”? Here, Shakespeare helps us by doing something that he often does: using a more elevated, potentially foreign word and then following it with its more ordinary definition. You can see this when Macbeth says that his bloody hands will “The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” If you don’t know what “incarnadine” means, you only need to wait a few seconds to find out. In Twelfth Night, “abatement” might be a new word for the audience, but “low price” is everyday. And it’s the “and” between the two – “abatement and low price” – that signals to us that these two terms must be more or less the same thing.

So, you may be thinking, if you don’t actually need to understand a word like “abatement,” why not just go ahead and translate it? Because even if you could find a replacement word that preserved the meter and rhythm of the original line, and even if you found one that preserved important sound patterns like alliteration, and even if you examined the entire text to make sure you weren’t disrupting any thematic patterns by changing the original word – because the idea of things “falling into abatement” echoes throughout Twelfth Night – you’d still lose the character information that comes with that word. Orsino is the kind of character who comes up with baroque conceits and uses words like “abatement” when “low price” will do, just as Macbeth feels that he needs grandiose words and phrases like “all great Neptune’s ocean,” “multitudinous,” and “incarnadine” to express the magnitude of the horror of the deed he’s just committed. And saying “abatement and low price” instead of just “low price” is perfect for a passage that is all about excess. Shakespeare chose those words (or invented them, sometimes) because he wanted them for something; it’s worth keeping them because they can still tell us what that “something” is, even today.

Nevertheless, not knowing a word like “incarnadine” is not a deal-breaker, in part because Shakespeare was writing for an audience who didn’t know every word he was using, either. It turns out that we actually don’t need to do anything to make our experience of Shakespeare more like that of the original audience, at least as far as individual words are concerned. If words like “abatement” and “prorogued” are unfamiliar or confusing to us, we have hundreds of years of company. And those unfamiliar words shouldn’t make us think that we can’t understand Shakespeare, or stop us from enjoying it. After all, they didn’t stop audiences in 1604.


[1] For a discussion of how large Shakespeare’s vocabulary actually was in comparison to other dramatists of the period, see Hugh Craig, “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality.” Shakespeare Quarterly 62:1 (2011): 53-74.

Texts: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition (G. Blakemore Evans, ed., reprinted 2012).

Twelfth Night, Arden third series (Keir Elam, ed., 2008).

Macbeth, drunken hope, and the problem with No Fear Shakespeare

This is a longer post than usual, because it’s an issue I’ve been thinking about for years, every time I teach Shakespeare to students who are unfamiliar with the plays: why I don’t recommend No Fear Shakespeare editions to students who might be finding Shakespeare’s language more difficult, and why I discourage students from using them when they’ve sheepishly admitted to me that they’ve used them from time to time.

For one thing, I think that such editions traffic in making Shakespeare seem harder than it is – implicitly telling students that Shakespeare, on its own, is something that should be approached with fear. They wouldn’t be able to do this if the culture at large didn’t support them in it, of course; even the most well-meaning Shakespeare guides are apt to stress the difficulty of Shakespeare’s language, and the centuries that have elapsed between him and us, rather than the many similarities between Early Modern English (the official designation of “Shakespeare’s English”; note the “modern” part of that phrase) and ours – which inadvertently sets readers up to believe that Shakespeare is largely incomprehensible, and you either understand it or you don’t. If that’s what you’ve been taught to believe, then why wouldn’t you reach for a translation the first time you hit a line you didn’t understand? Why wouldn’t you buy one for your son or daughter when he or she is starting a Shakespeare unit at school?

But because much of Shakespeare’s language is the same as or similar to modern English, buying one of these translations often means that you’re paying for the privilege of being told that “I never had a brother” means “I never had a brother,” or that “The world must be peopled” means “The world needs to be populated.” And if that weren’t enough, the translations often don’t work. At times they’re just inaccurate, leaving out key parts of what a character is actually saying. If you’re a student who’s new to Shakespeare, though, even if you notice the discrepancies between the original text and the translation, whom are you more likely to trust to be right: yourself, or the official-looking “study guide” that’s supposed to be helping you?

An even more fundamental problem with No Fear Shakespeare editions goes beyond their inaccuracies. The idea behind them is that every line can and should be translated into straightforward, everyday English, and that every line has a single, clear meaning. This means, of course, that No Fear Shakespeare is terrible at dealing with puns, which work by meaning two or more things at once: Mercutio’s famous “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,” for example, becomes “Ask for me tomorrow, and you’ll find me in a grave.” [1] I think we can all agree that this translation rather misses the point – and that telling a student that this is what the line means, no more or less, is just plain wrong. (It’s also another example of the way these translations play up the “difficulty” of Shakespeare’s language by rewriting lines that aren’t hard to understand.)

And if Mercutio’s single punning word presents a problem, what on earth do you do with a passage like this one from Macbeth, which sees Macbeth hesitate on the eve of the murder, and Lady Macbeth chastise him?

Continue reading

Romeo and rhetoric; or, why I care about anadiplosis

At long last – at least from my students’ point of view – we’ve finished up with Romeo and Juliet, so I’m in the process of saying goodbye to my beloved play for another year. I suppose it’s only fair to do so by looking at how Romeo begins his goodbyes to Juliet in his final soliloquy. After he has mortally wounded Paris (not knowing, at first, who he is), Romeo honors his promise to bury Paris with Juliet:

I’ll bury thee in a triumphant grave.

A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth;

For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes

This vault a feasting presence full of light.     (5.3.83-6)

There are many things about these lines that I find heartbreaking and hard to read, even now – from Romeo’s final depiction of Juliet as a source of light (a theme he begins with “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”), to the fact that “Here lies Juliet” sounds painfully like an epitaph. But this time around, my attention was caught by the use of a particular rhetorical device: anadiplosis, the repetition of a word at the end of one line and the beginning of the subsequent line. In this case, we see anadiplosis in Romeo’s use of “grave” in lines 83 and 84.

I spend a fair amount of time on rhetorical devices when I teach Shakespeare. For one thing, I think it levels the playing field: even students who think they don’t “get” Shakespeare can spot examples of devices like anaphora or epistrophe, once they know what those things are. And I like to think that it takes away some of the intimidation students sometimes feel when studying poetry; even if my students don’t remember the specific names of these devices, they’ll have learned that they are capable of noticing and talking about them, and these poetic features won’t be alien to them when mentioned by other teachers or professors in the future.

But the most important reason for focusing on rhetorical devices when teaching Shakespeare is that Shakespeare focused on them. Early modern writers knew their rhetoric, and put it to good use. After I read Renaissance authors like George Puttenham and Thomas Wilson and Angel Day, who wrote and compiled detailed rhetoric manuals for people of varying levels of society, and as I read modern scholars who detailed how crucial rhetoric was to early modern thought, it no longer made sense to me that we so often avoid this subject when teaching Shakespeare, simply because the terms can be unfamiliar. After all, if Shakespeare uses these rhetorical devices to draw his characters more fully, then it can only help us – as students, as audience members, or as actors – to pay attention to what it is he’s doing with them. And we can only do that if we know enough to look for them, when they’re there.

Which brings us back to Romeo, and his repetition of “grave.” One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that he shows us characters listening to the last thing they said and interrogating it, changing their minds about it. You see it quite a bit – as when Richard II declares that he and his followers should “choose executors, and talk of wills; / And yet not so, for what can we bequeath, / Save our deposed bodies to the ground?” And Hamlet famously does this just as he’s on the cusp of killing Claudius and freeing himself from the terrible debt his father’s ghost has placed him under: “And now I’ll do’t; and so he goes to heaven, / And so am I revenged. That would be scanned”. Watching a character thinking his way through something – not just declaiming the results of his decision, but considering it at the moment of speech – is one of those little things that make characters seem more vivid, less static and unchanging; the more so because those moments are usually “unnecessary.” Romeo could simply start this speech by saying that Juliet’s beauty makes the tomb a feasting presence full of light, and we wouldn’t lose any of the sense of the passage. Juliet would still be beautiful enough, even in her presumed death, to light up the grave. But without that moment when he calls the tomb a grave, and then stops, and hears himself, and changes his mind – “A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth” – we would lose the moment when he notices Juliet’s beauty, as if anew, and by noticing it in the moment, shares the discovery with us.

Text: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition, G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Cambridge UP, 2012.

The “un”making of Macbeth

Last week, I saw the Shakespeare’s Globe cinema screening of their recent production of Macbeth, and Joseph Millson’s intense and vigorous Macbeth in particular inspired me to start up this blog again. As I watched him go from valued soldier to tyrant, I kept thinking about another accusation of “unmaking” leveled at him in the play.

As my Shakespeare students this year know (…because I keep telling them this), I really like negation affixes: those little particles like un- and dis- that turn a neutral word into a negative. And Shakespeare makes especially rich use of them: think of Richard II declaring, “Now mark me how I will undo myself” (or “God save King Henry, unkinged Richard says”), or Goneril telling Lear “A little to disquantity [his] train.” While I was watching Macbeth the other night, I kept hearing, in particular, the echoing of un-. Jonathan Hope remarks, “Shakespeare seems particularly drawn to ‘un-’ as a way of negating concepts, perhaps because it suggests an active process of undoing something, rather than simple absence.” [1] And this is, I think, what we see in Lady Macbeth’s uses of this prefix in her addresses to her husband: first, she says that the “fitness” of the occasion for killing Duncan “Does unmake” Macbeth at 1.7.54; then just after Duncan’s murder, she scolds him by saying, “Why, worthy thane, / You do unbend your noble strength to think / So brainsickly of things” (2.2.47-49), as well as “Your constancy / Hath left you unattended” (2.2.71-2).

Lady Macbeth is constantly holding Macbeth up to Macbeth, if you like, comparing his past manliness to his current weakness (“When you durst do it, then you were a man”), and in each of these cases, she’s able to cram all of that into a word by using the un- prefix: he is undone, coming apart at his noble seams, no longer the thing he was. She sums all of this up, in fact, at 3.4.75, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost: “What, quite unmanned in folly?”

Intriguingly, though, there’s something odd and unexpected about Lady Macbeth’s remark that Macbeth unbends his noble strength when he is horrified by the murder of Duncan. I might have expected to hear “bend your noble strength”: that is, Macbeth’s strength is bending because it is no longer firm. But “unbend” suggests that the natural state of strength is a taut readiness, like a bow – something that has to be constantly held in place and that cannot be allowed to slacken, rather than a substance like stone, which is effortlessly adamantine. I like what this suggests about the state of manliness in the world of Macbeth: that to be a man is to be constantly wary, constantly on guard against threats that would weaken you or make you “play the woman” (as Macduff puts it at 4.3.230).


[1] Jonathan Hope, “Shakespeare and language.” In The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Eds. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (Cambridge UP, 2010): 77-90, p. 83.

Text: Macbeth, ed. Stephen Orgel (Pelican Shakespeare, 2000).

Parents, siblings, and pronouns

(I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now, but between grading, recovering from grading, attending friends’ weddings, and going to a conference, I never quite managed it.)  

When I cast my eye back over 1.1 of King Lear, I was surprised to find – given how slightingly he speaks of his illegitimate son Edmund – that Gloucester doesn’t resort to the informal or familiar pronoun “thou,” which would be appropriate from a father to a son. Instead, in the only sentence in 1.1 that requires him to choose between the two pronouns (only two of his sentences here are addressed to Edmund, and the other is a command with no pronoun), he opts for the unmarked “you”: “Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?” (1.1.23-4). 

As king, however, Lear marks distinctions more clearly. He uses the formal “you” when addressing Albany, Burgundy, and the King of France, but, as one might expect, chooses “thou” and “thee” when speaking to his daughters – up to a point. As I’m sure others have noted, Lear speaks to Cordelia at first using “you,” setting her apart from her sisters: “what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (1.1.85-6, my emphasis). With pronouns, context is everything: since it’s Lear’s prerogative to use “thou,” and because he does use it to address Goneril and Regan, his use of “you” here speaks to the special relationship he has with Cordelia. Even when she fails to flatter him as he expects her to, he clings to the unmarked pronoun a little longer: “How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, / Lest you may mar your fortunes” (1.1.94-5). But after this point, Lear’s switch to “thou” reads as contemptuous: “Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower!”; “And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee from this forever” (1.1.109; 1.1.116-7).

Between love and contempt, though, there’s one more use of the informal pronoun. “But goes thy heart with this?” (1.1.105), Lear asks Cordelia, giving her one more chance to recant her statements of dutiful love and replace them with something more fulsome (or more appropriate to the occasion, depending on how you see Lear’s demands for proof of affection). How should we read this moment? Is Lear pleading with Cordelia, switching to “thy” to call up an even closer intimacy? Is he reminding Cordelia that she is his daughter and his subject, and as such should demonstrate a double obedience to his desires? Or does this pronoun mark the very beginning of the boiling rage that will see Lear banish his youngest daughter? What I love about the shifts in early modern pronoun use is that often, it’s not entirely clear how we should read these moments; they can be messy and indeterminate, just like the emotions they represent. These pronouns highlight social relationships, but don’t prescribe them – leaving open possibilities for interpretation and performance.

One negotiation between pronouns in Lear, though, is much more purposeful in its effects. When Edmund plots to take his brother Edgar’s land, he does so by convincing their father that Edgar planned to murder him, and tried to enlist Edmund’s help in the affair. To do this, he recounts a supposed dialogue between himself and Edgar, in which Edgar readily insults Edmund: 

When I dissuaded him from his intent

And found him pight to do it, with curst speech

I threatened to discover him. He replied,

Thou unpossessing bastard, dost thou think,

If I would stand against thee, would the reposal

Of any trust, virtue, or worth in thee

Make thy words faithed?’…   (2.1.64-70, my emphasis) 

This speech reveals again to us that Edmund is a canny, consummate liar; he even remembers to manipulate pronoun use in addition to using direct insult (“Thou unpossessing bastard”). Because, of course, Edgar never actually speaks to Edmund in such a way. In fact, he insists on the familial connection between them in his first line in the play: “How now, brother Edmund; what serious contemplation are you in?” (1.2.138-9). Not “bastard,” but “brother”; and never “thou,” but always “you.” (Edmund, unsettlingly chameleon-like, responds in kind; Edgar addresses him twice as “brother” in 1.2, and both times Edmund parrots the word back in the next line – allowing Edgar to believe that he reciprocates the apparent affection that Edgar freely gives.) 

Edmund’s sly declarations have their desired effect, and Gloucester promises that he will find a way for Edmund to inherit instead of Edgar: “Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable” (2.1.84-5). And here, we get the familiar pronoun from Gloucester that we didn’t get in the first scene – remarkably, only his second use of the familiar pronoun to Edmund, and the other instance similarly deals with the offer of some kind of reward. When he asks Edmund to investigate the “plot” against him in 1.2, he begs, “Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing” (1.2.115-6). One wonders, at this point in the play, whether Gloucester possesses a language of affection that doesn’t involve payment of some kind – though of course, he seems to share that lack with his sovereign as well. 


Text: King Lear, ed. Stephen Orgel (Penguin, 1999).