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Shakespeare's Language (2000)

af Frank Kermode

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661535,891 (3.69)10
"This book argues that something extraordinary happened to Shakespeare's language in midcareer, somewhere around 1600." "An initial discussion of some of the language of the earlier plays looks for signs as to what was afoot, and this leads to a treatment of the central turning point. The rest of the book provides close studies of what came after that, in the great works between Hamlet and The Tempest. Special attention is paid to many passages which are now so obscure that after all the work done by scholars they remain difficult. How could this be so, when Shakespeare was always a popular dramatist? How did this language develop, and how did it happen that in spite of everything Shakespeare had an audience capable of understanding Hamlet at the beginning of the decade and Coriolanus near the end of it?"--Jacket.… (mere)
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The late Frank Kermode was one of the leading scholars in the field of Shakespearean studies, and this book clearly displays his ability to address complex technical issues in a clear and readily accessible manner.

Shakespeare’s language provides copious scope for debate. The full, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary provides illustrative quotations to show how the meaning of a word has developed over the years, and has more words whose definitions are supported by quotations from Shakespeare as the first recorded use than for any other single writer: he inherited an already copious and rich language, and bequeathed it a host of words of his own devising.

Kermode addresses this aspect of the Bard in detail, but he also looks more closely at the style of language that Shakespeare employed. He was, after all, writing for entertainment, and he adapted the flow and pace of his characters’ speeches to reflect their respective stations in life.

At the simplest level, Shakespeare showed marvellous dexterity at varying his characters’ language to suit their station in life. Noble characters deploy a far more venerable level of speech than the ‘ordinary’ citizenry. Similarly, Polonius, chief administrator and fixer for the usurping Claudius in Hamlet, comes across as ponderous and obfuscating, almost like his administrative descendant Sir Humphrey, whose discourses are intended to obscure rather than illuminate the machinery of government.

Kermode takes his analysis much further than this. Not only did Shakespeare have an acute ear for social distinctions within his characters’ speech, but his own use of language developed as he grew older. It is all too easy to resort to a quantitative approach to the study of literature, without uncovering anything particularly illuminating. One intriguing metric that Kermode highlights, however, is the differing proportion of prose and verse in his plays. There was a far greater preponderance of prose in his earlier works, sometimes rising almost to 40 per cent, whereas, once he hit mid-season form around 1600 onwards and embarked upon his later, great plays (Julius Caesar, King Lear, Hamlet), the proportion of the plays written in verse was far higher.

The first third of the book is given over to an analysis of Shakespeare’s works (including the sonnets) in general, while the rest of the book looks in detail at some of the individual plays. Kermode’s depth of knowledge about, and love for, his subject matter shines through at every stage.

Shakespeare’s mastery of the written word has never been in doubt, but this book shines a light on the mechanisms and artistry that underlie it. This is accessible scholastic analysis of the highest order. ( )
1 stem Eyejaybee | Dec 7, 2018 |
Sir Frank Kermode's Shakespeare's Language is a deeply significant publication, the result of a lifetime of writing and thinking on the Bard by one of our greatest critics, and it certainly lives up to its expectations. Kermode's numerous critical studies, such as The Sense of an Ending, have become classics and his recent memoir Not Entitled vividly captured a life of letters, characterised by a passionate commitment to the value of literature. The author begins by lamenting the fact that general readers have not "been well served by modern critics, who on the whole seem to have little time for [Shakespeare's] language". However, rather than launching into a diatribe against current literary fashions, he proceeds to offer an elegant and detailed account of how "Shakespeare became, between 1594 and 1608, a different kind of poet". For Kermode, Shakespeare "moved up to a new level of achievement and difficulty", associated with the rich complexities of Hamlet and the enigmatic poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. Kermode defines that shift as "the pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them. This is new: the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighing of confused possibilities and dubious motives". This leads Kermode to break his book into two parts. The first deals with the plays up to 1600, including some controversial dismissals of plays, including As You Like It, whilst the second part offers 15 detailed chapters on the tragedies, problem plays and romances. Each chapter is full of detailed and illuminating interpretations of the difficulties, but also pleasures of Shakespeare's language. This is classic Shakespeare criticism, written in the mould of Johnson and Coleridge.--Jerry Brotton
  Roger_Scoppie | Apr 3, 2013 |
The true biography of Shakespeare - and the only one we really need to care about - is in the plays. Sir Frank Kermode, Britain's most distinguished literary critic, has been thinking about them all his life. This book is a distillation of that lifetime's thinking. The great English tragedies were all written in the first decade of the seventeenth century. They are often in language that is difficult to us, and must have been hard even for contemporaries. How and why did Shakespeare's language develop as it did? Kermode argues that the resources of English underwent major change around 1600.
  RKC-Drama | Mar 24, 2011 |
One of the best books of Shakespeare criticism I've ever read.
  TomReedy | Feb 17, 2011 |
Segnalato da Flavia Vendittelli
  Biblit | Apr 24, 2012 |
Viser 5 af 5
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Although a large proportion of Shakespeare's verse was spoken in the theatre, a fact that accounts for much that affected its extraordinary development, I am not, or not primarily, interested in purely theatrical matters, though I must occasionally have something to say about them.
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"Antony and Cleopatra" takes the world-sharers, exposes them as they are, both ruthless politicians and one a libertine, and with controlled hyperbole elevates them to a status so grand that only an exercise of linguistic genius could prevent their seeming inflated or absurd.
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"This book argues that something extraordinary happened to Shakespeare's language in midcareer, somewhere around 1600." "An initial discussion of some of the language of the earlier plays looks for signs as to what was afoot, and this leads to a treatment of the central turning point. The rest of the book provides close studies of what came after that, in the great works between Hamlet and The Tempest. Special attention is paid to many passages which are now so obscure that after all the work done by scholars they remain difficult. How could this be so, when Shakespeare was always a popular dramatist? How did this language develop, and how did it happen that in spite of everything Shakespeare had an audience capable of understanding Hamlet at the beginning of the decade and Coriolanus near the end of it?"--Jacket.

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