Shakespeare’s Language

In the highly politicized, hyperspecialized, and careerist world of Anglo-American literary criticism, those critics who manage to command near universal respect and attention are few indeed. Sir Frank Kermode is one of them. Over the course of a long and productive literary life, Kermode has established himself as that rarest of creatures—a brilliant generalist. He has produced works of criticism in such diverse areas as Renaissance literature, Romanticism, the theory of fiction, the novel, and narrative theory—to name a few. Among his best known books are The Sense of an Ending (1967), The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (1979), and Forms of Attention (1985). Kermode has written on Shakespeare on a number of occasions, and edited the 1958 Arden edition of The Tempest.

In Shakespeare’s Language Kermode is working against the grain of current criticism. Focusing unfashionably upon the poetics of Shakespeare’s plays, he has no particular political agenda to promote. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Language seems to exist in a world serenely indifferent to the political turf wars of the academy, perhaps in part because Kermode has written this book, as he states in the preface, primarily for a “non-professional audience.” The work is divided into two parts. Part One, some sixty pages long, surveys Shakespeare’s early and middle periods; Part Two consists of fifteen brief and highly readable chapters, one for each of the plays written after 1600. Footnotes and references to the massive body of Shakespeare criticism are used sparingly.

Between 1594 and 1608, Kermode argues, Shakespearean drama underwent a transformation that may be described as a movement from the drama of rhetorical gesture to a drama of “personation,” a term that itself dates back to the Elizabethan period and that refers to a “fuller representation of character.” While this transformation is apparent to some degree in the works of other playwrights of the time, it is Shakespeare, especially in his great tragedies, who pioneered the change. More precisely, Kermode defines the drama of personation as “the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighing of confused possibilities and dubious motives . . . as in the meditation of a person under stress to whom all that he is considering can be a prelude to vital choices, emotional and political.”

English drama before Shakespeare, and even much of Shakespeare’s own early work, is essentially nondramatic, claims Kermode; which is to say that the earlier dramaturgy was a matter of following the rules of poetic composition, rules derived from the classical rhetoric learned in the schools. Stichomythia (dialogue in alternate lines), anaphora, epistrophe, epanalepsis (all forms of repetition), such rhetorical figures and hundreds of others were stockpiled for convenient use in such manuals of classical style as Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesie (1589). Shakespeare’s English history plays, most of them composed in the mid-1590’s, are heavily dependent upon the use of such figures, albeit a more refined use than one ordinarily finds in other plays of the period. Even in Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596), still one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and studied dramas, one finds the speeches dominated by ornamentation of classical origin.

On the other hand, Richard II may also be seen as a transitional play, one in which certain speeches display a clear indication of the development of Shakespeare’s language toward a fuller, more engaged sense of character. Thus when Richard’s favorite, Bushy, addresses the Queen in act 2, his language is less than transparent; it bears the traces of the struggle of thought to find expression in speech commensurate to the emotion of the moment, but falling somewhat short. Bushy seeks to console the Queen by reminding her that the “substance of a grief” is a thing distinct from the many “shadows” of grief—the images projected by sorrow that play upon the mind’s eye like so many “perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon/ Show nothing but confusion.” Thus the Queen, “looking awry” upon Richard’s departure, “Find[s] shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail,/ Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows.” Bushy concludes his advice as follows: “More than your lord’s departure weep not—more is not seen,/ Or if it be, tis with false sorrow’s eye,/ Which for things true weeps things imaginary.”

As Kermode demonstrates, the word “perspectives” is the key to this passage and suggests that Bushy is drawing an analogy to the tricks of perspective employed in certain well-known sixteenth century paintings, such as Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533), in which the image appears differently when viewed from the side (“awry”) rather than from front and center. In fact, such paintings, to be viewed correctly, must be viewed “awry,” which is why Bushy’s analogy ends up, says Kermode, in “something of a muddle.” For by the logic of his analogy, he really ought to be advising the Queen to look not “rightly” upon her grief, but “awry.” Kermode further notes that this somewhat convoluted analogy departed from the usual rhetorical rules for consolatory speeches. While Kermode does not claim here...

(The entire section is 2205 words.)