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Shakespeares language




Slide 17

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.

Slide 18



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

Slide 19

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.

Slide 20

Much Ado About Nothing

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

Slide 21

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


gild/guilt, surcease/success, done/Duncan

None of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth

Slide 22

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”

rhythic 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. . . .

Slide 23

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%)

Slide 24

What distinguishes poetry from prose?

What distinguishes poetry from prose?

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