Trippingly on the tongue – exploring Shakespeare’s language

by Helen Leblique | 1 September 2016

I love Shakespeare’s language – every time I read one of his plays I am astounded by its brilliance. There is his exquisite choice of, and even new-creation of, words which in the very act of speaking them lead you to begin to feel what the character’s feeling whether it is through a particular combination of consonants that make you feel angry or through vowels that in voicing them feel like they open your heart, connecting you to a deep primal emotional landscape. Then there is the beautiful poetry that through its detailed imagery conjures up whole worlds and the subtle rhythm of the text which drives the plays and gives the attuned actor crucial clues to the character’s state of mind. Add to this mix the witty wordplay and clever repetition that draws our attention to the slippery nature of language itself and through which, in front of our very eyes, a character can remake a word’s meaning as he speaks it (Mark Antony’s use of the word “honourable” in relation to the conspirators being a great example) and you have an endlessly fascinating textual cocktail.

It hasn’t always been this way though. In some of my secondary school classes on Shakespeare I was bored and confused. The characters were often distant to me, the language seemed unnecessarily complex and I could not understand iambic pentameter at all. My teacher insisted that every line Shakespeare wrote was exactly 10 syllables grouped in unstressed-stressed syllable pairings but no matter how carefully I counted, it seemed to me that some lines were longer than 10 syllables and the “de dum de dum de dum de dum de dum” rhythm didn’t always seem to fit.

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