For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.
As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of The Taming of the Shrew, for example, you will find the words feeze you (i.e., fix you, do for you), an (i.e., if), bestraught (i.e., distracted), and iwis (i.e., certainly). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
In The Taming of the Shrew, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of The Taming of the Shrew, for example, the word heavy has the meaning of “grave,” the word envious is used where we would say “malicious,” brave where we would say “splendid,” idle where we would say “silly,” and curst where we would say “bad-tempered.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.
Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare uses to build a dramatic world that has its own space and time. The Taming of the Shrew is a particularly complicated example of Shakespeare’s construction of a dramatic world in that he creates one world in what we call the “Induction”—a world inhabited by an English beggar and an English lord and his attendants—and then creates a second, Italian, world for the main body of the play. In the Induction we find rogues, stocks, and headboroughs, as well as references to deep-mouthed brachs, wanton pictures, obeisances, and embracements. In the opening scenes of the main body of the play, the setting in Italy and the story’s focus on wooing are created through repeated references to Padua, to Lombardy, to Pisa, to dowries, to Ovid, to poesy, and to Minerva, and through such Italian phrases as Mi perdonato and basta. These “local” references create the Padua that Kate, Petruchio, Lucentio, and Bianca inhabit and will become increasingly familiar to you as you get further into the play.
In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes in order to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, we check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.
Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “he goes,” we find “goes he”). In the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew, we find such a construction when Christopher Sly is told “Hence comes it that your kindred shuns your house” (Ind.2.28) (instead of “Hence it comes that . . .”); Hortensio uses this same kind of construction when, at 1.1.87–88, he says, “Sorry am I that our goodwill effects / Bianca’s grief.” Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “him I hit”). Baptista’s “Schoolmasters will I keep” (1.1.96) is an example of such an inversion, as are Lucentio’s “Vincentio’s son . . . / It shall become” (1.1.14–15), and Petruchio’s “Crowns in my purse I have” (1.2.58). Occasionally in The Taming of the Shrew (which is one of Shakespeare’s very early plays), the subject-verb-object sequencing is unusually contorted, as in Baptista’s “For how I firmly am resolved you know” (1.1.49, where the normal sentence order would be “For you know how I am firmly resolved”). Here, and elsewhere, the inversions serve primarily to create regular iambic pentameter lines.
Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, Hortensio’s “Her only fault, and that is faults enough, / Is that she is intolerable curst” (1.2.89–90); here the phrase “and that is faults enough” separates the subject (“fault”) from its verb (“Is”). Or take Lucentio’s lines that begin at 1.1.153, “I found the effect of love-in-idleness, / And now in plainness do confess to thee / That art to me as secret and as dear / As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was: / Tranio, I burn, I pine!” Here the normal construction “I found . . . and . . . do confess . . . : I burn, I pine” is interrupted by the insertion of a series of phrases and clauses. In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“her fault is that,” “do confess: I burn, I pine”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis.
Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages with long delaying or expanding interruptions. Tranio uses such an interrupted construction when he says to Lucentio at 1.1.217–22
In brief, sir, sith it your pleasure is,
And I am tied to be obedient
(For so your father charged me at our parting:
“Be serviceable to my son,” quoth he,
Although I think ’twas in another sense),
I am content to be Lucentio.
In some plays (Hamlet, for instance), long interrupted sentences are used to catch the audience up in the narrative or are used as a characterizing device. In The Taming of the Shrew, the interruptions are more often simply extra bits of detail. Lucentio’s opening speech in 1.1, for instance, includes descriptive details for almost every city or person named:
Tranio, since for [i.e., because of] the great desire I
To see fair Padua, nursery of arts,
I am arrived for [i.e., have arrived in] fruitful
The pleasant garden of great Italy,
And by my father’s love and leave am armed
With his goodwill and thy good company.
My trusty servant well approved in all,
Here let us breathe [i.e., remain] and haply institute
A course of learning and ingenious studies.
Pisa, renownèd for grave citizens,
Gave me my being, and my father first,
A merchant of great traffic through the world,
Vincentio, come of the Bentivolii.
Vincentio’s son, brought up in Florence,
It shall become to serve all hopes conceived
To deck his fortune with his virtuous deeds.
Such descriptive details lengthen the sentences and, in combination with such inversions as “Vincentio’s son . . . It shall become,” give the verse a formal quality that marks it off both from the play’s prose passages and from the much simpler and more straightforward verse of the Induction.
In several passages in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare not only interrupts with details but piles up detail to create extraordinary speeches (see, for example, the description of Petruchio’s wedding clothes and his horse [3.2.42–62] and the description of the wedding itself [3.2.160–67]). Such speeches are hard to appreciate when read silently (especially since so many of the words he selects here are no longer in our vocabularies), but come wonderfully alive as grotesque, farcical verbal riffs when delivered aloud.
Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings. In The Taming of the Shrew the scene that introduces us to Petruchio includes a long argument between Petruchio and his servant Grumio (1.2.5–21, 38–44) that turns on the word knock and the phrase knock me, by which Petruchio means “knock for me [on the gate],” but which Grumio interprets as “hit me.” In 1.1, when Kate enters she says to Baptista, “I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale [i.e., laughingstock] of me amongst these mates?” Mates here means “fellows.” Hortensio replies with “ ‘Mates,’ maid? How mean you that? No mates for you / Unless you were of gentler, milder mold,” where mates means “husbands.” The first scene between Kate and Petruchio (2.1.190–293) is built around a whole series of puns, beginning with puns on the name Kate (delicacies are known as “cates”) and including puns on sounded, movables, bear, light, take, crest, crab, arms, and tale/tail. In all of Shakespeare’s plays, one must stay alert to the sounds of words and to the possibility of double meanings. In The Taming of the Shrew, many scenes are funny only if we hear the puns.
A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. The Taming of the Shrew is not rich in metaphoric language, but at one point, when Petruchio describes his method of “taming” Kate (at 4.1.190–96), he uses metaphor in a powerful and significant way:
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper’s call.
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat and will not be obedient.
Here, in an extended metaphor, Kate is a falcon being tamed by its master, a “haggard” (i.e., a female hawk) being “manned,” being made to “stoop.” The language is taken from manuals for the training of hawks, and the metaphor works out in careful detail Petruchio’s image of himself as trainer and Kate as the hawk he is taming.
Implied Stage Action
Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we must always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, in The Taming of the Shrew 1.1.212–13, Lucentio says, “Tranio, at once / Uncase thee. Take my colored hat and cloak,” it is clear, from later dialogue in the scene, that they here exchange clothes; in 1.2.28–29, when Hortensio says, “Rise, Grumio, rise,” it is equally clear that at some previous point Grumio has fallen. At several places in The Taming of the Shrew, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. When, after Kate and Petruchio’s first meeting, Petruchio claims, untruthfully, that he and she have fallen in love and agreed to marry, and he says (2.1.333) “Give me thy hand, Kate,” it is not at all clear that she does as he asks; nor do we know exactly what should happen a few lines later when her father says, “Give me your hands.” Since he then says to Petruchio, “ ’Tis a match,” we can assume that Petruchio, at least, gives Baptista his hand, but the actor playing Katherine—and we as readers—must decide whether Katherine allows him to join their hands or refuses to do so. Even more interesting challenges are offered by the final scene of the play, where Katherine, having spoken eloquently about the proper duties of a wife, concludes her speech by saying to the other women: “place your hands below your husband’s foot; / In token of which duty, if he please, / My hand is ready, may it do him ease” (5.2.193–95). Katherine may here stoop and place her hand under Petruchio’s foot—this is the case in many productions. If she does, the picture of her subjugation (or her happy acceptance of her new role) is quite different than if she merely offers to do so. The text leaves open interesting possibilities for staging this moment.
It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage a Shakespeare play in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.