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 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 in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his 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 and seventeenth centuries. 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 we are reading on our own, we 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 Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of The Tempest, for example, you will find the words yarely (i.e., quickly, nimbly), hap (i.e., happen), fain (i.e., gladly), wrack (i.e., wrecked vessel), and teen (i.e., trouble). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
In The Tempest, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of The Tempest, for example, the word hearts has the meaning of “hearties, good fellows,” hand is used where we would say “handle, lay hold of,” art is used where we would say “learning” or “skill,” brave where we would say “splendid,” and perdition where we would say “loss.” 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 is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scenes of The Tempest, for example, Shakespeare quickly creates the world of the storm-tossed ship, with words like “boatswain” and with such nautical terminology as “bring her to try with th’ main course,” “lay her ahold,” and “set her two courses.” He then builds the island world in which Prospero and Miranda presently live, a world dominated by Prospero’s “art” (i.e., his magic power), a world where Prospero is master of a “full poor cell,” where he “sties” Caliban in a “rock,” a world of “urchins” and “marmosets” and “pignuts.” Simultaneously, he creates the world of Prospero and Miranda’s past, a world of “signiories,” “coronets,” and “tribute,” of “the liberal arts” and “secret studies,” of confederacy and extirpation. Ariel enters, bringing with him the language of service: “grave sir,” “hests,” “task” (i.e., put to work), “bad’st” (i.e., commanded); Caliban brings his curses. As each new character enters, he brings a few linguistic signs of his past and his character. The language world of this play thus builds gradually and cumulatively, in contrast to most of Shakespeare’s plays where the dimensions of a particular world are clearly laid out in the first two or three scenes.
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 to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes 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 a 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, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.
Shakespeare often, for example, rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he,” or instead of “I would go” we find “Would I go”). In The Tempest, when Gonzalo says “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea” (1.1.68), he is using such a construction. Shakespeare also frequently places the object or the predicate adjective or predicate nominative before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit,” or, instead of “It is black,” we might find “Black it is”). Prospero’s “The government I cast upon my brother” (1.2.93) is an example of such an inversion, as is his “a cherubin / Thou wast that did preserve me” (1.2.182–83). Ferdinand, too, uses such a construction in his “Space enough / Have I in such a prison” (1.2.599–600), which also inverts the subject and verb. The “normal” order would be “I have space enough. . . .”
Often in The Tempest Shakespeare uses inverted sentences that fall outside even these categories. Such sentences must be studied individually until the “normal” sentence pattern can be perceived. Prospero’s “By foul play, as thou sayst, were we heaved thence” (1.2.78) is a relatively simple example of such an inversion. Its “normal” order would be “As thou sayst, we were heaved thence by foul play.” Miranda’s “More to know / Did never meddle with my thoughts” (1.2.25–26) is more complicated. Its “normal” order would be, approximately, “To know more never did meddle. . . .”
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, Prospero’s “The direful spectacle of the wrack, which touched / The very virtue of compassion in thee, / I have with such provision in mine art / So safely ordered . . .” (1.2.33–36). Here, the phrase “with such provision in mine art so safely” separates the parts of the verb “have ordered,” while several phrases and clauses separate the subject and verb from the object (“The direful spectacle”); since the object stands first, the sentence also inverts the “normal” order of subject/ verb/object. Or take Ferdinand’s lines: “I, / Beyond all limit of what else i’ th’ world, / Do love, prize, honor you” (3.1.84–86). Here, the subject and verb “I do love, prize, honor” are interrupted by the insertion of the phrase “Beyond all limit of what else i’ th’ world.” In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“I have so safely ordered the direful spectacle . . .,” “I do love, prize, honor . . .”). You will usually find that the sentences will gain in clarity but will lose their rhythm or shift its emphasis.
Locating and if necessary rearranging words that “belong together” is especially helpful in passages that separate subjects from verbs by long delaying or expanding interruptions. When Prospero tells Miranda about his former seclusion and its effect on his brother (“I awaked an evil nature in my false brother”), he uses such an interrupted construction:
I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retired,
O’erprized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature. . . . (1.2.109–13)
Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In his later plays, including The Tempest, Shakespeare uses omissions of words to great dramatic effect. Ferdinand’s “Vouchsafe my prayer / May know if you remain upon this island” (1.2.506–7) compresses the request “Vouchsafe [to hear] my prayer [that I] may know if you remain upon this island.” The compressed statement (in which the prayer itself is “vouchsafed” and is also given the capacity to “know”) conveys the power of the emotion that captures Ferdinand and the formality appropriate for an address to a goddess. Ferdinand’s “He does hear me, / And that he does I weep. Myself am Naples” (1.2.520–21) compresses “He does hear me, and [it is because he does that] I weep. [I] myself am Naples.” The heavily compressed statement both expresses Ferdinand’s grief and reflects what he thinks is his new status as king (“Myself am Naples”). His exclamation to Miranda, “O, if a virgin, / And your affection not gone forth” (1.2.538–39), compresses “O, if [you are] a virgin, / And [if] your affection [has] not gone forth.” The compression conveys Ferdinand’s desire and his anxiety that Miranda might already be committed to someone else. When he later commits himself to her, his language is so compressed that one cannot be certain of its exact meaning; only the intensity of feeling comes through: “My husband, then?” “Ay, with a heart as willing / As bondage e’er of freedom” (3.1.105–7). We have, in our gloss to these lines, suggested that “as bondage e’er of freedom” might mean “as the enslaved ever wished for liberty”—an attempt at rephrasing that, in its inadequacy, simply points up the power of the words given Ferdinand to speak.
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 (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). In The Tempest, two sets of characters use puns. Antonio and Sebastian use them to mock other people. When, at 2.1.18–19, Gonzalo says “When every grief is entertained [i.e., received] that’s offered, comes to th’ entertainer [i.e., the one who accepts (the grief)],” Sebastian interrupts him with the words “A dollar” (line 20), indirectly punning on “entertainer” as meaning one who amuses others and gets paid for it. Gonzalo responds with a pun of his own, saying that “Dolor [i.e., sorrow] comes to him indeed” (line 21). When Gonzalo says, at 2.1.61–62, “But the rarity [i.e., exceptional quality] of it is, which is indeed almost beyond credit [i.e., belief],” Sebastian again interrupts, saying “As many vouched rarities are” (line 63), punning on “rarity” as an unusual occurrence or freak of nature.
Stephano and Trinculo also pun, but they do so to amuse themselves and each other. At 3.2.16–19, when Stephano says to Caliban “Thou shalt be my lieutenant, monster, or my standard [i.e., standard-bearer or ensign],” Trinculo responds with “Your lieutenant, if you list [i.e., please]. He’s no standard,” punning on “standard” as an upright timber or pole and calling attention to how falling-down drunk Caliban is. At 3.2.35–36, Trinculo’s comment about Caliban, “That a monster should be such a natural!” plays with two meanings of the word “natural,” saying that Caliban, though a monster (and hence unnatural), is a simpleton or idiot (i.e., a natural). Although large sections of The Tempest contain no puns, language in the scenes with Sebastian and Antonio and those with Stephano and Trinculo needs to be listened to especially carefully if one is to catch all its meanings.
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. For instance, when Prospero asks Miranda “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (1.2.61–62) he is using metaphorical language to describe the past as if it were a dark abyss. When he describes his treacherous brother as “The ivy which had hid my princely trunk / And sucked my verdure out on ’t” (1.2.105–6), he again uses a metaphor; here, Prospero is a tree and Antonio is parasitical ivy. Alonso uses metaphorical language when he says, in response to the Harpy’s speech, “ . . . the thunder, / That deep and dreadful organ pipe, pronounced / The name of Prosper. It did bass my trespass” (3.3.118–20). The speech of accusation, he says, has come to his ears like the sound of thunder; the power of the metaphor is heightened by the wordplay on “did bass my trespass,” which can mean (1) provided a bass accompaniment to the singing of the wind; (2) intoned my sin in bass notes; (3) proclaimed the baseness of my actions. Metaphors are often used when the idea being conveyed is hard to express, or, as is often the case in The Tempest, used as a kind of shorthand to convey an idea and its attendant emotions swiftly to the speaker’s listener—and to the audience.
Implied Stage Action
Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should 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 Tempest 1.2.28–31, Prospero says to Miranda “Lend thy hand / And pluck my magic garment from me,” and then says immediately “So, / Lie there, my art [i.e., my magic power],” it is clear that Prospero’s cloak is removed and placed on the stage. When, at 1.2.363, Prospero says to Miranda “Awake, dear heart, awake. Thou hast slept well. / Awake,” and Miranda responds “The strangeness of your story put / Heaviness [i.e., sleepiness] in me,” it is equally clear that Miranda has been lying down and now rouses up.
Occasionally in The Tempest, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. In the final scene of the play, for example, Ferdinand and Miranda are “discovered” sitting and playing a game of chess (5.1.199 SD). Ferdinand sees his lost father, stands, and comes forward, saying “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful. / I have cursed them without cause,” and Alonso responds “Now, all the blessings / Of a glad father compass thee about! / Arise, and say how thou cam’st here” (lines 209–14). Alonso’s “Arise” lets us know that Ferdinand at some point in this exchange has kneeled; it is not clear, however, at which moment he kneels, nor is it certain when he again stands. Nor is it clear when Miranda rises and comes forward to say “O, brave new world . . .” (line 217). We as editors have inserted stage directions at what seemed to us the most probable places, but these are ultimately matters that directors and actors—and readers in their imaginations—must decide. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like that of the Harpy/king confrontation in 3.3 or that of the presentation of the masque in 4.1, in both of which scenes implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.
It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—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 one of Shakespeare’s plays 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.