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, though, 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 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 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 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 Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening act of Troilus and Cressida, for example, one finds the words indrenched (i.e., drowned), tortive (i.e., twisted), importless (i.e., trivial), and oppugnancy (i.e., opposition). Words of this kind are more frequent in Troilus and Cressida than in most of Shakespeare’s plays.
In Troilus and Cressida, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Troilus and Cressida, for example, the word porridge is used where we would say “soup,” fair where we would say “beautiful,” morrow where we would say “morning,” and ward where we would say “defend.” Again, such words will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
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 Prologue to Troilus and Cressida, for example, Shakespeare quickly constructs the recent background to the Trojan War, some episodes of which are the subject of his play. He gives an account of Greek “princes orgulous,” wearing “crownets regal,” sailing for “Phrygia” in order “to ransack Troy” because it is the city “whose strong immures” secure “Helen, Menelaus’ queen,” “ravished” by “wanton Paris.” Shakespeare then describes the “Dardan plains,” where the Greeks have pitched their “brave pavilions” within sight of “Priam’s six-gated city.” These words and names and the world they create will become increasingly familiar 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 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, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.
Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He says” we find “Says he”). In Troilus and Cressida, when Cressida’s servant Alexander, speaking of Hector, tells her that “to the field goes he” (1.2.11), Alexander is using such a construction. So is the Greek councillor Nestor when he says “In the reproof of chance / Lies the true proof of men” (1.3.33–34). The “normal” order would be “he goes” and “the true proof of men lies in the reproof of chance.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Cressida provides an example of this inversion when she says “this maxim out of love I teach” (1.2.299); she offers another more elaborate example by saying “Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice / He offers” (1.2.289–90). The “normal” order would be “I teach this maxim” and “He offers words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice.”
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 frequently done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word, or else to draw attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, the Greek general Agamemnon’s “Distinction, with a broad and powerful fan, / Puffing at all, winnows the light away” (1.3.27–28). Here the subject (“Distinction”) is separated from its verb (“winnows”) by the phrases “with a broad and powerful fan” and “Puffing at all.” Or take the Greek warrior-king Ulysses’ accusation against Achilles:
The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth[.]
In this case the subject of the sentence (“Achilles”) is separated from the verb (“grows”) by a clause (“whom opinion crowns / The sinew and the forehand of our host”) and then by a phrase (“Having his ear full of his airy fame”). Both the clause and the phrase deserve the emphasis they receive because they indicate how Achilles has grown so full of self-regard. In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, one can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“Distinction winnows,” “Achilles grows dainty”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis.
Often in Troilus and Cressida, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare puts this kind of construction in the mouth of Ulysses when he begins to address his general, Agamemnon:
Thou great commander, nerves and bone of Greece,
Heart of our numbers, soul and only sprite,
In whom the tempers and the minds of all
Should be shut up, hear what Ulysses speaks.
The basic sentence elements (the verb and its object “hear what Ulysses speaks”) are here delayed while Ulysses shows elaborate deference to Agamemnon. This attitude could hardly be more appropriate to the occasion, because Ulysses is preparing to deliver a speech on the theme of the importance of respect for authority.
Sometimes Shakespeare fashions speeches that combine both the delay and the separation of basic sentence elements. One such example marks a speech by Troilus:
. . . when my heart,
As wedgèd with a sigh, would rive in twain,
Lest Hector or my father should perceive me,
I have, as when the sun doth light a-scorn,
Buried this sigh in wrinkle of a smile[.]
This time the subject and verb (“I have buried”) must wait for Troilus’s detailed presentation of his emotional state in a subordinate clause (“when my heart, / As wedgèd with a sigh, would rive in twain”) that then incorporates a second clause (“Lest Hector or my father should perceive me”). When at last subject and verb do appear, the two parts of the verb (“have buried”) are separated from each other by yet another clause that is used by Troilus to characterize his facial expression (“as when the sun doth light a-scorn”).
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. When, for example, Pandarus asks Cressida “Do you know a man if you see him?” she answers with an incomplete or elliptical sentence that has no main clause: “Ay, if I ever saw him before and knew him” (1.2.67–69). It is easy for the reader or listener to supply the omitted main clause “I know a man” before the “if” in Cressida’s reply because three of these four words (“know a man”) immediately precede the “if” in Pandarus’s question. Such omissions as this one give the dialogue the flavor of casual conversation. However, elliptical sentences can also function to convey a note of formality or high seriousness, as in Hector’s challenge to the Greek warriors, which is read out by Aeneas. It begins with a sentence that omits both subject and verb:
Kings, princes, lords,
If there be one among the fair’st of Greece
That holds his honor higher than his ease,
That seeks his praise more than he fears his peril,
That knows his valor and knows not his fear,
That loves his mistress more than in confession
With truant vows to her own lips he loves
And dare avow her beauty and her worth
In other arms than hers—to him this challenge.
In this case, the reader or listener does not face much difficulty inferring a possible subject and verb to supplement the sentences last four words: “to him [Hector delivers] this challenge.”
Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, metaphors and 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 the metaphor suggests it shares common features. For instance, when Ulysses is scheming to award Ajax the chance to fight Hector, Ulysses plans to have the Greeks metaphorically “dress him [Ajax] up in voices” if he wins (1.3.390). Here “voices”—that is, declarations of approval—are presented as the elaborate clothes in which someone who is being elevated to a superior position is attired. Troilus also uses metaphor to express his desire for Cressida: “Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl” (1.1.102). She is, for him, a highly valued gem (“pearl”) that can transform any ordinary domestic object (“bed”) into a place of untold wealth (“India”—the East or West Indies). Later Nestor creates an elaborate and extended metaphor that compares different kinds of men to different kinds of ships:
In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men. The sea being smooth,
How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribbed bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse. Where’s then the saucy boat
Whose weak untimbered sides but even now
Corrivaled greatness? Either to harbor fled
Or made a toast for Neptune. Even so
Doth valor’s show and valor’s worth divide
In storms of Fortune.
According to Nestor, those men who are capable of nothing but “valors show” (that is, the mere appearance of courage) are no more than “shallow bauble boats” that “dare sail” only on a calm sea and that flee to harbor or sink (becoming “a toast for Neptune”) when the north wind whips up a storm. However, true courage (“valor’s worth”) is a ship of “nobler bulk,” a “strong-ribbed bark” that can endure the storm and “through liquid mountains cut.” Troilus and Cressida is in large part made up of metaphoric language, offering the reader the challenge and the richness of complex poetry.
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). Pandarus puns in complaining that his efforts to bring Troilus and Cressida together as lovers are unrewarded and have earned him the good will of neither: “I have had my labor for my travail, . . . gone between and between, but small thanks for my labor” (1.1.71–73). To make a pun on travail, Shakespeare exploits the fact that in his time the two words we now distinguish as travail and travel were used interchangeably, each word being an acceptable alternative spelling of the other. Thus Pandarus complains that he has no reward for his labor except for his toil and trouble (travail) and his travel, the journeys from Troilus to Cressida and back, as he has “gone between and between.” Aeneas also puns as he delivers Hector’s challenge to the Greeks, in particular to the “one among the fair’st of Greece / . . . That loves his mistress . . . / And dare avow her beauty and her worth / In other arms than hers” (1.3.273–80). The challenge puns on two meanings of arms, evoking both the limbs of the beloved mistress and the armor and weapons of the warrior who loves her. Several characters in Troilus and Cressida (and especially Thersites) are given language thick with puns.
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 signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.
Often the dialogue offers an immediately clear indication of the action that is to accompany it. For example, when, in the presence of Ajax, Achilles invites Thersites to speak of Ajax, Thersites says “I say, this Ajax—” (2.1.80–81), at which point Achilles cuts short Thersites’ speech with the words “Nay, good Ajax.” Achilles’ warning indicates that Ajax is somehow attempting to silence Thersites. Although we cannot be sure exactly what kind of violence Ajax is about to unleash on Thersites—a punch or a kick—we are confident enough there is the threat of violence that we add the stage direction “Ajax menaces him [Thersites].” Again when Pandarus says to Cressida “Come, draw this curtain and let’s see your picture. Alas the day, how loath you are to offend daylight” (3.2.46–48), it is clear that Pandarus is not referring to an actual picture behind a curtain but is using a commonplace metaphor to allude to Cressida’s face covered by a veil. Therefore we add the word veiled to Cressida’s entrance (line 38 SD) and add the stage direction “He [Pandarus] draws back her veil” to the dialogue just quoted. No matter how confident we are about the appropriateness of these particular additional stage directions, we place them in half-square brackets, just as we do all stage directions that we add to the early printed text, whether they are of our own creation or the work of earlier editors.
Occasionally in Troilus and Cressida, dialogue signals about stage action are not so clear. Take, for example, the fight in the lists between Ajax and Hector in Act 4. In both of the earliest printed texts, the dialogue and stage directions accompanying it appear as follows:
AGAMEMNON They are in action.
NESTOR Now, Ajax, hold thine own!
TROILUS Hector, thou sleep’st. Awake thee!
His blows are well disposed.—There, Ajax!
You must no more.
AENEAS Princes, enough, so please you.
I am not warm yet. Let us fight again.
Here Agamemnon’s first speech clearly indicates that the fight begins when the trumpets sound the call to arms (“Alarum”), and Ajax’s request to “fight again” must signal that fighting has ceased. Yet the conduct and outcome of the fight and how it was staged seem quite impossible to specify in stage directions. Nestor’s encouragement to Ajax to “hold thine own” (i.e., be a match for Hector) does not suggest that Ajax is enjoying any advantage at the moment Nestor speaks. However, at the next moment, when Troilus speaks (“Hector, thou sleep’st”), Hector appears at a clear disadvantage. Agamemnon’s praise of Ajax (“His blows are well disposed.—There, Ajax!”) may be taken as a response to Ajax’s somehow getting the better of Hector, or, in contrast, it may show Agamemnon’s surprised delight that Ajax is able finally to hold his own against an allegedly sleepy Hector. When Diomedes and Aeneas successively command an end to combat, are we to conclude that both adversaries are still fighting as vigorously after the trumpets have ceased as they were before, or that only Ajax or only Hector persists after his opponent has stopped attacking? In light of the great uncertainty regarding the progress of this contest, we have refrained from adding any stage direction beyond “The fight begins” just before Agamemnon’s first speech. We leave it to the reader to engage with the dialogue and to draw whatever inferences, if any, seem most plausible about the encounter of Hector and Ajax in the lists. Directors and actors can experiment with various ways of combining the dialogue with stage action, as can the reader who has developed the skill of responding in imagination to complex dramatic cues.
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 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.