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 play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Twelfth Night, for example, you will find the words coistrel (i.e., a low-born contemptible fellow), gust (i.e., taste), an (i.e., if), barful (i.e., filled with obstacles or barriers), and indue (i.e., endow, bestow upon). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
In Twelfth Night, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Twelfth Night, for example, the word validity has the meaning of “worth,” pitch is used where we would say “excellence,” fell is used where we would say “fierce” or “deadly,” driving where we would say “drifting,” and surprise where we would say “overcome, capture.” 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, history, and background mythology. In Twelfth Night, within the larger world that Shakespeare calls Illyria, he uses one set of words to create the court of Duke Orsino and a second to create the estate of the Lady Olivia. The language that constructs Orsino’s world is the language of romantic love as seen in religious and mythological terms. In this world, the beloved is referred to as a “cloistress,” her tears are called “eye-offending brine,” and her lady-in-waiting is her “handmaid”; the lover, Orsino, portrays himself as the mythological figure Acteon struck down by the “fell and cruel hounds” of his desires, and he prays that his beloved be wounded by the love-god Cupid’s “rich golden shaft” so that the “sovereign thrones” of her being will be filled with love for him, her “one self king.”
In contrast, the language that creates the world of the Lady Olivia’s estate is that of drunken uncles, foolish suitors, clever ladies-in-waiting, and self-important butlers; it is a world of “ducats,” “viol-de-gamboys,” “substractors,” “wenches,” “shrews,” “buttery bars,” cups of “canary,” “kickshawses,” “jigs,” and “galliards.” This second, prosaic world is transformed whenever Viola enters Olivia’s estate, bringing with her Orsino’s petition for Olivia’s love and with it language in which love is “divinity” and its songs are “loyal cantons of contemnèd love.” These language worlds together create the Illyria that Orsino, Olivia, Viola, Sebastian, and their servants and relatives inhabit. The words that create these worlds will become increasingly familiar to you as you read 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 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. In reading for yourself, do as the actor does. That is, when you become puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.
Look first for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Twelfth Night, we find such a construction in Orsino’s “O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,” as well as in the Captain’s “Be you his eunuch” and in Toby’s “Then hadst thou had an excellent head of hair” (instead of “thou hadst had . . . ”). Orsino’s “That instant was I turned into a hart” is another example of inverted subject and verb.
Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object or the predicate adjective 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”). Viola’s “What else may hap, to time I will commit” is an example of such an inversion (the normal order would be “I will commit what else may hap [i.e., whatever else may happen] to time”). Another example is Orsino’s “So full of shapes is fancy,” where the phrase serving as predicate adjective (“so full of shapes”) precedes the subject and verb, and where the subject and verb are themselves inverted. (The normal order would be “Fancy is so full of shapes.”)
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, Orsino’s “when liver, brain, and heart, / These sovereign thrones, are all supplied, and filled / Her sweet perfections with one self king”; here the phrase “These sovereign thrones” separates the subject (“liver, brain, and heart”) from its verb (“are”), and the phrase “Her sweet perfections” interrupts the phrase “filled with.” Or take the Captain’s lines: “And then ’twas fresh in murmur (as, you know, / What great ones do the less will prattle of) / That he did seek the love of fair Olivia,” where the normal construction “ ’twas fresh in murmur that he did seek the love of fair Olivia” is interrupted by the insertion of the parenthetical “as, you know, what great ones do the less will prattle of.” 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 (“liver, brain, and heart are,” “Her sweet perfections filled with,” “ ’twas fresh in murmur that”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.
Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions. When the Captain tells Viola about his last sight of her brother Sebastian (“I saw your brother bind himself to a strong mast, where I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves so long as I could see”), he uses a construction that both delays the main sentence elements until subordinate material is presented and then interrupts the sentence elements with additional subordinate material:
Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
When you and those poor number saved with you
Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself
(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea,
Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.
In some of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, for instance), long interrupted sentences and sentences in which the basic sentence elements are significantly delayed are used frequently, sometimes to catch the audience up in the narrative and sometimes as a characterizing device. They appear rarely in Twelfth Night, where sentences tend to be structurally straightforward.
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 some plays, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In Twelfth Night omissions are rare and seem to be used to affect the tone of the speech or for the sake of speech rhythm. For example, Sir Andrew’s “I’ll home tomorrow” (where “go” is omitted) lends a colloquial flavor to his speech, and Orsino’s “I myself am best / When least in company” (where “I am” is omitted before “least”) creates a regular iambic pentameter line.
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 opening scene of Twelfth Night, a pun on the words heart and hart underlies this exchange between Orsino and Curio: “Will you go hunt, my lord?” “What, Curio?” “The hart.” “Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.” In a later scene Olivia, curious about the “man” who refuses to leave the gate of her estate, asks “What manner [i.e., kind] of man” he is. Malvolio’s response, “Of very ill manner,” puns on the word manner, using its meaning of “behavior.” In this exchange between Maria and the Fool—
FOOL . . . I am resolved on two points.
MARIA That if one break, the other will hold, or, if both break, your gaskins fall—
Maria puns on the word points, which meant not only the “points” of an argument but also the laces that held up a man’s breeches.
Because of the presence of the Fool, who makes his living by using wordplay to amuse his aristocratic patron and others in the household, Twelfth Night is among Shakespeare’s plays that use puns frequently. The Fool’s opening exchange with Olivia in Act 1, scene 5—an exchange that succeeds in amusing her and thus saving the Fool’s threatened position in the household—turns on his successful play on the word Fool (the name given the profession he follows) and fool (a person who behaves foolishly). Within this larger exchange, Olivia calls him a “dry [i.e., dull, not amusing] Fool” who has grown “dishonest”; his defense is a series of puns: “give the dry [i.e., dull] Fool drink, then is the Fool not dry [i.e., thirsty]. Bid the dishonest man mend [i.e., (1) reform, (2) repair] himself; if he mend [i.e., reform], he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher [i.e., tailor who repairs clothing] mend [i.e., repair] him.” Such puns characterize the Fool’s “foolery”—so much so that the language in this play, and the Fool’s language in particular, needs to be listened to 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 shares common features. In the opening lines of Twelfth Night—
If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die—
metaphoric language is used to express the longings of love as a physical hunger for which music is a satisfying food. As a way of saying that he wishes he were not so much in love, Orsino asks that his love be given an excessive amount of music so that love’s appetite will be killed by overeating. A few lines later Orsino uses another metaphor to express the intensity of his love:
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
. . . .
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me.
Here the lover, having seen his beloved, is pursued by his desires like a deer by hunting dogs. (Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized behind this metaphor the famous mythological account of the hunter Acteon, who, having seen the goddess Diana naked, was literally turned into a deer and destroyed by his own hounds.)
Later in the play (in 3.1) Olivia uses metaphor to express her own love pains. Having fallen in love with Cesario, she has, she thinks, earned his scorn by sending a ring to him. “What might you think?” she asks.
Have you not set mine honor at the stake,
And baited it with all th’ unmuzzled thoughts
That tyrannous heart can think?
In this metaphor, her honor is like a bear tied to the stake and attacked by the vicious dogs of Cesario’s harsh thoughts.
In Twelfth Night one occasionally finds metaphor used to control long stretches of dialogue. In Act 1, scene 5, Viola/Cesario addresses Olivia with the claim that his message is, to Olivia’s ears, divinity (i.e., something holy). Olivia responds as if “divinity” meant “theology,” and asks for Cesario’s “text” (i.e., the scriptural passage on which he is to expound). Olivia thus sets up a metaphor that continues for several lines of dialogue through the words doctrine, chapter, method, the first, and heresy:
VIOLA The rudeness that hath appeared in me have I learned from my entertainment. What I am and what I would are as secret as maidenhead: to your ears, divinity; to any other’s, profanation.
OLIVIA Give us the place alone. We will hear this divinity. (Maria and Attendants exit.) Now, sir, what is your text?
VIOLA Most sweet lady—
OLIVIA A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it. Where lies your text?
VIOLA In Orsino’s bosom.
OLIVIA In his bosom? In what chapter of his bosom?
VIOLA To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.
OLIVIA O, I have read it; it is heresy. Have you no more to say?
VIOLA Good madam, let me see your face.
OLIVIA Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face? You are now out of your text. But we will draw the curtain and show you the picture. (She removes her veil.)
With Olivia’s “we will draw the curtain and show you the picture,” the controlling metaphor shifts from “love message as sermon” to “veiled face as covered portrait,” a metaphor that progresses through Olivia’s “such a one I was this present” through “ ’Tis in grain” and “ ’Tis beauty truly blent.”
In most of Shakespeare’s plays, metaphors are most often used when the idea being conveyed seems hard to express, and the speaker is thus given language that helps to carry the idea or the feeling to his or her listener—and to the audience. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Romeo’s metaphors of Juliet-as-saint and Juliet-as-light employ images from the poetic tradition that seem designed to portray a lover struggling to express the overpowering feelings that come with being in love. In Twelfth Night one senses that metaphors are to be heard not so much as sincere attempts to express deep feelings as they are a playing with language, a deliberate heightening of emotion for self-indulgence or for display.
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. Learn to be alert to such signals as you stage the play in your imagination. When, in Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew says to Maria “Here’s my hand,” and a few lines later she says to him “Now I let go your hand,” it is clear what stage action has occurred. Again, when, at the end of Act 1, scene 3, Sir Toby says to Sir Andrew “Let me see thee caper. Ha, higher! Ha, ha, excellent!” one knows that Sir Andrew at least attempts to dance a lively dance. At several places in Twelfth Night, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. When, after Olivia’s first meeting with Cesario, Malvolio says to Cesario “She returns this ring to you. . . . Receive it so. . . . you peevishly threw it to her, and her will is it should be so returned. If it be worth stooping for, there it lies . . . ,” one assumes that, at some point during these speeches, Malvolio throws down the ring; one assumes, also, that Viola/Cesario picks up the ring at some point during her speech after Malvolio exits. But the stage action in this scene is not clearly prescribed in the dialogue and must be decided upon by the actors, by the reader, or by editors who, as in the case of this edition, choose to add stage directions.
More demanding for the director and the actors (and for the reader, in imagination) is the stage action of 3.4, where many bits of stage business—both in the attempts to get Viola/Cesario and Sir Andrew to fight, and in the fight between Antonio and Sir Toby and in Antonio’s arrest—may be played variously from production to production. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a scene like that of the gulling of Malvolio (2.5) or the play’s final scene, with its succession of entrances and exits climaxing in the breathtaking entrance of Sebastian.
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.