Word of mouth

Shakespeare's Language

Frank Kermode <em>The Penguin Press, 309pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0713993782

When Ben Jonson writes "Language most shewes a man, speake that I may see thee", his robust challenge makes best sense in terms of his own culture: a way of life in which face-to-face speech was the primary, and for most people the only, form of daily communication. We may find it hard to grasp but, for an Elizabethan or Jacobean audience, language largely meant the noises you made with your mouth along with the gestures you made with your body. Nowadays when critics talk about language, they usually mean something very different: marks you make with your hand and decode in silence with your eye. But Shakespeare's audiences were not, as our own prejudices urge, denied or "deprived" of literacy. They were not illiterate so much as non-literate or pre-literate, a condition shared by sufficient numbers of the past, present and future inhabitants of the planet to make our own condescension in the matter more self-revealing than apposite.

A number of the issues enlivening Shakespeare's Language are rooted here, but Frank Kermode's characteristically acute study remains none the less dogged by a distinction it doesn't fully justify. The judgement that many of the audience were "oral rather than literate" isn't quite precise enough. Its mutual exclusion doesn't ring true. As a result, the book can't quite get the sort of "non-professional" take on the Bard's language that it's aiming for, and that might have prevented it from subsiding into the too comfy conclusion that "in the end, you can't get rid of Shakespeare without abolishing the very notion of literature".

For the truth is that Shakespeare wasn't really in the "literature" business. By and large, he made plays, not books; and, as manifestations of an art that derives from and, to a considerable extent, focuses on our orality, they can't help but pop the cork of any literary bottling. As Kermode adroitly demonstrates, it's true that the early plays derive to a large degree from literary models, and that the verse they use depends on the literary training that any aspiring poet underwent.

A good deal of Kermode's interest centres on a carefully tracked transition that took place during the years separating Titus Andronicus from Coriolanus. Between 1594 and 1608, Shakespeare became a different sort of poet. The crucial point is 1599-1600, an annus mirabilis resulting in Hamlet, Julius Caesar and the poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle". It marked nothing less than a revolution in Shakespeare's use of language: a turn from the mellifluous exuberance of youth towards a new "ruggedness" of tone. The essence of this "new rhetoric" lies in its management of abrupt changes of direction, its sense of alternatives considered, possibilities weighed, and its handling of the sort of lurching, jagged syntax that makes feasible the representation on stage of "excited, anxious thought". In individual cases, it can be heard in the "pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them".

Scrupulous reading supports these conclusions and supplies the basis for a deft remapping of Shakespeare's development. But it becomes clear that the linguistic urgency of the plays derives from the dynamics of something other than words on the page. In what Kermode describes as Shakespeare's new "effort to represent intellection, or rather to do it", it's surely evident that he has embarked less on a broad extension of rhetorical possibilities than on a project that seeks to give the sense of language in action and to make powerful and moving verse out of English speech.

That Hamlet offers "the fullest exhibition of Shakespeare's powers" and that "the whole idea of dramatic character is changed for ever by this play" also confirm it as the first significant step on a road leading to the gnarled impenetrabilities of Coriolanus. With close attention to the rhetorical structures of Hamlet, Kermode concentrates on hendiadys (Greek for "one by means of two"), the device of "doubling" - shifting repetitions as in "house and home", "part and parcel" or "law and order". Thus our sense of Polonius as a foolish, corrupt old man is established by the way his words fumble through clouds of repetitious bumbling:

Polonius: "And then sir, does a this - a does - what was I about to say? By the mass I was about to say something. Where did I leave?" (Act II, Scene 1)

"Doubling", here, has less to do with a literary figure than with Shakespeare's professional involvement in the oral art of acting. Undoubtedly, the introduction into any play of a moment when an actor appears, as Polonius does, to forget his or her lines risks unravelling the fabric of the art. Yet it happens everywhere in Shakespeare - for example, in the Winter's Tale and A Midsummer Night's Dream. And its disconcerting immediacy marks it as one of orality's signature tunes. But the pursuit of hendiadys misses this point and, in consequence, misses a moment where the play, rather than one of its characters, speaks. Polonius's concern, after all, is with spying. When he seems to forget his lines, the serpentine seeker-after-truth in the play's world turns abruptly into a mere actor, caught short in ours. In this vicious game of doubles, his tawdry guff about truth crumbles in the face of a contesting "reality", which seems to burst out here and now, across the stage, to land explosively in the middle of the audience. With this jolting realignment of its contours, those who entered the theatre as spectators suddenly find themselves stumbling, like participants, in a no-man's land whose paths lead muddily to The Mousetrap.

Some editors conclude that such moments merely record the vestiges of an actor's on-stage experience, and thus rank as "interpolations" or theatrical "accretions" to the text. But to drive a wedge between text and performance accords the written play greater status at the expense of its oral tradition. Performance in the theatre doesn't involve accretion on to, or interpolation into, anything. It constitutes the play in a way that reading it or treating its text as "literature" can probably never do.

This is not to say that Kermode's own wariness about "interference in the theatre" reiterates this assumption. But it does suggest, when his skilful and incisive account of Shakespeare's language seems to hesitate at this last cultural hurdle, that the echoes of our oral inheritance - embodied in Jonson's challenge - may at last have receded beyond recall.

Terence Hawkes is professor of English at Cardiff University and editor of Routledge's "Accents on Shakespeare" series