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WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE IN ENGLISH LITERATURE

 

But back to the 16th century now, for what could be one of the greatest influences on the English language the birth of William Shakespeare in 1564 appropriately enough on the 23rd of April, the day dedicated to St. George Patron Saint of England. Curiously enough, Shakespeare also died on the 23rd of April, 52 years later. It will forever be a mystery how this man, of modest education and with no intellectual pretensions or literary ambitions beyond providing good entertainment for the common Londoner of the day, became the greatest poet of the English language and the worlds most produced playwright. It has been said that in the nearly 400 years since his death there has never been a day when one or more of Shakespeares plays have not been played somewhere in the world.

But even more important, perhaps, was his contribution to the language. However poorly educated a native English speaker may be, he cannot help using the words and phrases created by Shakespeare they are too much a part of English. When a Tennessee housewife speaks nostalgically about her salad days, when she was young and beautiful, she probably has no idea that she is quoting from Shakespeares Anthony and Cleopatra. Everyday phrases like blood-stained and fancy-free were creations of Shakespeare along with such invaluable words as lonely, countless, and dwindle meaning to decline, to lose importance, to become smaller. Shakespeare gave the language, through its inventive genius, so many words, phrases and memorable sayings which simply didnt exist before.

Few people of any education in the English speaking world would not know the line The quality of mercy is not strained. Here is the portion from The Merchant of Venice putting the famous phrase into context:

The quality of mercy is not strained

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown:

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is attribute to God himself,

And early power doth then show likest Gods

When mercy seasons justice.

And scarcely anyone educated in any language anywhere in the world can fail to know To be or not to be that is the question from Hamlet. Perhaps the line All the worlds a stage is not so well known in other languages, but the speech it comes from demonstrates Shakespeares masterly use of Elizabethan English, his vivid poetic images, and his ability to speak in universal truths that make the text as accurately observed today as nearly 400 years ago. Furthermore, foreign students, with a little help of glossary for a few difficult words, should be able to understand most of the text. Certainly 95 % of the words in this passage are still in common use in modern English.

Now, from the play As you like it, written in 1599 The Seven Ages of Man:

All the worlds a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.

At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in his nurses arms.

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel,

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.

And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress eyebrow.

Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannons mouth.

And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part.

The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon.

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose well saved a word too wide

For his shrunk shank; And his big manly voice,

Turning again towards childish treble,

Pipes and whistles in its sound.

Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The question Whats in a name? is another those Shakespearean question that is known to nearly every native English speaker the world over. All millions would also know what follows it a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Listen to these immortal lines spoken softly on that famous balcony in Verona:

ROMEO: See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!

O, that I were a glove upon that hand,

That I might touch that cheek!

 

JULIET: Ah me!

 

ROMEO: She speaks:

O, speak again, bright angel! For thou art

As glorious to this night, being oer my head,

As is a winged messenger of heaven

Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes

Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him

When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds

And sails upon the bosom of the air.

 

JULIET: O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Or, thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

Or I no longer be a Capulet.

 

ROMEO: Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

 

JULIET: Tis but thy name that is my enemy

Thou art thyself though, not a Montague,

Whats Montague? It is not hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

Whats in a name? That which we call a rose,

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title Romeo, doff thy name;

And for that name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.

 

ROMEO: I take thee at thy word:

Call me but love, and Ill be new baptized;

Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

 

KINGS JAMESS TRANSLATION OF THE HOLY BIBLE

A second great influence on the English language occurred in 1611, five years before Shakespeare died. This was the publication of the King Jamess translation of the Holy Bible. If Shakespeare gave the language its greatest poetry, the Bible gave it much of its greatest prose. This version of the Bible was not written by one man but by a team or committee of some 47 scholars. We know very little about them except that they were certainly men of literary genius, and we have their finished work as a proof. Heres how they began:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was

Upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved

Upon the face of the waters.

And God said, let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God

Divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he

Called Night. And there was evening and there was

Morning, one day.

(Genesis I)

It is impossible to estimate the importance or effect of the King James Bible on the English language. Listen to the simplicity but the power of the prose in these lines from St. Pauls first epistle to the Corinthians:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I become a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, charity; these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

 

MODERN ENGLISH PERIOD

What we call Modern English comes from the period immediately following the publication of the Bible and Shakespeares death. We generally consider 1640 to be the beginning of modern English, and the language has changed remarkably little ever since. De the 17th century the language has discarded its grammatical complexities: no more declensions and a minimum use of the subjunctive.

Grammatical gender had disappeared and English become the only European language to employ natural gender that is, using feminine, masculine pronouns for things masculine, and the neuter it for everything else. How much simplier than in, say, German where a table is he, a postage stamp is she and a girl is it. Then too, English gave up its second person singular what on the Continent is known as the familiar form expressed by tu in Italian, Spanish and French and du in German. In English this was thou and its use became restricted to poetry, church and a few provincial dialects, Instead, English, as you well known, now simply uses the plural form you for everyone and for all. In place of the grammatical complexities of Old English, the language became more exact in other ways.

Modern English has a fixed system of word order more exact than exists in any other language and a highly sophisticated use of the tenses which causes so much difficulty for a foreign student.

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