Tag Archives: Shakespeare

More honoured in the breach or the observance?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

It is tempting to say that getting classical quotations right is more honoured in the breach than the observance. But if we did, we’d be guilty too. In the original, Hamlet is telling Horatio about the tradition of drinking sprees in the Danish court; he says it makes Danes look bad to other nations. So when he says

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance

he doesn’t mean they don’t do it; he means they shouldn’t do it. Honour’d here means ‘honourable’, not ‘complied with’.

Sometimes our errors come from shifts in culture. In a time when fires were the main source of heat, for instance, a fire that burnt bright but didn’t give off much heat was not much use. So when Polonius advises Ophelia to watch out for the ardor of young men (such as Hamlet), he uses this metaphor:

I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.

These days, we use light as a positive metaphor in conversation, and heat more often as a negative one, so people often say a topic generates “more heat than light” – quite the reversal from the original.

We may look on such misinterpretations and say “Now is the winter of our discontent” with cultural knowledge. But we would be stopping short; here’s the whole opening sentence of Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

So he’s saying that their unhappy period is now made happy by the new king. (Admittedly, the man who is saying this is not happy about the state of affairs.)

Sometimes we just get a word wrong, perhaps because another word seems to go better with it (and another author, perhaps). We play our cats to sleep and say “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” – and think it’s from Shakespeare – when the original is from William Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride, and it’s “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

Now, why not use a popular variation when appropriate, right? But we’re editors, and part of our job is to keep writers from looking bad, which means we have to take a do-or-die approach to quotations. Or, um, well… Tennyson’s original in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is as follows:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Do and die? Perhaps we would do better to quote Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Just as long as we get the wording right.

Wherefore pleaseth archaic English?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

Are these not beautiful English? Doth not such usage of the tongue please thine ears or eyen? And yet, if so they do, wherefore do they?

You’d think if it was such excellent English you’d use it on a daily basis, no? Or at least fully understand what it means. And yet many of those who will recognize “wherefore art thou Romeo” as exalted English don’t know that wherefore means “why,” not “where.” We don’t use exalted literally anymore, and we don’t use yea (pronounced “yay”) as an introductory discourse particle at all, except when making a classical reference. Countless millions who say thou and thee every Sunday think them pronouns of the highest reverence, rather than the familiar forms that they are — reserved in their time for social inferiors and those with whom one is on the most intimate terms. Most modern English speakers don’t even know where (and where not) to use –eth conjugations. The language of King James and Shakespeare does not do as good a job at communicating the sense to us; it is too unfamiliar.

And yet this unfamiliarity is one of the main reasons this kind of English is thought beautiful. We see it only in the most exalted contexts. We know Bible quotations mostly from the King James Bible simply because it had a lock on the non-Catholic English-speaking church for a long time. It’s not nearly as accurate or effective as many modern translations. But, because of this, it is like a stained glass window of words, while more idiomatic and accurate translations are like ordinary photographs. It is what our parents and priests quote and what we learn in school. It has guided our literary traditions.

As have the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors. His plots are often quite nasty, his characters impulsive and abusive, his moral lessons frequently questionable, his body counts excessive; most of his stories would not be considered family viewing in modern renditions. There’s a reason Thomas Bowdler made sanitized (“Bowdlerized”) versions. But Shakespeare does tell some good and compelling stories with insights into the human condition. And his writing — nearly all in blank verse — has been set as a prime exemplar of elegant English. We learn it in school. We are taught that this is what truly good English is.

So Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible are essential texts in English literature. But most people have a hard time understanding them, and the King James Bible is not a good translation, especially for modern readers. Want literature? Want to impose on people with a sense of high majesty? Read the King James. Want to understand the Bible and communicate its message? Use a better, modern translation. Does it seem awfully much like daily life to say “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged” rather than “Judge not that ye be not judged”? That’s because it’s supposed to. Did you really think the man was speaking in archaic verse in his own time?

We also learn that poetry is more elevated than prose. The tortuous syntactic braidings necessary to fit metre and rhyme become marks of distinction. We learn that “else the Puck a liar call” is more exalted than “or call me a liar,” even though the same thing uttered in daily conversation would elicit a “Huh?!”

But that’s just the thing. It’s not daily. It’s what some anthropologists and theatre scholars have called extra-daily: it is a language of a special, privileged time and place. It does not bear the tarnish and grime of the quotidian grind.

We have also learned in English that exceptions to rules are better than consistency. Nearly all the spelling and grammar mistakes we get browbeaten out of us in our young years are matters of failing to know exceptions to the rules: “Not goed. Went.” “It’s spelled e-i-g-h-t, not a-t-e, and g-r-e-a-t, not g-r-a-t-e.” And so on. As linguists put it, we privilege the marked — marked meaning exceptional.

Marked with exception, but also marked with the grime of time. These works may not have the dull dust of daily life, but they have the chimney soot of ages past. When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was being cleaned, the soot and dirt of centuries carefully removed to reveal the brilliant colours put there in the first place by Michelangelo, many people complained bitterly about removing all that “beauty and mystery.”

When it comes to the exalted, people want “beauty and mystery,” which consists of what they have learned is beautiful and mysterious because it’s what was handed down to them from ages past, with all its obscurity, in the most exalted extra-daily contexts. The King James Bible is a standout example of English literature precisely because English literature has learned over the ages to treat it as such, and each new generation is shown it as an example. When we judge it exalted, we are judging it by a standard based on … it.

The sounds of historical English

A couple of weeks ago, I did an “English language time machine” piece for The Week. This week, it’s up as a podcast, for those who prefer to listen:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like


English language time machine

Hop into a time machine to travel back in the history of the English language! How do you think it will go? Step out and talk with people from olden times who use quaint words and a bit of thou and –eth? Heh heh. Find out what’s really waiting for you as you travel back through the history of England in my latest article for The Week:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like

Complete with video clips!

(And yes, before you say it, “the English of King Arthur” is, shall we say, a trick question.)