17 SEPTEMBER 2014

Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be?

Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be?

This week, I moved offices. ‘Good riddance.’

I have recently taken on the role of secondary school principal (headteacher) and had that unenviable task of packing and unpacking. ‘What a piece of work.’  One of the office pictures that I took down is a poster-version of a Bernard Levin article from The Times, which begins:

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare 'It's Greek to me', you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare.”

(You can see the text and full image of the poster at: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/shop/product/quoting-shakespeare-poster/87)

Levin’s own linguistic ingenuity reminds us that of the over 17,000 words in Shakespeare’s works around 10% make their first appearance in English in the pages written by him, which means that many may have been ‘coined’ or invented by Shakespeare himself. Some of these words are: extract; accommodation; excellent; lonely; critical; ‘shudder’ in Timon of Athens as a noun rather than a verb; ‘angel’ in Romeo and Juliet to mean a special person rather than a heavenly being.

Shakespeare’s dexterity with language was possible, because he lived in a time where some of the ‘rules’ of English were yet to be set or ‘invented’; he even managed to spell his own name in six different ways and none of them is the standard way that many school children agonise over, thinking where to put all the ‘E’s. But ‘what’s in a name?’

Shakespeare was also well-read and seems to have had access to French, Latin and Greek texts or contemporary translations that influenced numerous adoptions and adaptations of words into English. It would be over a hundred years later that Dr Samuel Johnson wrote a dictionary in English that standardised spelling and Archbishop Lowth set about codifying English grammar in the style of Latin. In fact, Lowth criticised Shakespeare for his use of ‘false syntax’, conceding that the imagery in the plays was rather good. Could it be that the most English of writers, wrote in bad English? Could it have been ‘too much of a good thing’?

Shakespeare might even be said to use ‘Americanisms’, because by the time these new rules came in the ‘brave new world’ had gained its independence in governmental and linguistic terms from Britain and carried on using 16thCentury terms; it was perhaps ‘a foregone conclusion’ that they would therefore come up with some more in the years to follow.  My teacher used to remind us that ‘mountaineer’ in Shakespeare meant ‘hill-billy’ in Cymbelinerather than climber, as it does now, by using the opening theme to The Beverly Hillbillies, an US sitcom of the 1960s, which began:

“Come and listen to my story
'Bout a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer,
Barely kept his family fed.”

The ‘strange bedfellows’, Lowth and Johnson were not successful in stopping the development of English that was fired by the coinage of Shakespeare, even though they did slow it down for a time. But ‘what’s done is done’ and perhaps we have ‘come full circle’. So, when young people in conversation, text messages and emails are criticised for inventing new words and expressions, it might be worth pointing out that they are merely following the example of Shakespeare to ‘play fast and loose’ with language.

And now, I think that this quoting Shakespeare has been ‘done to death’.

Anthony Partington is editor of the latest Cambridge School Shakespeare editions of Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night with Richard Spencer.

He is principal and an English teacher at a secondary school in Lincolnshire.

Related Tags