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Let’s Speak Shakespeare

Mary Wakefield Buxton

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— It was such fun visiting Christine Pedersen’s freshman English class at Middlesex High School a few weeks ago and listening to her students speak Shakespeare. Ms. Pedersen had given her students lists of Shakespearean nouns and adjectives and they created insulting sentences using the Elizabethan vocabulary.

As I sat and listened to the words, it struck me how much richer and descriptive his language was than what we currently use in today’s world.

This should not surprise as I have read television script writers use “8th grade vocabulary” in writing TV sitcoms and most everything presented on major networks today come in the narrow realm of 6,000 words. This is because it is deemed by those who claim to know that the average American now speaks, reads and understands in this vocabulary range.

Yet Shakespeare wrote with over 65,000 English words at his command, which is stunning when you consider that he was popular with all classes of Englishmen, including the so-called “groundlings” who enjoyed his eloquent language.

So, to contemporary writers who use such limited vocabulary on the public today . . . “Thou wenching, rump-fed Jack ‘o napes! Or . . . “Thou brazen, clay-brained clotpools.”

When it comes to really laying an insult on someone, no one could do it better than the Bard. His plays are filled with exquisite and original epithets, such as “You peevish, lily-livered, malt worm!”

“Lily-livered” was an expression that I heard growing up in Ohio. Anything that was cowardly was labeled “lily livered.” Another description that suggested cowardness was “yellow-bellied.”

Other Shakespearean expressions along the same line are: empty- hearted, paper-faced, ill-natured, pale-hearted, evil-eyed, empty-headed, sour-faced, raw-boned, rug-headed and ill-nurtured, and they are still very much in use today.

Many believe that the use of “street talk,” commonly known as “guttural four-letter words” and considered vulgar today, has replaced much of the Shakespearean expressions of old. But how sad! Perhaps it’s easier to call someone a four-letter word than come up with something as complicated as “peevish, lean-witted dogfish?”

Another obvious problem is if someone started using such “educated” insults on his friends, would they even understand the insult? That has to be a consideration. Everyone knows a “C word” or an “S word” is a slur. But what about calling someone “a mold-warp, hempseed?”

I don’t know if I would really feel that insulted if someone called me “an unmuzzled dog-hearted cat purse?”

Other expressions that came out of Shakespeare’s ingenious brain still used today include: “Roll up your sleeves and go to work,” “one fell swoop,” “the crack of dawn,” “the last gasp,” “held bated breath,” “won’t budge an inch,” “It’s a foregone conclusion,” “He has eaten me out of house and home,” “It has come full circle,” “Good riddance!” “I wear my heart on my sleeve,” “hob nob,” “for goodness sakes!” “sweets to the sweet,” “neither rhyme nor reason,” “salad days,” “the primrose path,” “What the dickens?” “too much of a good thing,” “We have seen better days,” and “led on a wild goose chase.”

Then there are Shakespeare’s famous quotations in which universal ideas, once read, can never be forgotten:

“To be or not to be, that is the question.”

“This above all, to thine own self be true.”

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”

“When sorrows come, they come not in single spies but in battalions.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

“A little more than kin and less than kind.”

“Though this be madness there be method to it.”

Who could forget the beginning of Marc Antony’s most famous speech in which he mollifies a furious throng: “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears! I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.”

And the favorite quote of Father, who was always quoting Shakespeare, one which he said most joyfully to his three daughters on the occasion of many gorgeous Ohio mornings, oh that I could hear him say it once again . . . “But, look! The morn in russet mantle clad, walks ore the dew of yon high eastward hill!”

Now there is one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language.

I guess you might say that I love Shakespeare and I can’t get enough of his thrilling language. He is refuge from the dreary mediocrity of so much writing today.

But, take warning, gentle readers. Reading Shakespeare is like going from a black-and-white film into the world of panoramic color. After total immersion into this greatest English poet’s pen, you might not feel like reading any selections on our current bestseller’s list.

So, enjoy the Bard and if you don’t love every word you read, well, let his own words come down through the centuries for the last word . . . What! What! Art thou nothing but a queasy, onion-eyed hedge pig?


Next week Mary has a message for all high school students.

posted 05.09.2012

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