Scholars, critics and other writers have been commenting on Shakespeare’s plays for four hundred years and, it seems, there is still something to say. Every generation invents Shakespeare in its own image and so the commentaries will never end. Sometimes, though, there are commentators who seem determined to ‘catch’ Shakespeare out, to jeer, and suggest that he is less of a genius than he is generally taken to be. Some, as we all know, are even Shakespeare deniers, insisting that the plays were written by someone else.
Recently there were some newspaper reports of an Australian Shakespeare expert who has done some research into Shakespeare’s language and found that some of the ‘original’ phrases attributed to Shakespeare predate their appearances in his work. Among those newspaper reports is one by the British newspaper, The Telegraph, that uses a mocking heading for its report, misrepresenting both the Bard and the Australian professor with the headline: “Stop saying Shakespeare invented so many phrases – he cribbed most of them, Australian academic claims.”. No doubt the Australian academic, Professor McInnes, would not go along with the mocking tone of The Telegraph’s article.
Of this I will only say that, of course, there is almost nothing new to be found anywhere, including in the use of language. And as Professor David McInnis himself points out, in the cases he cites, it is Shakespeare who has made those idiomatic phrases – such as ‘it’s Greek to me’ and ‘wild goose chase’ – universal by using them. Other phrases that have been adapted from previous writers have been recast by Shakespeare, with the words or their order changed to fit into a passage of verse, such as ‘the better part of valour is discretion.’ Shakespeare’s reworked versions are more memorable than those of the writers who first used them, and have thus become the idiom.
I would like in this connection to demonstrate something about Shakespeare’s method in his choice of words and phrases. It is not so much the raw words – words that are available to all of us – as the way Shakespeare uses words – that makes him the genius he is. He often virtually copies passages – even long passages – from other works and they end up being some of his most memorable and brilliant chunks of verse. Shakespeare’s main source for his Roman plays was Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. In North’s version there is a description of Cleopatra in her barge:
‘She disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the owers of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musicke of flutes, howboyes, citherns, violls, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of her selfe: she was layed under a pavillion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddesse Venus, commonly drawen in picture: and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretie faire boyes apparelled as painters doe set forth god Cupide, with litle fannes in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her Ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphes Nereides (which are the mermaides of the waters) and like the Graces, some stearing the helme, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderfull passing sweete savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharfes side.’
In Antony and Cleopatra Antony’s general, Enobarbus, visiting Rome, describes the woman Antony has fallen in love with. This is what he says:
‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ th’ eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.’
One may say that Shakespeare copied it, which he did, of course. And with North’s passage in front of him he reworked it, not only into one of the most miraculous pieces of poetry, but something that fitted into his idea of what the play was, for him, about. One could write a whole book about this passage but I will just make a few points.
Very briefly, then, the first thing to notice is that while North’s is a prose passage Shakespeare’s is verse: he has manipulated some of North’s words into his scheme of iambic pentameter, beautifully constructed to sound like everyday speech but with great depths of meaning produced by the poetic techniques he uses.
Antony and Cleopatra is a miraculous play. It’s a great story for a start (not invented by Shakespeare but taken from history and adapted for his purposes) but the language is a major part of its meaning and its effect. Throughout the play both Antony and Cleopatra are seen as being out of their depth, resulting, when looked at superficially, in failure. But they are drawn in terms of the elements – earth, water, air and fire and the structure of their use in the text tells a different story. Antony is a soldier but chooses to fight Caesar on the sea. He is defeated, but spiritually, he has moved up an element, from earth to water. Cleopatra’s basic element is water but during the play we see her moving up through air and fire. The language of the text plays with those elements. As she dies she says: ‘I am fire and air, my other elements I give to baser life.’ It is a spiritual journey they are both engaged in, a journey that, through their love, takes them beyond mortal life to eternity. Their worldly failure is inconsequential in the face of the eternal life they have found in love. It is a Christian idea.
And so, we see in Shakespeare’s passage, images of fire – miraculous fire, burning on water – air in the form of flutes and wind from the boys’ fans. Shakespeare retains the image of a mermaid, a creature of both the elements of water and of air, and draws special attention to it by repeating it. The text has repeated images of creatures of two elements, dolphins, birds, etc., creatures operating in two elements simultaneously.
There is a great deal more that can be said about this passage that would reveal Shakespeare’s synthesising genius, his invention of sublime poetic phrases and his adaptation of other writers’ language to his purpose.
It is all very well for a journalist writing in a second rate British newspaper to misrepresent a scholar’s work and sneer at Shakespeare for being a diminished writer because he used material from the works of other writers, but he has wholly missed the point. Shakespeare used appropriate material wherever he found it. We can only shrug and wish the journalist good luck in earning his living by writing such nonsense.