JWR Articles: Book - Shakespeare's Wordcraft (Author: Scott Kaiser) - June 4, 2008

Shakespeare's Wordcraft

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297 pages

ISBN 10: 0-87910-345-0
Holding the art together

Having just completed the first week of openings for the 2008 edition of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (cross-references below) it seemed the ideal time to further reflect on Scott Kaiser’s marvellous volume which demonstrates the Bard’s exceptionally gifted use of language.

As one who is not shy about employing the hyphen to create verb compounds in my own writing, hearing Berowne go at it (By heaven, all dry-beaten with pure scoff—Love’s Labours Lost, Act 5, Scene 2) gave extra pleasure when rendered in person by Ian Lake. As with all of the hundreds of examples, masterfully divided by usage and indexed by play, reading them is fun, but when next experienced in a performance there’s even more to savour as the familiar lines come to life.

In the subject of repeated vowels, (e.g., Mercutio: Come, come, thou art as hot a jack in the mood as any in Italy / and as soon moved to be moody, and as soon moody to be moved.”—Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1) Kaiser asserts that “Like notes on a piano … the vowel sounds can express an infinite variety of moods, colors [etc.].” More likely the spoken pitches would resemble a woodwind (or occasionally brass—perhaps with Katherina at her caustic best in The Taming of the Shrew) instrument given the source of these lip-shaped hues is air rather than hammered strings.

But there’s no doubt at all that rhyming couplets are the poetic equivalent of music’s double bar (Prince: For never was a story more of woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo. Final couplet of Romeo and Juliet).

Fascinating too is the premise that “Shakespeare orchestrates the repetition of words and phrases in his lines in precisely the same manner that Beethoven does notes.” On the surface this idea makes perfect sense (Hamlet: You cannot take from me any thing that I will not more willingly part withal—except my life, except my life, except my life. Act 2, Scene 2) until the notion that in music, simultaneous sounds—be they accompaniment, harmony or counterpoint to the theme—are far different in their creation and effect than the largely monophonic text of the plays.

Still, we’re in perfect agreement as to how word order is at one with rhythm (the author’s descriptive prose to set the examples up is a marvel in itself). These say for yourself:

Maria: This, and these pearls, to me sent Longaville. (Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5, Scene 2)

Queen: Good gentlemen, he hath much talk’d of you,
And sure I am two men there are not living
To whom he more adheres. (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)

This essential volume to the study, understanding and sheer enjoyment of Shakespeare’s craft can be appreciated in many ways: opening a page at random, hunting down all references to a play about to be seen (then heard differently) or working steadily through from the basics of words to the joy of disorder. Kaiser’s passion for the project can be felt in every entry. All who turns its leaves will enjoy, methinks. JWR

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Author - Scott Kaiser
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