‘Shakespeare’s Language’ by Frank Kermode

Seminal Papers Series

Kermode_(Shakespeare-s_Language)Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language published in 2000 remains, 16 years on, one of the staple texts dealing with Shakespeare’s dramatic verse. Written for a general readership familiar with the texts, Kermode argues that, ‘The life of the play is in the language’ and carries out a meticulous analysis of recurrent linguistic features in the plays that may baffle contemporary readers and audiences and which, he claims, probably had a quite similar effect on Elizabethan theatre-goers. He points out that,

There are passages, especially in some of the later plays, which continue to defeat learned ingenuity. Dr Johnson, who liked Shakespeare best when he was writing simply, would struggle awhile with such passages and then give up trying (…) but we, in our time, are unwilling to cut the know so roughly. We are far from sharing Johnson’s distaste (…) we are stimulated rather than put off by this.

From there he proceeds with a detailed analysis of such passages in selected plays by paying attention to how language is used to construct the full representation of a character (personation) and by analysing the transformations in Shakespeare’s language from the early to the later plays.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 deals in bulk with all the plays till 1600 and part two looks at particular plays from then on, starting with Julius Caesar and culminating with Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The chapter on Hamlet is perhaps the most interesting and illuminating, especially because of Kermode’s extensive analysis of Shakespeare’s use of the hendiadys as a language device that builds and reflects Hamlet’s double personality traits. This analysis of the expanding doublings continues with Othello, where Kermode also highlights the use of repetitions and how Othello and Cassio’s language of courtly love contrasts with Iago’s dirty and voyeuristic sexual rhetoric. I also found particularly engaging the chapter on Coriolanus which focus on the tortuosity of some passages and the violence of the language.

All in all, this is a pivotal book on Shakespeare’s language and should be in the background reading list of any student of Shakespeare.

Kermode, F. (2000) Shakespeare’s Language. London: Penguin.