Tuesday, 17 August 2010
An English Genius
There are sometimes rare moments in time and history, times of upheaval and transition, times of renewal; times that are given particular shape and meaning by the happy coincidence that they fall within the lifetime of an individual of rare genius.
The century in which Shakespeare was born was one of profound change; of reformation in religion and reshaping of manners. It was a time when the old medieval certainties were giving way to new ways of thinking; to a whole range of new attitudes about people and their place both in this world and in the world beyond. Shakespeare was born on the cusp of history, when the focus of history was moving away from the ancient centres of civilization, towards the new world of the Atlantic seaboard. It was in Shakespeare that the old and the new were combined. He was born at just the right time, when the Gothic world of Medieval Christianity had not quite given way, and when the modern world had not fully taken shape. It was given to Shakespeare to create that world; to create its consciousness and to create its language.
Think about the nature of drama before Shakespeare. We are dealing, in the main, with character 'types', representing not so much the complexity of human action, but an attitude, either of virtue or of vice; of perfection or corruption; of salvation or damnation. But Shakespeare humanises and combines these attributes in the single individual; in a unique personality, expressed in both in forms of exterior action, and in moods of interior thought.
He gives shape to new and more complex forms of human psychology; in weakness and in strength. His greatest contribution is to shape characters, like that of Hamlet, whose tragedy is one of indecision; or Othello, whose tragedy is one of manipulation; or King Lear, whose tragedy is one of blind pride. They, and so many others of his creations, are 'perfectly imperfect', not bound by time of space, characters who are able to offer something new, from generation to generation.
His 'natural' quality may not have appealed to the mannered tastes in drama that gained favour after his death; but he was almost bound to speak anew to those who came after; to the Romantic sensibility which emerged in the eighteenth century, when notions of the human begin to acquire their definitive form. If I were to try to define the true greatness of Shakespeare it would be in this: it was he who invented what it means to be mortal, and to stand alone in that mortality.
Shakespeare's time was also that in which the English language, as we understand it today, is beginning to acquire its final shape and structure. In translating the Bible into English William Tyndale began this process by introducing a whole new range of words and phrases. But Shakespeare surpassed Tyndale as a miner of our language. His vocabulary is simply huge; the words he draws out, the combinations he makes astonishing in their range and power.
There are people today, people who have never read Shakespeare, or seen a performance of one of his plays, who quite unconsciously use words and phrases invented by the Bard. He coined so many new words that it is difficult for me to know where to begin. Did you know, taking just a few at random, that 'into thin air', 'time-honoured', 'be-all and end all', 'breathed his last', 'crack of doom', 'dead as a doornail', 'good riddance' and so many other like expressions, some which people have come to accept as 'proverbial', were all created or first used by Shakespeare? So, too, were words like 'addiction', 'cold-blooded', 'critic', 'denote', 'bedazzled', 'birthplace', 'belongings', 'eventful', 'full-grown', and 'zany', yes, zany. There are too many others to mention here.
Finally, and from a purely English point of view, he might be said to have created a popular sense of patriotism and love of country; a love that goes beyond mere loyalty to the monarch. I am thinking specifically here of John of Gaunt's This England speech from Richard II. The one that moves me most, though, is the speech given by Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, the one I have come to think of as the 'Band of Brothers' speech;
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Great speech, great writer, great man. Supreme.