The Amateur Academic’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Linguistic Legacy

“What’s in a name?” is the rhetorical question asked by Juliet to Romeo as they embarked upon a love affair that would change the course of literary history forever. Yet who could guess that such a simple phrase could hold such a significant amount of complexity. The query is meant to spark a great deal of thought in the reader or viewer about what names truly mean and why we allow our prejudices about people and their backgrounds to keep us from getting to know them better.

Each of us who had (or currently have) experience studying English literature is well aware of the looming presence of Shakespeare. The playwright’s name could conjure a mixture of feelings in many of us: from great admiration and pride to intense fear and apprehension. So Juliet’s famous rhetorical question is a great example of a line that not only has special significance within the play itself, but something that can be applied to a discussion of our own relationship to the Bard, the language he used and his influence on the English language.

Indeed, reading a play by Shakespeare, or even a sonnet for that matter, can lead to all sorts of trouble and confusion for even the most fluent English speakers. Many might ask if having the ability to read Shakespearean language is necessary in our day and age, particularly as our communications with each other rely on fewer and fewer words to get our points across. While learning the language of William Shakespeare can be a difficult and time intensive process, there is still tremendous value and fulfillment in doing so.

Getting a Grip on Shakespearean Linguistics

Working through the metaphors, similes, rhythm and allusions in Shakespeare’s writing can be a daunting task—particularly for those without a foundation in early English literature. Moreover, much of the language used by Shakespeare is rarely, if ever used by modern English speakers. Therefore, understanding how getting a grip on Shakespearean linguistics can improve your own ability to read and communicate in the English language is the first step towards becoming a language scholar in your own right.

Because of the dense language used by Shakespeare when composing his works, it can actually be a hinderance to read and comprehend each sentence individually. Take another look at Juliet’s rhetorical question in a larger context:

Juliet: …What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;

And for that name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.

The first two lines are simple enough to understand. If a rose was named something else, surely it would still smell like a rose. The following lines are less easy without understanding the focus stanza as a whole, which is to lament Romeo’s family name as the only thing keeping them from openly loving each other.

The key to grasping Shakespeare’s language is not to parse each word individually, but to read the whole section (aloud if you can) and get a feel for its rhythm—as well as how the lines add meaning to the stanza as a whole. This can be tough, especially in other Shakespearean plays where the subject of the dialogue is often shrouded in metaphorical language or allusion. By repeatedly reading his writing out loud, one can begin to hear a certain rhythm in Shakespeare’s language—also known as iambic pentameter—that has since faded from normal use in the English language. Not only does this rhythm make it easier for people to memorize and speak the dialogue, but it also, believe it or not, helps with one’s comprehension of the language.

Helpful Resources for Your Literary Adventures with the Bard

Luckily for many of us who have only a small familiarity with Shakespeare, an enormous amount of resources exist online for people to read in the comfort of their own home. Because English is one of the more popular academic pursuits for college and graduate students, the number of academic essays and discussions on Shakespeare’s output is exhaustive to say the least. And with the advent of blogging and amateur writing on the internet, there is certainly no shortage of resources that capture the influence of Shakespearean language.

For serious learners, the Shakespeare Resource Center hosts a wealth of information related to Shakespeare’s writing, life and his place in history. Not only does the site offer links to the Bard’s complete corpus, but also a synopsis and critique for each work. The site also gives fascinating background on the various historical events that inspired much of Shakespeare’s writing, as well as an extensive list of links that cover Shakespearean language itself. There’s even a link for picking up the Elizabethan accent spoken during his time.

Another invaluable site for learners of Shakespearean linguistics is Emory University’s Shakespeare Illustrated in Atlanta, Georgia, which showcases historical paintings of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays to help visualize and better understand the meaning behind the words. The site was created by English professor Harry Rusche, and is the perfect visual complement to any learning regimen concerning the works of William Shakespeare. Not only does this site include images of several of great art inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, but it also includes an extensive bibliography of resources for learners to continue exploring.

For those of us without the time to commit to academic study of Shakespearean linguistics, Blogging Shakespeare is an excellent resource for helping people understand why even a basic grasp of the Bard’s language can be helpful in today’s digital age. This site offers several easy to read and understand articles from top scholars in the field of Shakespearean studies, as well as a free ebook you can download and read offline. Blogging Shakespeare also hosts a fascinating online conference called “60 Minutes with Shakespeare,” wherein 60 scholars have one minute each to answer 60 specific questions about the Bard’s work, language and life.

While finding the appropriate resources online to help you with your studies in Shakespearean linguistics is a great way to start, be sure you also invest in a hard copy of the playwright’s work if you can. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare is widely considered to be the definitive collection of Shakespeare’s works in one beautifully bound volume. Having a resource such as this is an excellent way to ensure you always have access to these works, with or without an internet connection. With this volume in your hands, along with the several resources discussed above to help you navigate Shakespeare’s tricky language, embarking upon your adventure with the Bard can be both fun and inspirational.

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