When I’m studying Shakespeare text, I try to start from a neutral place, as much as possible. This is a challenge, given how loaded words are. I am far from objective, and words are evocative. But I do my best to step back and look at the words on their own terms before making big decisions about them.
In his excellent book ‘Shakespeare On Toast’, Ben Crystal talks about what he calls the “false friends” – words Shakespeare used in the 1600s and which are still used today, only the meaning has changed. And the change, I’ve noticed, is often a negative one. There is a downward pressure on language, as if the words, like humans, are giving in to gravity. A downward pull to an adverse place.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘rhetoric’ as the art of using language to persuade. But today, that word is mostly used to describe empty, meaningless talk meant to confuse, obfuscate, or deceive. How did it go from being a valuable skill set to simply a fancy word for ‘lies’?
Or, take a word like ‘doom’. It pops up often in Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo asks the Friar, “what is the Prince’s doom?” Cleopatra says she will kneel “Till from his all-obeying breath I hear / The doom of Egypt.”
One’s doom was one’s fate. It could also mean a decree, judgement or decision. Yes, some of the Shakespearean examples turned out to be pretty serious, but that wasn’t necessarily built into the word itself.
In current times, we don’t separate the gloom from ‘doom’. We say the failed relationship “was doomed from the start”, or “that spells doom” when things look really dire. The word is now synonymous with disaster.
Changed meanings can be subtle yet powerful. The word ‘sad’ used to simply mean ‘serious’ or ‘solemn’. Two people “in sad conference” were just people having a serious talk. No weeping required.
The small, seemingly innocuous words are especially fascinating to me. ‘Should’ is an auxiliary or helper word for verbs, and not nearly so important as the verbs themselves. It’s doing its job in a statement like “I should like to meet her” – it’s about liking and meeting (and her, probably). In the Taming of the Shrew, when Kate says she is “as heavy as my weight should be,” Petruchio picks up on that ‘be’ and responds with “should bee? Should buzz.” It’s the “be” part that makes a pun.
But modern actors often emphasize “should”s in their texts, adding a sense of obligation or of being compelled. That might be appropriate in, “I SHOULD do my homework though I’d rather play outside,” but in many other instances, it colours the thought with a feeling of being constrained or doing something against one’s will. And that’s a downer that Shakespeare’s characters might not need.
In a world of inflation (economic, academic, ego), we respond with linguistic deflation. When ‘amazing’ has become a synonym for ‘good’, and ‘awesome’ is really just ‘fine’, does joy have any meaning? Words are products of their time, and a robust language like English is constantly changing – that’s good. Through the centuries, meanings can start to slide around a little – that’s natural. But what does this hopeless slide say about us?
May we never lose our ability to feel the raw power of words. As James Hillman says in ‘Culture and the Animal Soul’:
“By means of speech we enact what animals do in
behaviour. With speech we warn, claim territory, challenge
and destroy. With speech we court and seduce a mate, and
by means of speech we instruct our offspring and organize
our group disciplines... Like tigers losing their stripes, like
beached whales and blind eagles are we without our