Shakespeare’s Language by Frank Kermode

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The late Frank Kermode was a literary critic who didn’t opt for the easy. In Shakespeare’s Language, he does something that surprisingly few serious but mainstream studies had done before: he looks at the poet’s words and explains what they mean and how Shakespeare’s use of them developed over his career. It seems like an obvious approach. But then, this is academia. Some of his arguments are dense and, to be blunt, hard to follow – pages and pages of thoughts about the meaning of ‘value’ in Troilus And Cressida, for example. Kermode is really sniffy about Much Ado About Nothing too (what an idiot). Usefully, however, he has no time for people who worship Shakespeare (‘the tradition of Shakespeare idolatry still lingers’), suggesting instead that it’s important to see him as a working writer who was trying things out – remarkable things, true – and making mistakes. He takes long passages from early plays such as Titus Andronicus to illustrate how Shakespeare’s conventional use of formal verse morphed into something more dynamic as his range grew. By the time he gets to Hamlet, characters are using sinister ‘doubles’ of language in their speeches to create the unease which is central to the play. When Kermode’s thoughts pierce through, it is like lightning striking. ‘Hamlet is literature’s greatest bazaar: everything available, all warranted and trademarked.’ I’d never thought of it like that before, but of course he is right. ‘The whole idea of dramatic character is changed forever by this play.’ Flipping heck – and well, again, yes. It’s easy to take for granted how modern something written in the 1590s – the evasions, the conflicted motivations, the artfully broken conversations – appears. I was not a brilliant English student, sadly. I suspect I may not be the only person who has struggled, over the years, to keep up with Kermode. But as he says in a different context about The Tempest, the theories around the play are ‘secondary to the beautiful object itself’. Reading this book is a little like sitting in a warm lecture theatre on a bright, chilly November morning while the campus clock tower chimes 11. Waiting for the lightning. Not, on the whole, a bad place to be.

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