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Did Shakespeare Act as a Brake on the English Language?

Shakespeare's great writing may have slowed change in the English language.

My parents grew up in England, and, perforce, they knew their Shakespeare. I am lucky and grateful they did because they introduced me to the language of the Bard. This was not so much by taking me to plays but more because of the lines they used in their everyday exchanges. Early on I could see why these lines came so naturally and so frequently. It was because the language captured life so well.

Once, when I was still living at home, I came home late and tried to make it past my parents’ room to my own without waking them. The hallway was pitch black, and as I felt my way past their door, I heard my mother say,

“When creeping murmur and the poring dark fills the wide vessel of the universe.”

This nailed it.

It wasn’t until later that I became familiar with the section in Henry V from which this great line comes.

Now I find myself quoting from this play as well, most recently when I praised a student for an excellent presentation: "Mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears to steal his sweet and honeyed sentences.”

A provocative compliment to Shakespeare came from Isaac Asimov. In the introduction to his guide to Shakespeare, he notes that in the two centuries before Shakespeare’s time that the English language was developing with such speed that the ordinary Elizabethan would find Chaucer antiquated and unreadable. But today, four centuries after the first performances of Shakespeare’s plays, we can understand the lines ". . . quite easily and with only an occasional archaic word or phrase requiring translation. It is almost as though the English language dare not change so much as to render Shakespeare incomprehensible. That would be an unacceptable price to pay for change.”

Asimov suggests that Shakespeare even surpasses the Bible at least in a sense that we don’t read the plays in translation. As great as the King James version of the Bible is, another version of it could be quite different, as time has shown with recent alternative translations. As Asimov also argues, it’s an absurd thought to rephrase Shakespeare into contemporary, everyday English (though many turns of phrase we use come down to quotes from Shakespeare!). Unlike the Bible, in which content is supreme, we appreciate Shakespeare through his exact words at least as much as the content of the plays.

Take the section in Macbeth, where Macbeth imagines the consequences if he is to murder Duncan.

If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well

If were done quickly. If the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success; that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal or time,

We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases

We still have judgment here, that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague th’ inventor: this even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice

To our own lips.

The following is a rendition of the content of these lines from Sparknotes:

If this business would really be finished when I did the deed, then it would be best to get it over with quickly. If the assassination of the king could work like a net, sweeping up everything and preventing any consequences, then the murder would be the be-all and end-all of the whole affair, and I would gladly put my soul and the afterlife at risk to do it. But for crimes like these there are still punishments in this world. By committing violent crimes we only teach other people to commit violence, and the violence of our students will come back to plague us teachers.

The SparkNotes version is useful and nicely done, but I rest my case.

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