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Seale vp the Ship-boyes Eyes, and rock his Braines,
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This review is from: Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language (Paperback)
Anyone who has heard David Crystal lecture in person or speak on the radio will recognize his infectious blend of enthusiasm and scholarship within a few pages of beginning this splendid book. Even as he gently shatters the myths we have probably all flirted with in some measure - that Shakespeare had the largest vocabulary of anyone who has ever lived, that he created half the words in English, that he has the most distinctive style of any author - you can't help but enjoy the lesson. Iconoclastic erudition is his forte.
Of course, we native English speakers are lucky in that Shakespeare's language is our language, with far fewer differences than you might think - although, like most people, I've sat through productions of his plays that might as well have been in a foreign language. While this kind of experience can put people off for life, it only takes one or two actors breathing meaning into the words right there in front of you to get you hooked. David Crystal never forgets that we are dealing with dramatic poetry, and his discussion of the pentameter is an object lesson in how to avoid getting bogged down in theory. As a piece of jargon it should be no scarier to children than "pentathlon". But whereas with pentathlon "we have no difficulty seeing the bridge between the term and what happens in the real world", the trouble with books on the pentameter is that "the real world is often not there at all." This is a deficit Crystal puts right by showing how the pentameter copes with a huge range of the spoken word, "incorporating the varied rhythms of natural speech while maintaining the required poetic discipline." You're not likely to see Crystal's conclusion - "The pentameter rules" - graffitied on a schoolboy's desk anytime soon, but his approach might just wake them up to what it's all about: the real world of performance.
Such an approach might also help resolve the vexed question of modernization, for example, whether to "translate" Shakespeare into "modern English" for the benefit of our youngsters (why do those who propose this sort of thing never reflect on why more adults don't spontaneously open their Collected Works in the evenings?). Crystal's view is clear: a better term would be "simplification". I agree. Reading Shakespeare in any case should always come after seeing it performed. Most of us - perhaps even Professor Crystal - would admit to bits we just don't get - complex ideas jemmied into a tight metrical space, grammatical niceties bulging over the pentameter waistband - but in a theatre a good actor will drag you through the linguistic thicket, and will deliver plenty of lines that you most definitely do get. That's the thing about drama - it's dramatic. Stick with it and you'll become, as David Crystal suggests, more and more fluent in "Shakespearean". As for the modernizing moaners, there's always someone who wants the moon on a stick.
Still, I never realized quite how many changes are made in order to create the modern editions we all read. Crystal uses the original Folio text throughout much of the book (as in the strapline above). However, these spellings and variants are not necessarily Shakespearean, since "an uncertain number of people stand between Shakespeare's original manuscript and the printed versions that have come down to us". Instead of "Shakespeare's language" a more precise description would be "the language used in Shakespearean texts", and Crystal's primary aim is "to explore the meaning and effect of the plays and poems by analysing the way the language - whoever originated it - has been used". This doesn't make him an anti-Stratfordian: uncertainty over whether Shakespeare wrote this particular word or phrase does not scale up into doubtful authorship of the plays.
The analysis of Shakespeare through the medium of grammar might seem to be a nightmare scenario - for both teachers and students - but Professor Crystal has the knack of both putting it in plain and startling terms and making us see its importance. "Grammar makes sense of language. That is what it is for. Words by themselves do not make sense. Individual words are too ambiguous, because their multiple meanings compete for our attention... Grammar reflects the way we think - more precisely, the way we process our thoughts - and the main unit in which we organize our thoughts is the sentence."
It is difficult to imagine being passionate about Shakespeare and being indifferent to his language. It's easier for an academic to be learned and yet uninspiring. And so, be grateful for a linguist of David Crystal's calibre who cares as much about the plays - both their performance and their poetry - as he does about their syntax and their vocabulary. "Economy of expression, the result always of a trading relationship between lexicon and grammar, is the hallmark of Shakespeare's linguistic creativity." Fortunately for us, when it comes to writing books for the lay reader, David Crystal is not too economical with his own time.