Why don’t people talk like Shakespeare anymore?
This is not rhetorical, it is a serious question.
Perhaps it is my recent foray back into the world of the famous Bard of Avon, however, I find myself tiring more each day of the laziness of the modern English language. Setting aside, if you’ll give me leave to, the most officious examples of text speak and abbreviations which shorten not only single words but even phrases into meaningless, mismatched letters, you are still left with a laziness in popular culture which turns my stomach at times.
I am not going to go into a lengthy diatribe here. I am sure my readers will agree with me in any case. However, I would like to give a few examples below, taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and ask you to let me know which you would rather read and/or hear.
The following is taken from The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2:
So they are.
My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up.
My father’s loss, the weakness which I feel,
The wrack of all my friends, nor this man’s threats,
To whom I am subdued, are but light to me,
Might I but through my prison once a day
Behold this maid. All corners else o’ th’ earth
Let liberty make use of. Space enough
Have I in such a prison.
That’s true, they are. My strength is all gone, as if in a dream. The death of my father, my physical weakness, the loss of all my friends, the threats of this man who’s taken me prisoner – all that would be easy for me to take, if only I could look through my prison windows once a day and see this girl. I don’t need any more freedom than that. A prison like that would give me enough liberty. (1)
Now, please, be honest with me. Who in their right mind wouldn’t swoon to hear their beloved say “All corners else o’ th’ earth let liberty make use of. Space enough have I in such a prison.”? Certainly Ferdinand’s meaning is better portrayed through Shakespeare’s language than our own modern tongue.
I do not think I need to look far to find others who agree that, regarding the language of love, Shakespeare comes top of the class.
However, looking to the other end of the spectrum, even Shakespeare’s insults are far superior. Again, this is not something which only I have noticed. There’s an entire website dedicated to the lost art of Elizabethan insults. He does have a certain knack for coarse language.
Take the following, from The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 1:
A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!
Oh, go to hell, you loud-mouthed bastard! (3)
The above, I am happy to admit, is one of my favourite ever of Shakespeare’s insults. Please tell me whether you’d rather hear the original or the modern text. I mean to say – think of the imagination involved! It’s so much better than just telling someone to go to hell. We’ve lost all imagination in our modern insults, which is very sad. If you’re looking for a sure-fire way to double the value of your insults, use language and phrasing which your enemy is bound to misunderstand, thereby insulting their intelligence as well.
And for my final example, please find one of the most well-known scenes from The Tempest, from Act 4, Scene 1:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself—
Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled.
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose. A turn or two I’ll walk
To still my beating mind.
You look like something’s bothering you. Cheer up. Our music-and-dance spectacle is over. These actors were all spirits, as I told you, and they’ve all melted into thin air. And just like the whole empty and ungrounded vision you’ve seen, with its towers topped with clouds, its gorgeous palaces, solemn temples, the world itself—and everyone living in it—which will dissolve just as this illusory pageant has dissolved, leaving not even a wisp of cloud behind. We are all made of dreams, and our life stretches from sleep before birth to sleep after death. Sir, I’m upset. Please put up with my weakness. My old brain is troubled. Don’t be disturbed by my illness. If you like, you can rest a while in my room. I’ll go for a short walk to calm down my feverish mind. (4)
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Oh, the desperate realisation that life is too short has never sounded quite so beautiful. Such poetry relives the starkness of the epiphany and brings comfort to the listener. It loses all of its poetry and much of its kindness in a modern telling.
So, what is the verdict? Do you agree with me that there is something lost with the passing of well-phrased English both in written and spoken word? We’ll have a vote in the comments, shall we? Original Vs Modern.
I hope not to bore you too thoroughly over the next few days with all of my Shakespeare posts, but I make no guarantees. If you haven’t dusted off your Complete Works recently, do yourself a favour and get stuck in. If it’s been since your school years since you’ve attempted to read Shakespeare then give it another chance, it is infinitely more enjoyable when you can enjoy the works without a teacher or a professor shoving their particular interpretation down your throat.
However, and this is a point I cannot stress strongly enough, forget about reading Shakespeare entirely. Go and SEE Shakespeare. Immediately. Although, I do feel I should warn you, a poor performance can put you off for life. Avoid too modern tellings, as discussed above, they detract immeasurably from the intent.
(5) The post title is from The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2 as spoken by Ariel. Although you may know them from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.