Wednesday, June 08, 2011

`I'll Tickle Your Catastrophe'

My eighth-grade “tutoree” (an ugly neologism, though pleasingly reminiscent of the Italian tutore: “guardian”) gave me a pleasant surprise: Shakespeare. His class is performing one-hundred fifty lines from Act II, Scene 2, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starting with Helena’s first words: “Stay, though thou kill me, sweet Demetrius.” We reviewed the passage word by word, and the one my student didn’t know (besides “wash’d”) was “surfeit,” though he liked and understood the context. Lysander says:

“For as a surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings,
Or as tie heresies that men do leave
Are hated most of those they did deceive,
So thou, my surfeit and my heresy,
Of all be hated, but the most of me!”

After I defined “surfeit,” he said: “Oh, you mean like eating too much candy.” Today, the word means any excess or overabundance, though in his Dictionary, Johnson defines it as “Sickness or satiety caused by overfulness.” My student had about him a surfeit of knowingness, so I knew he was withholding something, until he informed me he had learned to swear “like they did in Shakespeare.” The teacher had photocopied a list of words and these instructions: “Combine one word from each of the three columns below, prefaced with `Thou.’” Below are sixty Shakespearean adjectives and thirty nouns. A sample, chosen strictly for its linguistic exuberance:

“Thou gorbellied beef-witted hedge-pig!”

“Gorbellied,” not surprisingly, is spoken by Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1 (Act II, Scene 2):

“Hang ye, gorbellied knaves, are ye undone? No, ye
fat chuffs: I would your store were here! On,
bacons, on! What, ye knaves! young men must live.
You are Grand-jurors, are ye? we'll jure ye, 'faith.”

Thersites in Troilus and Cressida (Act II, Scene 1) says:

“The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel
beef-witted lord!”

And the Second Witch in Macbeth (Act IV, Scene 1) says:

“Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.”

To get a fourteen-year-old laughing at Shakespeare’s language, even at the level of gimmickry, is a worthwhile, albeit minor, accomplishment. The word list also provided a homework idea. I called my student a “fustilarian,” and his assignment was to decide whether I had insulted him. The word, spoken by the Page, appears in Henry IV, Part 2 (Act II, Scene 1):

“Away, you scullion! you rampallian! you fustilarian!
I'll tickle your catastrophe.”

In his Dictionary entry for the word, Johnson writes:

“[from fusty.] A low fellow; a stinkard; a scoundrel. A word used by Shakespeare only.”


Helen Pinkerton said...

Patrick, when I was a tutor in graduate school, we always called our individual students the "tutees." I think that term is still in use. I don't know what term British universities used. ???

Helen Pinkerton said...

Gorgeous words, all of them. And useful.