Sunday, July 22, 2012

`Have a Great Time'

My current bedside book, the one I read at random (with five others handy, as I’ll explain in a moment), without concern for continuity of plot or argument, is Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion (Penguin Books, 2002) by the prolific linguist David Crystal and one of his sons, the actor Ben Crystal. The plan is simple: From the collected works they assemble 21,263 entries under 13,626 “headwords” – that is, lexical items (one word or more), also known as “lexemes.” For example, under the headword “complexion,” the Crystals include three entries – “appearance, look, covering,” “constitution, physical make-up” and “natural trait, disposition, temperament.” Shakespeare uses 31,534 words in his poems and plays, 14,376 of which appear once.

Nearby I keep my three-volume reading copy of Shakespeare's plays, The Heritage Press boxed edition (1958) of the comedies, tragedies and histories. The bindings are rugged, margins wide, typeface large and clean. Each volume comes with a glossary at the back, which I seldom use, but is otherwise unannotated except by me. When I come upon an entry of particular interest in Crystal, I reach for the appropriate volume and read the word or words in context. Of necessity, their entries are brief and can’t begin to hint at Shakespeare’s larger meanings. For the sonnets and poems I use the New Cambridge paperbacks, with the bonus of an Anthony Hecht introduction in the sonnets volume. My browsing among these books is purely recreational, reserved for otherwise idle moments, and is rooted in something the Crystals write in their introduction: “There are actually very few passages in Shakespeare where the combination of alien grammar and vocabulary makes the text comparable to it being in a foreign language.” In their introduction they cite one “alien” exception: Doll Tearsheet’s “basket-hilt stale juggler,” spoken to Pistol in Henry IV, Part II (Act 2, Scene 4):
“Away, you cut-purse rascal! you filthy bung, away! By wine, I'll thrust my knife in your mouldy chaps, an you play saucy cuttle with me. Away, you bottle-ale rascal! you basket-hilt stale juggler, you! Since when, I pray you, sir? God's light, with two points on your shoulder? Much!”
You get the drift of it. Not exactly Finnegans Wake. The Crystals refer to such passages as “insult sequences,” and say they “never leave the audience in any doubt as to their pragmatic force.” In their entry for “basket-hilt,” the editors translate the entire three-word phrase into mundane standard English -- “inept swordsman.” “Basket-hilt,” they explain, is a “sword with protective steel basketwork.” In other words, one of these. The Crystals remind us:
“It is perfectly possible to go to a Shakespeare play, with little or no awareness of Early Modern English vocabulary, and have a great time.”

[Speaking of The Crystals...]


Chuck Kelly said...

In one of Sir Alec Guinness's memoirs (probably "My Name Escapes Me") he said he collected short, throw-away lines from Shakespeare's plays. I suppose Guinness thought there were really NO throw-away lines, so that's why he collected them. He thought they may eventually prove useful.

Anyway, the one I remember (I don't recall its source) is, "The pancakes were naught, but the mustard was good."

I haven't had a chance to use it myself, but I'm hopeful the opportunity will arise.

Chuck Kelly said...

Well, I just checked the big reference book in the sky and learned that the line Guinness mentioned comes from Act 1, scene 2 of "As You Like It."

The Sanity Inspector said...

I sometimes wish "Shog off!" had survived into contemporary usage. Love the heft of that insult...