Tuesday, March 15, 2016

`His Receiving Apparatus'

“Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”

Certain words, often rare ones we may never use in conversation or in print, are linked in memory to specific works of literature. “Incarnadine” trails Macbeth (Act II, Scene 2), that bloody play, and echoes carnal and carnivore, and more distantly, incarnate. And another word, intrinsicate, which my spell-check software doesn’t recognize. It brings with it Antony and Cleopatra (Act V, Scene 2). Cleopatra addresses the asp she is about to press to her breast:

“With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch.”

How much more evocative in sound and sense is intrinsicate than a near echo, intricate, or the OED’s preferred synonyms, “involved, entangled.” With the sound there is the sense: like us, Shakespeare, in frustration has used his teeth to undo a stubborn knot. This too is an aspect of his genius. He is, in the Jamesian sense, one of those rare writers on whom nothing is lost. C.H. Sisson says of him in “Natural History” (The Avoidance of Literature, 1978):

"One imagines that Shakespeare could turn anything to account because his receiving apparatus was as nearly perfect as could be, but most writers can manage only a few scratchings on the limited subject-matters of which, amid the general obscurity of their lives, they manage to apprehend something more or less concretely. Why their gropings should sometimes succeed and sometimes not is about as explicable as why love and liking turn up how and when they do."

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