Tuesday, April 23, 2013

`A Cunning Instrument Cased Up'

On Shakespeare’s 449th birthday, let’s briefly linger on a passage from a play of the second rank (among his works, I mean, not the world’s), one that handsomely illustrates his casual genius. In Richard II (Act I, Scene 3), after a quarrel with Henry of Bolingbroke, Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, is banished by the king, setting in motion events that will eventually end in Richard’s overthrow and death. Mowbray, who presciently predicts Richard’s downfall, says: 

“A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,
And all unlook’d for from your highness’ mouth:
A dearer merit, not so deep a maim
As to be cast forth in the common air,
Have I deserved at your highness’ hands.
The language I have learn’d these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony:
Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue,
Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips;
And dull unfeeling barren ignorance
Is made my gaoler to attend on me.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now:
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?” 

One admires the compression and natural rhythms of Shakespeare’s lines as he plays with two parallel and complimentary sets of metaphors – mouth/speech and instruments/music. “A cunning instrument cased up,” reinforced with “engaol’d,” is an elegant way to say “muzzled.” Shakespeare seems to have been fond of the image. The title character in Timon of Athens says in a marvelous prose passage from Act I, Scene 2: 

“O you gods, think I, what need we have any friends, if we should ne’er have need of ’em? they were the most needless creatures living, should we ne’er have use for ’em, and would most resemble sweet instruments hung up in cases that keep their sounds to themselves.” 

Keats renders a benign and faintly resonant echo with: 

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.” 

Portcullis may need a gloss. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a strong barrier in the form of a grating of wooden or iron bars, usually suspended by chains above the gateway of a fortress.” The resemblance of bars and teeth is obvious, just as a gate naturally suggests the human mouth.  Mowbray, a dignified if sometimes intemperate man, feels the sting of being condemned to “dull unfeeling barren ignorance,” in which the lulling “l” sounds are replaced by the growl of “r’s.” It’s a measure of Shakespeare’s gift that he bestows so fine a speech, one so vivid and visual and stirring, on a character who soon disappears from the stage. Later in the play, the Bishop of Carlisle rather curtly informs us that Mowbray is dead. The historical Mowbray spent his exile in Venice, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, there contracted the plague and died on his return to Venice, age thirty-three. 

For sheer, exuberant linguistic pleasure, no other  writer, not even Joyce, touches Shakespeare. In Pale Fire, with its title borrowed from the aforementioned Timon of Athens, Nabokov has John Shade say: “First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull.” 

Kinbote asks: “You appreciate particularly the purple passages?" 

Shade answers: “Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane.”

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