Shakespeare’s Mature Style: Language as Drama

By David Reibetanz

© 2005



            Is Shakespeare’s dramatic language shutting down or revving up in his later plays?  The answer might seem to depend only on vague general impressions, and to vary according to which critic’s impressions one encounters.  In The Language of Shakespeare’s Plays, Ifor Evans writes of the late romances that “the language has on the whole a quietness, a thinness, an absence of overtones or subtle associations” (201).  In contrast, Vivian Salmon extols the “dramatic energy and economy of expression which characterize Shakespeare’s mature style” (204).  Has Shakespeare’s language become colourless and flaccid or vivid and “dramatic”?  Sometimes one finds, paradoxically, both views expressed by the same scholar.  Winifred Nowottny deplores “the absence from Lear of . . . poetry that survives quotation out of context” and asserts that the play’s “originality is not discernible from its vocabulary” (49), yet she finds it “deeply concerned with the inadequacy of language to do justice to feeling” (52).  Is Shakespeare’s language here  unruffled and conventional or involved and questioning?  A detailed focus on Shakespeare’s mature syntax and grammar in light of his customary linguistic habits and those of his age yields a more objective and less contradictory picture.  This article will first situate Shakespeare’s use of language in relation to the options available to English writers during his lifetime, highlighting some notable syntactical and grammatical features of his mature style.  Following this broader discussion, the article will centre on one linguistic aspect of Antony and Cleopatra, the conversion of nouns into verbs, as representative of Shakespeare’s practice in his later plays.  It will become evident that he derives considerable expressive energy from grammatical innovation, and that in these plays the field of language has itself become a stage for some of his most dynamic dramatic effects.  Such effects are not isolated verbal fireworks, the “bold personification” associated with “tumults and high passions” for which Evans looks nostalgically back to the earlier plays (201).  Rather, they represent a dynamism both “more closely integrated into the fabric of the text” (Wales 182) and more deeply rooted in Shakespeare’s unique  realization of the creative potential of his language.  Shakespeare’s linguistic power does not wane in the later plays.  It goes underground, working itself through the structure of the language to energize the creative capacity of that structure as never before.



Elizabethan English and Shakespeare’s Options


            During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the English language experiences a significant growth spurt in both the number of words and the variety of syntactical structures in which words can be employed.  While writers are bringing numerous words from Latin into English, they are also experimenting with syntax to achieve the accuracy and the expressive range of lost inflections. This freedom of experimentation is unhampered by established systems of rules and usage that might confine the range of meaning of individual words or that might restrict the ways in which words are combined and ordered. 

            Shakespeare thus writes not only in a linguistically rich field, but also in an age where there is little grammatical strictness.  Like dictionaries, grammar books were written for (and associated with) foreign languages rather than English (de Grazia 51).  The lack of standardization in English contributes both to the lexical enrichment of Shakespeare’s language and to his flexibility with syntax and grammar.  Not only does Shakespeare employ a working


vocabulary of some 25,000 words – far more than any other writer of English, and amply justifying Nevalainen’s characterization of him as “an unusually prolific inventor of new words” (“New Words” 237).  He also takes full advantage of the absence of rules governing the placement and function of those words, using this syntactical and grammatical freedom to dramatic advantage. 

            As in an inflected language such as Latin or Greek, words of different grammatical function need not always be arranged in a prescribed sequence of subject-verb-object.  Instead, the writer can order them so as to give primacy of place and therefore stronger emphasis to certain words.  Writers can also orchestrate their readers’ progress through each sentence more dramatically, saving particularly dynamic effects for a sentence’s climax.  De Grazia cites several potent examples of such creative arrangement from Shakespeare’s mature tragedies (57).  With King Lear, Shakespeare places the verb before the subject in Edgar’s “Met I my father” (5.3.188) and the object before the verb in Gloucester’s earlier “I such a fellow saw” (4.1.33).  Both kinds of inversion come together in de Grazia’s example from Othello, in the hero’s passionate recollection: “That handkerchief / Did an Egyptian to my mother give” (3.4.53-4).  This kind of non-standard placing can be used quite effectively to accentuate certain parts of the statements: in the first example, met is given emphasis through its initial placement; in the second example the power of the verb is again heightened, this time by its climactic position at the end of the blank verse line.  The example brilliantly shows how grammar can underline thematic significance, as it allows Shakespeare to put both the handkerchief and its matrilineal origins into prominance.  One might also cite Shakespeare’s use of grammatical placement in conjunction with alliteration to convey the spluttering outrage of Leontes’ grievance about his imagined cuckoldry, “Physic for’t there’s none” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.200), or the inversion that rings down an imperative  curtain on that hero’s disastrous series of false inferences: “Be it concluded” (1.2.203).

            This creative restructuring was not simply a characteristic of the age which Shakespeare picked up along with everyone else: he worked unusually hard at it, earning Jonathan Hope’s description of him as a “deriver” rather than a “coiner” of words (“Natiue English” 250).  And as J. H. P. Pafford observes, the language of the later plays becomes even  more “dramatic” because Shakespeare’s experiments give his language an unusual “abundance and rapidity” (lxxxv).  Part of this effect stems from syntactical innovations whereby subject-object-verb inversions and asyndeton both increase progressively throughout these plays; as John Porter Houston sums up, “His syntactical imagination pushed further toward the limits of English idioms” (213; also 198, 210-11).  Yet, Shakespeare’s experimentation involves his changing not just the position but also the function of parts of speech.  Marvin Spevack elucidates the primary grammatical means by which he achieved the latter effect, concluding after thirty years of exhaustive study that Shakespeare “favored the most productive forms [of grammatical conversion] in English – that is, verb-to-noun and noun-to-verb conversion – and . . . most preferred noun-to-verb conversions” (358).  So, for instance, Shakespeare gains graphic immediacy by turning “lip” into a verb at 4.1.71 of Othello and “virgin” at 5.3.48 of Coriolanus, “sty” into a verb at 1.2.345 of The Tempest and “fang” at 4.3.23 of Timon. 

            Although no statistical evidence seems available, Salmon (205), Wales (182) and Quirk (79) affirm the accepted view that noun-to-verb conversions increase and become more thematically potent in Shakespeare’s later plays.  This increasingly dynamic approach to grammar corresponds significantly with (and becomes more persuasive in light of) the evolution of his use of Ovid.  Adamson identifies that Latin writer’s counterpointing of physical and linguistic transformations as largely responsible for his unrivalled popularity among Renaissance writers on language and rhetoric (550); and Shakespeare’s employment of Ovidian references and motifs entails an increasingly vital incorporation of such transformation.  As Bate puts it, “a prominently flaunted mode of composition” in early works “became a more inwoven practice in the later ones” (173).   Like Shakespeare’s language, his Ovidian transformations move from the early plays’ set pieces, to means of expressing “internal metamorphoses” in the mature tragedies (Bate 181), to miraculous transfigurations of the entire field of action in the late romances.  The “shifting world” (Bate 246) of a play like The Tempest finds appropriate expression in a grammar that turns erstwhile solid nouns into the quicksilver of verbs.  Thus, the dramatic effects of verb-formation, which Nevalainen finds the most common kind of conversion in Early Modern English (“Lexis” 355), but which Quirk also finds particularly characteristic of Shakespeare’s usage (79), make Antony and Cleopatra a paradigm of his mature practice.



Antony and Cleopatra: Grammar into Dramatic Energy


             Kathleen Wales remarks that in Shakespeare’s noun-to-verb conversions “what are thought of as stable objects . . . are wrenched from their passivity to acquire new vigour as actions,” observing further that “metaphor harmonizes well with the flexibility of conversion” (181-2).  This union of metaphor and grammatical conversion is evident throughout Antony and Cleopatra, where shifts from noun to verb simultaneously affirm the fertility of metaphor and displace action from the material to the more fluid metaphorical realm.  Whether the characters be Roman or Egyptian, their language persistently coins new words by incubating the solidity of nouns and adjectives into the dynamic liquidity of verbs.  Thus, “joint” becomes a verb at 1.2.91, “safe” at 1.3.55, “dumb” at 1.5.50,  “spaniel” at 4.7.21, and “boy” at 5.2.220, while “candy” melts itself into “discandy” at 3.13.166 and 4.12.22.  These conversions garner tremendous dramatic advantages.  For instance, Terttu Nevalainen notes (“New Words” 242) that by turning dumb from an adjective into a verb, instead of using the already-available verb “silence,” Shakespeare gains both the solidity of an Anglo-Saxon root word (instead of the more abstract, Latinate “silence”) and an association with the inarticulacy of beasts – beasts were and are commonly described as “dumb” rather than “mute.”  Such advantages supplement what is always present in Shakespeare’s functional conversion of nouns and adjectives into verbs, the “dramatic energy and economy of expression” that Vivian Salmon praises (204). 

            Enobarbus’ famous description of Cleopatra’s barge (2.2) is a remarkable place to observe the combined powers of metaphor and conversion.  Throughout his speech, Enobarbus sets up the metaphorical as the real and establishes its priority over the literal.  When Enobarbus tells Agrippa and Maecenas how “the barge she sat in . . . burned on the water” (198-9), the active verb “burned” allows the metaphorical description to become extraordinarily vibrant, leaping outside of the limiting simile that makes the barge simply “like a burnished throne” (198).  This metaphorical reality continues to dominate: the sails move beyond possessing the power of matter, as they are “so perfumed that / The winds were lovesick with them” (200-1); the oars animate the metaphorical quality of the water, so that it “follow[s] faster . . . amorous of their strokes” (203-4).  Even the wind in the “divers-coloured fans” seemed “to glow the delicate checks which they did cool, / And what they undid did” (210-212).  This final metaphorical flourish is central to the experience of Antony and Cleopatra.  The immediate function of the fans is to cool, and yet the metaphorical power of Cleopatra’s transformative love has overridden that function and the fans inflame their carriers with passion.  So, in the same passage, Shakespeare’s grammatical art transforms Cleopatra into one who “beggar’d” (191) all description,a noun-to-verb conversion which O.E.D. cites Shakespeare as the first writer to use metaphorically.  Cleopatra’s person then leaps into the present by participially “o’erpicturing” Venus (193).  Nevalainen suggests that the latter verb “may be taken to mean either ‘surpassing the picture of Venus’ or ‘representing the picture of Venus in excess of reality’” (“New Words” 245), but the conversion unfolds at least one further interpretation: ‘painting over the picture of Venus.’  Thus, metaphor and grammar unite in Antony and Cleopatra to convey a power that transcends both the literal and the artistic bounds of a fixed reality.





            Language, often in Shakespeare the recourse of women while action is the province of men (Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew provide examples), becomes a source of action in his mature plays as it generates verbs and verb forms.  This is an economical drama, less flashy but more potent than the decorative set pieces of the early Shakespeare, and its usage coincides with and reinforces an approach to language arts which “relies less on extended patterns of formal rhetoric and more on figures which condense experience” (Ewbank 60).  Thus, in these plays, Shakespeare puts his linguistic capacities most efficiently and energetically in the service of his mature dramatic genius.

                                                                Works Consulted


Adamson, Sylvia.  “Literary Language.”  The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol 3, 1476-1776.  Ed. Roger Lass.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.  539-653.

Bate, Jonathan.  Shakespeare and Ovid.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Blake, N.F.  A Grammar of Shakespeare’s Language.  New York: Palgrave, 2002.

De Grazia, Margreta.  “Shakespeare and the Craft of language.”  The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare.  Ed. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 49-64.

Evans, Ifor.  The Language of Shakespeare’s Plays.  London: Methuen, 1952.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina.  “Shakespeare and the Arts of Language.”  The Cambridge Companion to          Shakespeare Studies.  Ed. Stanley Wells.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.  49-66.

Hope, Jonathan.  Shakespeare’s Grammar.  London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003.

-----.  “Shakespeare’s Natiue English.”  A Companion to Shakespeare.  Ed. David Scott Kastan.       Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.  239-55.

Houston, John Porter.  Shakespearean Sentences: A Study in Style and Syntax.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988.

Nevalainen, Terttu.  “Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics.”  CHEL 3: 332-458. 

-----.  “Shakespeare’s New Words.”  Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language: A Guide.  Ed. Sylvia Adamson, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson and Katie Wales.  London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001.  237-55.

Nowottny, Winifred.  “Some Aspects of the Style of King Lear.”  Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960):      49-57.

Pafford, J. H. P.  Introduction.  The Winter’s Tale.  The Arden Edition of the Works of William            Shakespeare.  London: Methuen, 1963.  lxxxii-lxxxix.

Quirk, Randolph.  “Shakespeare and the English Language.”  A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies.  Ed. Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.  67-82.

Salmon, Vivian.  “Some Functions of Shakespearian Word-Formation.” A Reader in the Language of Shakespearean Drama.  Ed. Vivian Salmon and Edwina Burness.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1987.  193-206.

Shakespeare, William.  Anthony and Cleopatra.  Ed. Michael Neill.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.

Spevack, Marvin.  “Shakespeare’s Language.”  William Shakespeare: His Work.  Ed. John Andrews.  New York: Scribner’s, 1985.  343-61.

Wales, Kathleen. “An Aspect of Shakespeare’s Dynamic Language: A Note on the Interpretation of King Lear III. VII. 113: ‘He childed as I father’d!’”  Salmon and Burness, 181-90.