Among our greatest contemporary critics, Sir Frank Kermode is the author of such classics as The Sense of an Ending, and his recent memoir, Not Entitled, vividly captured a life in letters. It's no surprise, then, that Shakespeare's Language is a deeply significant publication. Reflecting many decades of writing and thinking about the Bard, it meets and often exceeds the reader's expectations.
The author begins by lamenting the fact that general readers have not "been well served by modern critics, who on the whole seem to have little time for [Shakespeare's] language." However, rather than launching into a diatribe against current literary fashions, he proceeds to offer an elegant and detailed account of how his subject transformed him into "a different kind of poet." For Kermode, the rich complexities of Hamlet or "The Phoenix and the Turtle" (an allegorical poem in which Shakespeare juggles love and Thomistic jargon like rhetorical ninepins) mark a whole new level of accomplishment. How to define the change? Kermode notes "the pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them. This is new: the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighing of confused possibilities and dubious motives."
This before-and-after scenario breaks the book into two parts. In the first, Kermode deals with the plays up to 1600, controversially putting the kibosh on such warhorses as As You Like It. The second part offers 15 detailed chapters on the tragedies, problem plays, and romances. This is classic criticism, written in the mold of Johnson and Colderidge. And while Kermode never pays short shrift to the difficulties of Shakespeare's language, he's even more attuned to its prodigal, inexhaustible pleasures. --Jerry Brotton
From Publishers Weekly
Pleasure is not usually associated with reading literary criticism, but this work of beauty and grace by one of our most distinguished critics is in no way typical textual analysis. Aiming less at specialists than at "a non-professional audience with an interest in Shakespeare that has not... been well served by modern critics," Kermode writes from a conviction that "every other aspect of Shakespeare is studied almost to death, but the fact that he was a poet has somehow dropped out of consideration." Kermode's thesis is both basic and subtle: around 1600, he argues, the Bard's already masterful works "moved up to a new level of achievement and difficulty"; Kermode associates a "turning point" with Hamlet and the poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle." In proof of this, he demonstrates certain linguistic "matrices" that become "fundamental to Shakespeare's procedures" and identifies passages that represent a new linguistic "suppleness" and "muscularity." He devotes particular attention to the four great tragedies written at the height of Shakespeare's powers: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. While Kermode's concern is with the Bard's verse, he betrays no simplistic notions about literary language operating in a vacuum. A careful, close analysis of passages in each play is informed by a breathtaking knowledge of Elizabethan history and culture, as well as by the entire history of Shakespeare criticism from Coleridge to Eliot and the new historicists. Kermode's volume succeeds in doing the two things a great work of literary criticism should: it makes us want to read and reread the original texts in light of the critic's findings, and it makes us wonder how the literary world has been getting along without this work for so long.
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