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Shakespeare's Language Hardcover – May, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux; First Edition edition (May 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374226369
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374226367
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #855,755 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sir Frank Kermode has been a prominent figure in the world of literary criticism since the 1960s. He has been King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge and Professor of Poetry at Harvard. He was knighted in 1991.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Joost Daalder on February 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Kermode's book demonstrates an approach deeply unfashionable among many of today's academics, though it is part of a backlash against work which made a strong impact in the eighties and early nineties. As a result readers are likely to diverge widely in their reactions to it. Kermode provides an antidote to work on Shakespeare which shows little interest in the actual meaning of his text, leave alone in the artistry of his language. Yet, of all Shakespeare's outstanding qualities, it is surely especially his use of language - employed in a strikingly arresting, rich, subtle, suggestive yet revealing way - which sets him apart from other authors.
"Shakespeare's Language", as a title, may lead some to expect discussions of his syntax, semantics, prosody, etc., and there is certainly an urgent need for more work on such matters. But Kermode is - properly, I feel - concerned to explain what is ARTISTIC in Shakespeare's language: what, notably, makes it individualistic, well-crafted and imaginative rather than just representatively Elizabethan. Kermode's approach is the more essential at a time when there is a marked, and completely inaccurate, tendency to treat Shakespeare as though he was not, after all, anything special - but rather "just a product of his times". This kind of "egalitarianism" will not ultimately succeed in dwarfing this extraordinary author.
This, then, is one of several recent books (written by e.g. Brian Vickers, Graham Bradshaw, Harold Bloom) which share an urgent concern with Shakespeare's individual quality and see the need to protect that against those who for the most part treat him as having produced nothing other than "documents" (as when critics refer to "the Shakespearean text" in references to his plays).
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69 of 90 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Connor on July 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A Very Disappointing Book I am disappointed by Kermode's book entitled Shakespeare's Language because of how little of the book is about Shakespeare's Language.
Kermode's stated purpose is to describe the "revolution" in Shakespeare's language from 1599 onwards. Kermode spends a great deal of the book discussing matters which do not explain this contention. Most of the book is given over to chapters which discuss for the most part individual plays. In these chapters far too much space is given over to plot summaries and not to questions of language. And when Kermode gets around to writing about language, it is almost always in one of two ways: lexical matters, and whether or not the passage is in verse or prose. There is much more to Shakespeare's language than these two. In his introduction Kermode states "I shall discuss "Coriolanus" in due course--its extraordinarily forced expressions, its obscurity of syntax and vocabulary, its contrasts of prose and harsh verse, its interweavings of the domestic and the military. (Page 14) His discussion of "Coriolanus" on pages 243-254 does have something to say about force expressions, and contrasts of prose and verse, but it has almost nothing to say about Shakespeare's syntax. In the chapter dealing with "Othello" Kermode treats the deletion of oaths in the folio text. Kermode writes about the soldiers swearing, found in the quarto printing of the play, but not the folio. Kermode says that the elimination of the profanities "makes a considerable difference to the tone of the play, especially to the characterization of Iago." (p. 166) Really? Is the Iago of folio any less dangerous than the Iago of the quarto?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Rory Coker on December 26, 2012
Format: Paperback
Kermode has thought deeply about Shakespeare's language, and is well-versed in "traditional" scholarship. Germain Greer rightly says that Shakespeare was "the most eloquent Englishman who ever lived," and he was a master of almost every poetic style in existence in his day. In his later plays, he almost seems to be running through a catalog of verse styles, and in the more-and-more fragmented and self-interrupted speech of his characters, he is coming very close to a kind of "stream of consciousness" technique. Another hallmark is the continual reappearance of the same, single word, like a distant bell tolling the theme of the play. And of course there is one of his favorite devices, a "clear and present" doubling.

One of the features of Shakespeare's last few plays is assertions by the characters that are extraordinary difficult to understand. Actors at the Globe and Blackfriars would have had no difficulty with such lines, because Shakespeare himself was onstage as actor and de facto director, to explain the meaning. What the audiences of the day made of them is quite unknown. And modern actors can only choose to deliver the lines as if they knew what they were saying, even when they don't. One of Kermode's examples discussed at great length is the use of the word "prone" by one character to describe his sister, a nun, in MEASURE FOR MEASURE. At the end of the discussion, which occupies several pages, one is still baffled.

I enjoyed the book throughout and found it a very attractive mixture of an informal style with deep scholarship. The scholarship is not "trendy," but to me that's a good feature of the book, not a defect.
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