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I. THE ELIZABETHAN HABIT OF SPEECH
In order to read Shakespeare with ease and enjoyment, we must get into the way of taking certain things for granted. It will secure the student, in advance, against many perplexities, if he will but recognize at once that all Shakespeare's persons, to whatever period and country they are supposed to belong, talk like Elizabethan Englishmen. That is to say, they use language freely, daringly, forcibly; inventing new expressions for the moment's need — strangely compounded adverbs, verbs joined to their objects, compound nouns rich with meaning, nouns suddenly used as verbs, foreign words quickly seized upon and fitted into English usage. They deal in metaphors so rapidly conceived in the swift play of conversation that one jostles another; in elliptical constructions, which serve in speech as shorthand does in writing. They help out the thought at every turn with movements of hand and eyebrow. If you will picture to yourself such an Elizabethan gentleman as may have sat upon the stage during the first performance of The Merchant of Venice, - a brilliant figure dressed in silk, velvet, or satin, with sleeves many times slashed to give glimpses of bright-colored linings; a man with his beard fantastically cut in the shape of a heart, or a spade, or a T, and perhaps with an earring in his ear, - you will see that this kind of person would not be likely to express himself in the manner to which you are accustomed. Our modern speech, like our modern fashion of dress, is soberer and simpler.
Speech uttered by persons like this, and intended to be immediately understood by other persons like this, can only
be apprehended now through the response of the reader's imagination. You cannot read Shakespeare in a perfectly prosaic mood and really understand what his characters say; and an editor cannot explain Shakespeare's words in a perfectly prosaic mood without taking the life out of them. There would be little comfort in reading Shakespeare in an interlinear edition; and to form a habit of looking up in explanatory notes such expressions as “want-wit,” “vinegar aspect," "woven wings," "scarféd bark," "wit-snapper,” “blearéd visages,” and so on, would be to cripple one's own powers. These expressions were intended to convey the speaker's meaning with electric swiftness; and they do so convey it, when we hear them well spoken on the stage.
II. USE OF THE NOTES
The student must, then, constantly use his own imagination in interpreting Shakespeare's language. But there are cases in which this key alone will not unlock the full meaning of a passage. Some notes are needed, and for the present edition two sets of notes have been supplied : explanatory notes, dealing with minor details; and extended suggestive and critical notes, dealing with the more vital matters of the play. In the former, the editor may sometimes have erred on the side of fullness; but it has been for the sake of those students to whom the best reference books are not at all times accessible.
It is not intended that either set of notes should be used by the student in his first reading. It is believed that the first reading of a play should correspond to the first seeing of it. The mind should grasp it as a whole, examination of details coming later. If one went to the theater to see, for the first time, The Merchant of Venice acted, it would certainly be very trying to have a companion who insisted on making explanations throughout. But the subsequent study of a play, unless there be something wrong in the method of study, ought to make all future readings and presentations more enjoyable. The very first delight of the living, moving story, it is true, will be gone; but a deeper pleasure will have taken its place.
III. SHAKESPEARIAN GRAMMAR
In his second reading, or study, the student will find that some startling peculiarities of the Elizabethan grammatical structure, quite distinct from the free and fresh use of language already described, thrust themselves upon his notice. He discovers that certain rules of grammar, which he has been rightly taught that he must obey, had no force in Shakespeare's time; he learns that usage, three hundred years ago, differed much from our present usage. Here, again, we have something to take for granted: that a form occurring in Shakespeare, in the speech of persons above the peasant class, is generally, though not invariably, correct according to Elizabethan custom. Nothing can be more misleading, for instance, than to say that “Who love I so much?” (Act II, sc. vi, line 30,) is a mistake of Shakespeare's; though, on the other hand, it does us no harm to be reminded that the sentence would, if written to-day, be incorrect.
This difference of usage presents itself at many points. We meet it, for instance, in double negatives, in forms of the plural of verbs which appear to us to be the singular, in the unfamiliar force often given to prepositions. It does not seem necessary to state formally in the notes that when an Elizabethan said on he sometimes meant of, or that when he said of he sometimes meant with. As we read “I am glad on ’t,” Act II, sc. vi, line 67, the context shows us that on here means of. As we read “I am provided of a torchbearer,” Act II, sc. iv, line 23, we again see from the context
that of means with. “'Tis better in my mind not undertook,” line 7 in the same scene, shows us that an Elizabethan was likely to use the preterite instead of the past participle. These things, and very many more, the student will gradually learn by experience; or, if he wishes, he may find them accurately formulated in Abbott's Shakespearian Grammar. Attention will be drawn to such matters, in this edition, only when it seems possible that the true meaning may otherwise escape; or when it seems profitable to notice, in passing, that what was right for Shakespeare would be glaringly wrong for us.
IV. SHAKESPEARE'S VERSE
(This and the subsequent sections are meant to accompany
a. In the original type of English blank verse, introduced by Lord Surrey, each line consists of five iambic feet. If we make a stand for an accented syllable, and x for an unaccented syllable, the formula will be:
αα | αα | αα | κα | αα,
or, 5 xa. But if we prefer the old method of notation (somewhat objectionable because it suggests vowel-quantity instead of accent), we may write the formula thus :
It will easily be seen that such a form is too stiff and unyielding for dramatic dialogue. The Elizabethan dramatists created, for their needs, a more flexible type of blank verse, thus described by Dr. Ellis: “It is . . . divided into five groups, each of which theoretically consists of two syllables, of which the second only is accented.” ... But “practi