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The Myths and the Mundane: Looking at Craig and Slater in “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality”

Updated on February 19, 2017
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V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.

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Shakespeare has for many people (myself included) occupied the space of an exceptional genius, someone so profoundly out of the realm of normal writing capability for his time that he seems to stand on an altar of untouchable linguistic gold. There is artistry in his depiction of human interaction, moral conundrums, and the exquisite intricacies of life and love, to be sure, but even more than that Shakespeare is often heralded as a literary giant of verbosity. Hugh Craig’s article “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality” pokes holes in these perhaps hyperbolic assertions, deflating the gigantic and distorted image of Shakespeare as some sort of stellar linguistic anomaly. Craig takes a statistical approach and accounts quite thoroughly for context. Yes, Shakespeare used a greater total number of words than any of his contemporaries, but he also has a much larger surviving corpus than anyone else of the time period; it is entirely possible that he may have been exceeded in overall output by more than one fellow author, but we do not have the materials to either make that claim or examine the possible results of such a phenomenon (Craig 58-59). Craig notes how difficult exact comparisons of word usage between authors are due to the fact that Shakespeare has so many more surviving words. The solution to this becomes a paring down, an averaging out of sample sizes of texts that Craig claims puts Shakespeare “on the same footing as his peers” (61). In doing so, Shakespeare’s work suddenly fits quite comfortably into the middle of a pattern, in fact it is claimed later in the article that Shakespeare’s true exceptionality lies in his adherence to standard linguistic norms of the time (this almost seems contradictory to me, a sense of remarkable averageness, and I would like to have some other opinions on the matter if any readers would care to leave a comment.)

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I would like to come now to the mention of Eliot Slater and his focus on Shakespeare’s unique uses of every-day words. According to Slater, Shakespeare’s typical style made “abundant use of the most commonplace words to produce far from commonplace effects” (Craig 64, quoting Slater 23). For Slater this is an annoying habit, but Craig argues that while Shakespeare may rely slightly more on these types of words, it is by no means defining. I would, however like to pose a question here: is the use of everyday words in extraordinary new ways more or less important than a widely varied vocabulary for either a poet or a dramatist? Is either of these techniques more important than the other when you think of Shakespeare? In regards to this question I would like to direct us to one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages, the pilgrim dialogue between Romeo and Juliet at their first meeting (Act 1 Scene 4 lines 204-211, volume 1 page 983 Norton Shakespeare 3rd Edition):

ROMEO If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss

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This example is appropriate because it makes use of fairly common images and vocabulary to create a powerful and unusual metaphor. The words used in this poetic comparison can be broken into two basic camps: religious vocabulary and bodily vocabulary. Neither is particularly out of the range of normalcy; people this time period would be extremely familiar with religious words such as “pilgrim”, “holy”, and “shrine”, the body words are perhaps even more every-day than that: “hand”, “touch”, “lips”. (Unlike Craig I am not basing these claims on a statistical analysis of the frequency of these types of words in Shakespeare’s work, but rather on the assumed sense of familiarity and common usability these words had, and continue to have, today.) These are not the hallmark words of someone with the exceptional vocabulary some people suppose Shakespeare to have had. They are not rare high-culture synonyms nor are they obscure, accessible only to certain educated groups. Essentially, these are layman’s terms fashioned into poetics. Perhaps here is the real genius, (this is sentiment echoed by Alysia Kolentsis in her article for this week as well); Shakespeare takes every-day words and creates something truly extraordinary. In this example, the vocabulary of the mundane body and common religion is used to represent much larger and perhaps loftier ideas: ideas of physicality and eroticism in worship, sacredness and in turn profanity in the human form, ideas of purity, degradation, devotion, and worthiness.

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