WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

  • Hope, Jonathan, (Principal Investigator)

Project: Research

Description

A monograph studying theories of language in the renaissance, and their implications for our understanding of Shakespeare's language

Layman's description

People in the renaissance thought about language in a different way to us: they had no dictionaries, and most could not read or write. Language was therefore speech, not writing, and their ideas about 'correctness', dialect, and meaning were consequently unlike ours. Academic critics of Shakespeare have failed to realise this, and this can explain why we are puzzled by Shakespeare's puns.

Key findings

People in the renaissance thought about language in a different way to us: they had no dictionaries, and most could not read or write. Language was therefore speech, not writing, and their ideas about 'correctness', dialect, and meaning were consequently unlike ours.

The 'best' language was considered to be that which could communicate to most people (the most 'common' language), not that spoken by a narrow social elite. Hence Shakespeare's frequent satires of courtly language, and linguistic pretention.

Similarly, in the absence of a 'Standard' in our sense, there is no denigration of dialect. Dialect speakers are not assumed to be stupid or funny: rather, they are likely to be seen as sources of untainted honesty.

In the absence of dictionaries, 'meaning' was assumed to reside in *use*, not in an abstract authority separate from day to day language. Speakers work out meaning in context, and delight in the multiple meanings that the same phonetic forms can carry. Puns are thus invitations to characters, and audience, to display active linguistic facility, rather than the dead, empty echoes we perceive.

Shakespeare uses syntax to convey meaning - especially his sense that the world is animate, and his increasing desire to mimic in writing the associative processes of thought.

Shakespeare's genres show distinct linguistic fingerprints, and we can identify these statistically. The future of research into Shakespeare's language lies in the qualitative interpretation of quantitative studies.
StatusNot started