A WORD-WAR WON
That Shakespeare invented – or, at least, successfully promoted – more new English words than anyone else in history is a truth universally acknowledged. But how and why did he do that? An otherwise superb exploration of ‘Some Functions of Shakespearean Word-Formation’ identifies many technical purposes – ‘To ensure coincidence of metrical and lexical stress’, for example – but does not attend to what were surely important functions for Shakespeare: to draw paying customers to his plays by appealing to their need for cutting-edge social tools, and to articulate the complexities of mood and consciousness that are a hallmark of his literary achievement. This double business – selling to a wide popular audience, while also serving a fathomless interior intellect – may seem contradictory, but the combination is surely essential to Shakespeare’s greatness.
The shared life of the vernacular, granted new range and prestige by the printing press, was extended by the English stage; as poets, notably Spenser, reached backward for archaisms, perhaps to appeal to a fading aristocratic economy of patronage, playwrights pushed ahead. The Elizabethan theatre was a ‘knowledge marketplace’, and a key commodity in that market was lexical. English was evolving rapidly, not only because print and trade were accelerating exchange with other languages (to which English has always been unusually receptive) and because social and technological revolutions were requiring new terminologies, but also because the disappearance of grammatical inflections in English allowed words to be easily converted from one part of speech to another, as Shakespeare liked to do, by what linguists call ‘zero derivation’ and Renaissance rhetoricians called anthimeria. As I have argued elsewhere, these new products were manufactured and sold by Shakespeare and his rival playwrights.
God said, Let us make man in our image according to our likenes, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the foule of the heaven, and over the beastes, and over all the earth.
A Similitude is a likenesse when two thinges, or moe then two, are so compared and resembled together, that they both in some one propertie seeme like. Oftentimes brute Beastes, and thinges that have no life, minister great matter in this behalfe. Therefore, those that delite to prove thinges by Similitudes, must learne to knowe the nature of divers beastes, of mettalles, of stones, and al such as have any vertue in them, and be applied to mans life.
For why should I presume to prefermy conceit and imagination, in affirming that a thing is thus or thus in its own nature, because it seemeth to me to be so; before the conceit of other living creatures, who may as well think it to be otherwise in its own nature, because it appeareth otherwise to them than it doth to me?
In the four syllables of its title, As You Like It contains both the words used to signal simile, and puts a 'like' as a barrier between 'you' and 'it'. From that title onward, this pastoral play is permeated with the idea of likeness, which is to say, imperfect identity - and the way that 'liking', even in apparently benign forms, necessarily imposes on its objects. Shakespeare describes the chronic nostalgia for nature as a sentimental manifestation of pyrrhonist anxieties, the suspicion that we can know things only as we liken them, never in or as themselves.
Revenge and ambition, past and present
Revenge and ambition had meanings in Shakespeare's world significantly different from what they mean now. Yet we can still easily recognize them in Shakespeare's plays, allowing us both an emotional connection to the human past, and an intellectual perspective on it.
Shakespeare's brilliant contemporary, Francis Bacon, called revenge 'a kind of wild justice', and it must have been an important supplement to official justice in an era of very limited police powers and severely enforced social hierarchy. The Tudor monarchies made some progress in controlling lawlessness, but there must have been some basis for the persistent jokes about incompetent constables and watches in Elizabethan comedy. With so many crimes unsolved, so many criminals immune to punishment, and so many outrages (against women, the poor, and ethnic and religious minorities) not even considered crimes, it is hardly surprising that the public developed an appetite for revenge stories.
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