Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Power of Words.

The first Early Modern Drama lecture this afternoon. We've made a few modifications to last year's programme and whilst we still try and use the sessions to give students a vivid picture of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean Court, we've focusing far more on Shakespeare and his contemporaries as craftsmen and, in the case of Aphra Behn, women.

This means we're looking ever more closely at the playwright's choice of words and arguing that student actors need to develop a curiosity for and love of language. Shakespeare is a joy for actors because he gives them such wonderful things to say.

Too often undergraduates have had a negative experience of Shakespeare at School and come cowering into University, fearful that their lack of understanding will be exposed and that once more an encounter with his world will leave them staring into the void.

The truth is Shakespeare's language is ours. More than any other single person he augmented our vocabulary.

According to the Oxford English dictionary during the sixteenth century some 12,000 words were added to the English language. About half of them have taken permanent residence and are still in use today. Shakespeare’s work is full of examples of words being used for the first time. It's hard to imagine we'd be able to communicate effectively without them.

When students look for accommodation they're using a Shakespearean word.

When they break up a sentence with an apostrophe they’re using a Shakespearean word.

When they turn on the TV and hear that politician has been assassinated they're hearing a Shakespearean word.

In fact every time they do something with dexterity, every time they feel dislocated the experience has been defined by Shakespeare.

Every time they do something premeditated, or try to emulate somebody else or emphasise a point or demonstrate their anger or meditate in private they're using Shakespearean words.

In fact all of us who live frugally, speak obscenely, find ourselves reliant on others are using Shakespeare to describe our actions.

 If we're agile or prodigious, or modest or pathetic or horrid or alluring or lonely or pedantic or impertinent or cavalier or critical or suspicious we're using Shakespearean words to describe ourselves.

So if you find two people indistinguishable from each other. If your situation is dire. If you set up a barricade or join a mutiny or travel a vast distance or discover a submerged corpse Shakespeare is helping you to explain your state.

If you extract a thorn from foot, feel antipathy, observe a catastrophe or kill somebody in a homicide.You’re simply using words Shakespeare gave to you.

And it’s not just individual words. Shakespeare offers us beautifully turned phrases that we use everyday.

The be all and end all...Break the ice...Elbow room...Fair play...Fancy free...Foregone conclusion...Heart of Gold...Hot-blooded...Housekeeping...Lacklustre...Leap frog...Long haired...Naked truth...Too much of a good thing...A pitched battle...The mind’s eye. All come from the plays and poems that he left for us.

I hope over the next few weeks as we explore the plays and mastery of the London playwrights the students will start to savour the sense of power that a command of the language brings. If you can work confidently with this stuff then you can tackle anything.

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