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

Updated on February 19, 2017
Victor Dorn profile image

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.

Source
Source

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.)

Source

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

Source

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.

Source

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)