Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Dramatic Diction of Shakespeare and his Time
By George Perkins Marsh (18011882)
[Born in Woodstock, Vt., 1801. Died at Vallombrosa, Italy, 1882. The Origin and History of the English Language. 1862.]
IT is a proof of the acuteness of the English dramatists who lived a little before, and with, Shakespeare, that they perceived the necessity of a style somewhat removed from the vernacular speech of their time; but it is also a proof of the weakness of their judgment, that, instead of adopting a phraseology which was natural, idiomatic, and permanent, without being local or vulgar, they invented a conventional style of expression, which not only never was used in real society, but which never could be, without a violation of the laws both of language and of thought. The dialect of tragedy is not the style which men on the stage of life, influenced as they are by temporary and accidental conditions of speech, actually use, but it is the diction which, according to the permanent and essential genius of the language, and the supposed moral and intellectual categories of the personages, constitutes the truest and most precise expression of the thoughts and purposes which animate them.
Although the phraseology which the earlier English playwrights put into the mouths of their personages is in a high degree unnatural and inappropriate, yet in the wide variety of their characters, and of the circumstances in which they placed them, they not unfrequently unwittingly strayed into a fit and expressive style, and thus there was gradually accumulated a fragmentary and scattered store of material for a copious and multifarious dramatic diction.
In speaking of the relations of Chaucer to his time and to the earlier literature of the language, I observed that his style of expression was eclectic, that he coined no words and imported few, but contented himself with the existing stock of native and already naturalized foreign termsthe excellence of his diction consisting in the judgment and taste of his selection, and his mutual adaptation of terms individually familiar.
For the purposes of Chaucer and his age, for the expression of the limited range of thought and subject with which the English nature of his time was conversant, a limited vocabulary sufficed, and the existing literature of England supplied nearly the entire stock of words demanded for the uses of the poet.
But in Shakespeares day, though humanity, English humanity especially, was still the same, yet the philosophical conception of humanity was immensely enlarged, diversified, and enriched. The myriad-minded Shakespeareas, by an application of a term borrowed from one of the Greek fathers, Coleridge has so appropriately called himtook in this vast conception in all its breadth, and was endowed with a faculty of self-transformation into all the shapes in which the nature of man has been incarnated. He hence required a variety of phraseologieswords and combinations of wordsas great as the varieties of humanity itself are numerous.
Now this compass and flexibility of expression could be found only in the language of a people who possessed such a moral and intellectual constitution, and had enjoyed such a moral and social training, as had previously fallen to the lot of no modern nation .
English life, in the sixteenth century, was full of multifarious experiences. There had always been a greater number and variety of stimulating tendencies and influences, and greater practical liberty of yielding to them, in England than in any other modern nation; and consequently, in the time of Shakespeare, the human intellect, the human heart, affections, and passions, were there more fully and variously developed, and the articulate expression of all these mental and moral conditions and impulses more cultivated and diversified, than in any contemporaneous people.
In all the facilities for the observation of human life and nature on a wide and comprehensive scale, the Englishman of Shakespeares time was at a more advanced point than has even yet been reached in the society of any other of the Gothic or Romance nations. This is one of the reasons why the plays of Shakespeare have such an incontestable superiority over the drama of all other modern countries, and why so many thoughts which, in the recent literature of Continental Europe, have been hailed as new revelations, are, to the Englishman, but the thousandth repetition of old and familiar oracles, or generalizations which have, from time immemorial, been matters of too universal and every-day consciousness to have been thought worthy of a place in English literature at all.
Shakespeare stood, to the age of Elizabeth and of James, in just the position which Chaucer occupied with respect to that of Edward III. and of Richard II.; and in these two authors the genius and the literature of their respective ages reached its culminating point. For the excellence of each, all preceding English history and literature was a necessary preparation, and the dialect of each was composed by an application of the same principles to the philological material which earlier laborers had gathered for them.
The material thus prepared for the two great masters of the English tongue was in a very different state when it passed under their respective manipulation; and it may be seriously questioned whether, simply as a philological constructor, Chaucer were not the greater architect of the two. In Chaucers time, every department of the language was rude, defective, and unpolished, and the task of enriching, harmonizing, and adapting was performed by him alone. Shakespeare had been preceded by a multitude of skilful artists, who had improved and refined all the various special vocabularies which make up the totality of the English language; and the common dialect which more or less belongs to all imaginative composition had been carried by others to almost as high a pitch of perfection as is found in Shakespeare himself.
Chaucer, as a linguistic reformer, had great advantages over Shakespeare, in possessing a better philological training. He grew up in an almost equal familiarity with French, then a highly cultivated dialect, and with his mother tongue, and he was also well acquainted with Latin and with Italian; but we have no reason to believe that Shakespeare had acquired anything more than the merest smattering of any language but his own.
But although the dialect of Shakespeare does not exhibit the same relative superiority as that of Chaucer over all older and contemporaneous literature, its absolute superiority is, nevertheless, unquestionable. I have before had occasion to remark that the greatest authors very often confine themselves to a restricted vocabulary, and that the power of their diction lies, not in the multitude of words, but in skilful combination and adaptation of a few. This is strikingly verified by an examination of the stock of words employed by Shakespeare. He introduces, indeed, terms borrowed from every art and every science, from all theoretical knowledge and all human experience; but his entire vocabulary little exceeds fifteen thousand words, and of these a large number, chiefly of Latin origin, occur but once or at most twice in his pages. The affluence of his speech arises from variety of combination, not from numerical abundance. And yet the authorized vocabulary of Shakespeares time probably embraced twice or thrice the number of words which he found necessary for his purposes; for though there were at that time no dictionaries which exhibit a great stock of words, yet in perusing Hooker, the old translators, and the early voyagers and travellers, we find a verbal wealth, a copiousness of diction, which forms a singular contrast with the philological economy of the great dramatist.
In his theory of dramatic construction, Shakespeare owes littlein his conception of character, nothingto earlier or contemporary artists; but in his diction, everything except felicity of selection and combination. The existence of the whole copious English vocabulary was necessary, in order that his marvellous gift of selection might have room for its exercise. Without a Cimabue and a Giotto, a Fra Angelico and a Perugino, there could not have been a Raphael; and all previous English philology and literature were indispensable to the creation of a medium through which such revelations of man as had not yet been made to man might be possible to the genius of a Shakespeare.