“Shakespeare Humiliates the Prior Body of Language” — Wayne Koestenbaum

A passage from Wayne Koestenbaum’s new book, Humiliation

Shakespeare humiliates the prior body of language—the poor body of English, lackluster before he came along and renovated it. Shakespeare ennobled English, and so it may seem odd to say that he also humiliated it; but in his semantic magnanimity, his aural cornucopia, I detect the presence of lacerations. When Shakespeare commits lexical excess (by coining new words, by larding a simple thought with plump, dense sounds and metaphors, by hyper-enlivening every sentiment with figurative language), English becomes a body punctured by his violent actions. Example: “The murmuring surge / That on th’ unnumb’red idle pebble chafes / Cannot be heard so high.” “Murmuring” and “surge” and “unnumb’red” present the ear with a glut of “u” and “m” and “r” sounds. And “idle” and “pebble,” next to each other, create a pebble effect. With purple ripeness, low-pitched vowels (“murmuring surge”) ascend to high-pitched vowels (“high”). This apex virtuosity—language creaming, ascending, and thickening—this process (I’m straining my point) alerts me to a violence committed, symbolically, against English’s body. Poetic intensity—linguistic bravado, musical compression—hurts the mother tongue. “Good” language is hurt language. Bare, desiccated language—Samuel Beckett’s—is also humiliated: shorn, Samson-like. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, I will feel humiliated. If I fail to communicate my meaning, and if you tell me I’ve failed, then you will have humiliated me.

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One comment

  1. William Ray · July 23, 2011

    Humiliation is quite an emotionally weighted word. I wonder if he means ‘Shakespeare’, whoever he was, so improved the English language that people felt it had been a faltering tongue before? I don’t know if readers of Chaucer, Vaux, and Surrey felt that way. Perhaps Koestenbaum’s sense is more metaphorical, that so much more vitality sprang to mind from evocations of Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish (existing) words, that his contemporaries felt envy if not awe. That is certainly the implication of Jonson’s eulogy, “To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name…” I like to think that any language grows from what came before, rather than leaps from pit to plateau. Was Shakespeare such a great jump for readers of Latin and Italian? Artists invariably write for an audience that will understand their language references, in this case probably a highly educated audience, at least in the plays re-written for publication. Latin was the written and spoken language of the educated class.The reversals, slapsticks, and stage excitements made a Shakespeare play interesting to the casual viewer, who couldn’t and can’t be expected to absorb all the verbal sources and allusions. As it was, the Shakespeare contribution stuck, pulling together the wit and wisdom of the entire classical tradition. My response is gratitude, not humiliation.

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