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.