20 August 2010

Pardon Our Bard: Shakespeare, current speech, and why we love him

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

Quick - who said it? This is one we all think we know. But do we really?

In the Bible? Nope.
Ben Franklin? Wrong again.

It's Shakespeare! We need not be surprised. One of the reasons he is still used in lit classes everywhere, why he is still so relevant, is that, among other things, he led the way in inventive use of the English language.

Here is the passage from Hamlet (Act 1 Scene 3):
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry."

Simply, if you borrow and lose an item, you lose a friend. If you lend, you don't have the item when you need it. Note how he uses language: "loan oft loses both itself and friend," animating the inanimate word: loan. The item is lost, the friend is lost. What a great economy of words! And notice, too, in the following line the phrase "dulls the edge of husbandry," suggesting not only the impeding of an act of labor and loss of productivity, but also the damage of the tool itself, all in one neat little package.

Polonius' fatherly speech to Laertes is packed with good advice. In the same brief speech he utters at least two more homilies we live by today: "to thine own self be true," and "for the apparel oft proclaims the man." Now where have we heard those before?

Shakespeare's ability to load his plays with scenic and memorable prose keeps him on required reading lists. Sure, the kids will groan when he is assigned. And when I say "kids" I mean high school, by the way. Though inventive and topical, he may be a bit on the adult side for younger children. I sometimes wonder if Shakespeare is a sort of bellwether. Kids who are willing to take the time and effort to understand Mr. S. seem to succeed in other ways as well, a testament to the idea that hard won is well earned: nothing can come of nothing. He is not an "easy read," but he's definitely worthwhile.

Tired of trying to slog through? See it performed - after all, it was written for this very medium. But be careful to choose a company or vehicle which will do him justice. The only thing worse than getting bogged down in the written text is to hear it speed by you poorly delivered and without much thought or interpretation.

And the next time someone tells you there's a method to their madness, you'll know who they have to thank.

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