english literature

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The Language Of Shakespeare

The two extracts that will be analysed in this essay are Romeo and Juliet and Othello, which are two of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Shakespeare is renowned for his use of language but more importantly is significant for his contribution to the English Language. Romeo and Juliet was one of Shakespeare’s earlier tragedies and is said to have been written between 1594 to1595 and Othello between 1603 to 1605. The date and composition of Shakespeare’s play is significant, since both plays were written during the Renaissance period. During this time, the English language underwent major changes thus became more flexible, allowing writers like Shakespeare to have more freedom in writing. Shakespeare’s tragedies always consisted of five acts and explored paradox of tragedy with the death of a major protagonist. Romeo and Juliet and Othello have the theme of love and death in common.

Loan words and vocabulary

Shakespeare had the largest vocabulary of any writer, and one of the reasons for this was that he accepted new words of every kind. We note in these extracts that Shakespeare does not only use words that are derived from Middle English or Old English but also many words that are derived from Latin. During the renaissance period, Latin was used as the language of the courts thus was seen as the high style. As a result we find in Romeo and Juliet a number of Latin loan words such as ‘envious’ from ‘invidiōsus’ , ‘vestal’ from ‘vestalis’, ‘sphere’ from ‘sp9ra’, from Othello we find ‘monumental’ from ‘monumentālis’ and ‘relume’ from ‘relūmināre’. It is vitalto note that the Latinate words are polysyllabic, which gives the sentence a more rhythmic essence and gives a grander style. Usually, the superior people in society such as Othello used Latin to elevate their words and to give them a sense of power. Romeo uses Latin derived words to amplify the beauty of Juliet. Shakespeare tends to use more Latinate words in his tragedies. It is also important to note that English was viewed as the low style; the words are usually monosyllabic and are used in insults and in negative speech thus, we find in Othello examples such as ‘quench’ from OE ‘cwencan’ and ‘smell’ from ME ‘smellen’.

Analysis of language and poetic devices

Shakespeare is renowned for his dramatic style, which he has achieved through a number of stylistic devices. Shakespeare emphasises and heightens the language by using metaphors, similes, repetition, puns and alliteration. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo uses a string of metaphors to describe Juliet’s beauty. He uses celestial metaphors such as ‘fair sun’ and ‘as daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven’, ‘brightness of her cheeks’. These are all poetic exaggerations used to heighten the language. The language here is courtly love, and Romeo shows that he is deeply in love with Juliet. The audience must believe that Romeo is deeply in love, so that the tragedy in the end can take place. Similarly, in Othello, we note the use of metaphors to describe Desdemona such as ‘chaste star’ and ‘whiter skin of hers than snow’; however, these metaphors and similes are used for different functions. Firstly, it shows that Othello can only focus on Desdemona’s good morals although he thinks that she ‘betrayed’ him. Secondly, the use of metaphors and similes hide Othello’s true cruel intentions and almost helps justify Othello’s act of trying to kill Desdemona. This shows that Othello is not in the right state of mind, showing his confusion.

One of the reasons why Shakespeare used metaphorical language was to create imagery since there were not many props in theatre. As a result, it was important for Shakespeare to create imagery in the mind of the audience. Examples of imagery in Romeo and Juliet are ‘winged messenger of heaven’, note that Shakespeare could have replaced this buy angel but creates imagery by using an overstatement for effect.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of puns and wordplay. Sometimes the connotation is subtle and sometimes obvious. In Othello, there is an example of a triple word play when Othello says ‘put out the light and then put out the light’.

The first Light here is referring to the light, which is burning in Desdemona’s bedchamber. The second use of the word ‘light’ compares the light of his lamp to the light of Desdemona’s life. It also refers to Othello’s own integrity in that his honourable name will be distinguished after he kills Desdemona and finally if he kills Desdemona, the light, he will be left in the dark. Therefore, the puns have great significant in meaning but also for dramatic effect. Shakespeare also uses oxymoron to create effect. In Othello he pairs ‘sweet’ and ‘fatal’ together and ‘this sorrow’s heavenly’. Pairing these opposites together shows Othello’s conflicting feeling as to whether or not to kill Desdemona.

Another way of heightening the language is by alluding or referring to other stories. When Othello says ‘promethean heat’, he is referring to Prometheus who took fire from heaven to give to human kind. The fire here represents giving life since human kind cannot live without fire or light.

Emotions of characters and state of mind

Shakespeare is distinguished for being able to capture the emotion of his characters in their speech. Othello’s state of mind is skilfully shown by the use of his language. Lines one to three are very vague due to the use of ‘it’ and ‘cause’, which have no specific reference. The prepetition of ‘it is the cause’ illustrates Othello’s emotional and tormented mind. In addition Othello’s use of ‘more men’ is unusual since we know that Othello has the intention to ‘kill’ Desdemona because he believes that she ‘betrayed’ him by having a relationship with Cassio. Why would Othello then want to stop her from betraying other men? This shows how irrational Othello is and that he is not in the right state of mind. Emotions cannot be shown through props and therefore it was important that Shakespeare was able to show this through the characters speech.

A simple yet effective device for heightening language is by repetition. Romeo refers to Juliet as ‘fair’ constantly, which emphasises her beauty and his love for Juliet. Similarly, when Othello says ‘one more, one more’ it highlights his emotion for Desdemona but also displays his uncertainty.

Style, structure and meter

Both tragedies are written in blank verse, which is unrhymed and most lines are iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter has ten syllables and has a weak stress followed by a strong one, which is repeated. Using blank verse allows Shakespeare to use regular punctuation and pauses and there are fewer end-stopped sentences making the speech ongoing and making the language flowing and less artificial. Blank verse is more formal and more regular than normal speech and is often used in serious matters. More elevated and powerful people in society spoke in verse, whereas those of lower status spoke in prose. Shakespeare’s sonnets and love scenes usually concluded with rhyming couplets, thus we note that in Romeo and Juliet the first verse ends in a rhyming couplet.

The structure of the extract also shows us how the characters feelings are shifting. In the beginning, Othello speaks in blank verse but as the sentences and exchanges become shorter, we note Othello’s frustration. The conversation becomes more intense as Desdemona tries to reason with Othello but he becomes angrier thus building up to the climax where he strangles her.

With respects to syntax, there is not a major difference between Early Modern English and today’s English. Both texts generally follow the Subject, Verb and Object order such as ‘Juliet is the sun’ and ‘she leans her cheek upon her hand’. Although SVO was the main word order in EMnE, there are cases where Shakespeare did not follow this order. For example, ‘not to me she speaks’ follows the OSV order. Shakespeare’s use of initial verb, in the extract emphasises the action and makes it seem like an imperative ‘Arise, fair sun’ and ‘deny thy father’.

Social differences can be shown by the ways in which the characters address each other. In both texts we see the use of the second person pronoun ‘thou’, ‘thee’ and ‘thy’. These were all used as a familiar term of address and during the EMnE period, was used as an insult to those less inferior. The more courteous term to employ would have been ‘you’. We note that Othello in the beginning of the text addresses Desdemona as ‘you’, but as he gets angrier and as his words become more unpleasant, he begins to address her by using thee and thou. Desdemona however, is of lower status, addresses Othello by his name to show the intimacy, and uses you and ‘my lord’ to show his social status. At this point in the play the intimacy between them is lost. The, thou and thy were also used to show a special intimacy between two people such as talking with God or a lover, thus we see Romeo and Juliet address each other by using these nouns.

Conclusion

Shakespeare is unique in that he has his own style of writing. He exploits and uses simple methods such as repetition to heighten language. He uses vocabulary in such a way that one word may have multiple meanings. The vocabulary, structure and the style he uses all have important significance to both the context and meaning of the play. However, the most intriguing aspect of Shakespeare’s heightened language is the way he make the characters utterance very natural. Shakespeare has played a major role in bringing in new words into the English language and it is because of this that he is the most influential dramatist of his time.

Word count: 1622


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