This morning I found myself watching some documentary in which Shakespeare and especially Shakespeare’s History Plays were being considered. As I watched, I was aware, as I always am, in reading or hearing Shakespeare, just how masterful Shakespeare’s use of language is. But Shakespeare is not just some huckster, pushing a particular idea or view by casting it into beautiful language. He is a philosopher of language. He takes words and uses them in new ways (the example I always record is “But me no buts” from Hamlet, where he takes a conjunction, “but,” and uses it as a verb — but he does this all the time using verbs as nouns, nouns as verbs and the like). In doing that, not only does he show himself a master of language, but shows, in his play, the very malleability of language. In beautiful and poetic language, he demonstrates that language is not fixed, as we can always use it in new and creative ways, and because language cannot be nailed down, it cannot “define” any eternal verities.
And the fact of the changeability of language is a cause of wonder for me. I’m just amazed whenever anyone uses language in some creative way, playing with language to suggest new possibilities.
For me, this masterful use of language by someone like Shakespeare (or Bernard of Clairvaux, a man who was considered a master of Latin style in his day, whence his nickname, Doctor Mellifluus. — the mellifluous or honey-tongued doctor) is maybe even more significant in that I think there is little we can “know” outside the realm of language. There is a truth beyond language — certainly the truths of ecstasy and of agony, where we are reduced to a series of interjections, are something beyond language. But the world we know we know and express through language, and language tends to color the world we see. In his book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum describes the wonderful green color of the emerald city, but that color is entirely due to the spectacles given to those who enter the city. It is the green glass of the spectacles that make the Emerald City green, not the city itself. I think language can have that effect as well. For Bernard of Clairvaux, much of physical desire is cast in terms of sin, so that, instead of experiencing sexual pleasure, or the pleasures of the palate, Bernard is likely to condemn them as leading one astray. It is language, with its binary nature, that leads Bernard and other Catholic writers of late antiquity and the Middle Ages to equate the mind and soul with the good, and the body with the base or bad, and so asceticism is good, but sexual or other pleasures are bad (suspicious at least).
But when poets are at their best, and Shakespeare is a poet at his best, language becomes a way to celebrate language itself, and by playing with it, demonstrate both its limitations and suggest something more than the words alone can say. Shakespeare’s history plays are a good example of his use of language and how he uses language to suggest something else, something more. They are largely based on Hollinshed’s Chronicles, and in some cases — the scene between the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry over the legal justification for his war with France — Shakespeare lifts whole lines and passages from Hollinshed, but in others, he takes great liberties to comment on the historical record as well as open up broader issues (what makes a ruler? the ability to command (Henry IV and Henry V have that), or divine right of kings (which Richard II has on his side, despite his poor qualifications as a ruler); what does it mean to be a good man or a good son?).
In his very use of language, Shakespeare demonstrates a kind of grace — his verbal dexterity can entrance us. But part of what makes it full of grace in another way is that it does not use that verbal dexterity like commercial peddlers do — to convince us to purchase a particular product (“he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me”) — but rather to raise questions, to expand the discussion and our views. At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare has an actor, as “chorus,” come out and suggest that the author, by his words, should excite the imagination of the audience so that they can see the “vasty fields of France” in the small confines of the Globe Theatre. And I guess that’s what I see in language, and what I want in language — something to excite passions, dreams, tears, laughs, and something to provoke thought. And in doing so, language reflects something greater than itself, and that seems to me my path to grace.