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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

I used to wonder why parents and teachers and snobby kids a year ahead of me in school insisted against “ain’t.”  We used to chant to an offender, “Ain’t ain’t a word, ‘cause it ain’t in the dictionary.”  We lived in Texas, where they have their own brand of contractions and substitutions and pronunciations.  This probably resulted from the cultural blend of Mexican Spanish, rogue English, and a bit of patriotism to boot.  Some slang words were enshrined in Country Western Music, a segment of the arts arguably as qualified as Shakespeare to introduce expressions (and evidence says that Shakespeare did a lot of word-inventing).  For the most part, I imagine parents and teachers were doing a more mature version of our parroting chant: they just repeated what they’d been told was good and right.

 

As I’ve grown up, and denouncing slang has become less and less popular, I’ve formed some ideas about why it’s so bad.  What I have identified is: association, exclusion, comprehension, and preservation.

 

If you go to slang dictionaries like “Urban Dictionary” online, you will find some unsavory histories of words we use.  Prisoners and gangs will start to use a word differently than everyone in the outside world.  Maybe they’ll use it as a vivid metaphorical reference to some coarse or irreverent thing.  Or they can use it with a sort of morbid sarcasm where what is dreadful to decent people is celebrated by them.  As the usage of the word spreads (and why it may spread I’ll discuss in a following section), the original vulgarity is dulled because the new speakers don’t realize the origin.  This happens with respectable poetic quotes as well, so we shouldn’t be surprised.  It is sloppy to make the mistake whether the origin is noble or base.  However, parents don’t usually want their children to have a lot in common with criminals and gangs, so they discourage language associated with them and derived from their lifestyles.

 

Most of us have had experience with inside jokes.  A few people in the room know a story no one else does, and someone mentions it, and they all laugh while you feel left out and clueless.  Slang, especially when it starts, is like that.  People begin to use a word in a way that most people won’t recognize or understand.  They can’t go look it up in the dictionary.  There’s no history of literature by which to decipher the code in which the other individual is talking.  This could be intentionally deceptive on their part, like parents spelling words in front of their young children – or the individual using slang may be so unfamiliar with cultures outside his own that he doesn’t realize how specialized his speech is.  Slang uses words that already belong to English – words that have a meaning to most people.  It may not even be immediately apparent to either of you that misunderstanding is taking place.

 

Unlike learning a second language, where there are grammars and translation dictionaries and classes to take, picking up this exclusive language involves a sort of immersion.  You have to find out what that speaker is feeling and thinking, what experiences have built his past, to determine what he means when he uses a word that you and the rest of the world know means something he does not mean.  While I am an advocate for relationship and community, I value the ability to skip these elementary steps of familiarization to move on to benefiting each other by what you know, by being able to express feelings of approval or displeasure, the ability to share an experience side by side and know there is commonality because you can communicate it.  Language is a wonderful tool for these things, a tool being undercut by the prevalent use of slang.

 

Finally there is preservation.  This point may not carry as much weight with most people, but I believe it is important.  A conservative language is one that has access not only to the ideas in one’s own society, but also to far-distant and different cultures: geographically, socio-economically, and even over time.  Imagine if you didn’t have to learn Old English or endure the mediation of a translator to enjoy Beowulf.  What if the Bible read by the Puritans still made sense to us today?  As our language evolves, isn’t it possible that we are gradually losing the wisdom and values of the past, constantly innovating and evolving our identities and beliefs?  Aren’t our people crying out for peace, for stability, for the ability to commit to something and have it mean something?  Do we want to feel so isolated and lonely?

 

I’m not advocating that we all learn Old English now, or go back to the King’s English spoken by the colonists of the United States hundreds of years ago – though I support members of our present population studying the expressions of the past so that we can keep hold of what those ancestors have to offer us today.  I am not going to militate against poetry, or to fight new words for new inventions and discoveries.  If you use the word “nice” to mean “friendly,” I probably won’t think too much about whether you actually meant “precise” and “orderly” as a man used to mean when he used that word.  I will keep in mind that “might” has to do with strength and ability at least as much as “can” when mothers ridiculously correct their children from saying “Can I?” to “May I?”  My fascination for words and their meanings and histories will continue to hone my vocabulary, my ability to communicate with strength and economy.  And I suspect that when my children are tempted to adopt the street language of their days, I’ll join the ranks of parents past by discouraging the use of slang.

 

What will you do?

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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The other night I watched a movie with a friend. It was a thinking movie, the kind I love. Do people ever tell you a movie is “about” the plot? I mean, a movie or book is rarely about what happens. The events and characters are about something else. Jane Austen was kind enough to tell us in her titles what her books were about. Some people don’t realize the subject of their art until they themselves step back to view the metaphor against the big picture.
This movie, it quoted Shakespeare. And even though I’m familiar with about two Shakespeare plays (a comedy – translate: happy ending and a tragedy – translate: everyone dies, but only in the end) and a sonnet, I’ve figured out that Shakespeare wrote about things. I don’t always know what. And so to quote a line from Shakespeare is to imply the subject of his play.
Because my examples are limited, I’m going to use the one I can think of. In Hamlet, the title character arranges for a pointed stage drama designed to convict his mother of her sins. (He ruins the effect by talking straight through the play; Shakespeare should have better appreciated the power of art when left to speak for itself.) In this drama within a play is a woman who worries aloud about whether she is making the right decision. She hesitates to give into temptation. At the end of the play, Hamlet asks his mother for her review of the performance. “Methinks she doth protest too much,” says the mother. And so we have a commonly quoted phrase of Shakespeare.
When someone quotes that line, they are often and most correctly implying the context, too. They’re even bringing with them the end of the tale, with its vilifications and justifications. Being familiar with the anthologies referenced in works of art can go a long way towards comprehension. Another advandage to interpretation is to have already made a thought venture or two into the subject. The Matrix, I believe, is about fate. How powerful is the human will? Whether I agree with The Matrix’s statements on this subject or not, I can more readily grasp those statements because I’ve spent a lot of time investigating free will and the sovereignty of God.
These references to shared philosophical questions, literary experiences, etc. make up a story-mosaic within the larger story. And it can be done in a movie, in a poem, in witticism, in art, and even in everyday conversation. A frequent form of Context Matrix is the inside joke phenomenon.
 

Image from DiyHappy

 

My brother writes poetry. Sometimes he just writes whatever is in his head that jumbles into verse form. Some evolutionists wrongly suggest that organisms acquire additional DNA information (to change them into new species) by sort of colliding with other organisms with different DNA (we have the eye factory organism over here, going through generations of natural selection to finally reach vision, and he’ll share someday with the organism working out wings and flight). This is not a sufficient mechanism for biology, but it seems to happen in the thought realm of my brother’s mind. But he isn’t in control of his mental context matrix, of all the things he encounters in his life to fuel his thoughts and shape his experiences. I believe there is a designer at work on each of our lives, and sometimes before we are even aware, He is writing patterns into the mosaic of experiences. Those patterns come out like (good) toxocology reports on my brother’s thoughts.

Let me tell you, though, that unless you know my brother on a day-to-day basis, interpreting his poetry is impossible. He doesn’t care. For whatever it’s worth to you, whatever the words mean to you, take them or leave them. I suppose a lot of art is like that, subjected to the needs and interests of the connoisseur.

I’m really bad at getting metaphors. There is probably a common representative language among poets into which I, for lack of study, have not been initiated. When I do catch on to a metaphor, I’m really excited.

One breakthrough recently is the willingness to admit my ignorance and ask for help in understanding things. (For years I’ve been trying to help my “blonde” – literal or figurative – friends appear smarter by teaching them to wait a while and see if they catch on before they admit themselves to teasing by that inimitable expression, “Huh?” Now they’re teaching me to learn by being willing to ask.) Having a brother like mine helps. Sometimes, you just have to ask the source. Such was my plan of action for a blog I read.

A friend told me that his friend was disappointed in the lack of response to his blog. I’ve been blogging for two and a half years, and let me tell you, the blog world is big; finding an audience is hard. Out of compassionate curiosity, I found the blog and read it. It didn’t make any sense. I mean the words made sense, but they were the plot, not the subject. Months later I checked it again. This time I was convinced that the blog was more than the product of bored hours of creatively mimicing archaic literature. The author was getting at something flying over my head at light speed. So I asked.

And today the author answered. By now I forgot most of what I read, so I have to re-read the post, too. Here it is: The Perilous Journeys of St. Upid I dare you to leave comments (on my blog as well as his) with what you think it’s about.

My point here is that my friend understood his friend’s blog because he knew the context matrix his friend was using. They’ve talked in unambiguous language about these topics. They’ve also both seen Monty Python, which may have helped me if I’d seen more of his stuff. That’s your only hint.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn 

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I must say, much as I am a fan of literature, that I never liked Shakespeare.  My taste, whatever else may be said about it, does not like to be dictated.  Which men chose the classics and left better books behind?  Must Dickens be praised and Burnett read everywhere while every little author with soaring words is neglected?  What is to be praised in Dickens?  And above all, why do we give to children what is supposed to be fine and profound literature? 

 

Shakespeare’s poetry does not rhyme, and its meaning is not always evident.  To me sometimes it sounds forced.  And his plays do not interest me.  Literature class forced Romeo and Juliet upon me, and in respect for a friend I read Tweflth Night.  So I don’t have a lot of exposure to his plays, and I have never seen them acted.  If I had, their interpretation might have more hold on my heart.  Most of all I find that Shakespeare is overrated. 

 

Perhaps, however, he is under-read.  The one thing that tempts me to scorn my own opinion of Shakespeare is that whenever a true fan of his work, someone who has invested the thought to understand his themes, has described to me a play or a couplet, I have enjoyed the metaphor.  The Danish prince on Prince and Me aids the American farmgirl in her literature class by directing her penetration of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  My immediate reaction is that any poetry that requires so much thinking is not romantic, though it masquerades as such.  Maybe the metaphors were more common, or the objects of comparison an everyday thought.  But I must praise the ability to say more with words than the words themselves, to do something with choice of words and order, rhythm and association, pattern and emphasis that has, even to those unaware, layers of influence and meaning.  My friend who convinced me to read Twelfth Night explained the statement Merchant of Venice is on Jewish philosophy.  I greatly enjoyed that.  When Chesterton critiques A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I feel let in on the secret.  And occasionally when I catch radio host Hugh Hewitt interviewing David Allen White, a literature lecturer, about a piece of Shakespeare, I am delighted by the events and ideas Shakespeare addressed.  How he did it from a cottage in the country I’ll never know. 

 

Dickens always ought to be musical.  Because Jo March and her sisters liked him, I always felt guilty for despising his work.  I wanted story, and Dickens talked about issues, the dark, depressing issues of London which one hopes have been reformed since his creative efforts to address them.  I feel very much as though I was being told what to do, a list of morals told in story form.  Again, whoever makes the selections for literature books is sadly out of touch with students.  I read a shadowy scene of Pip visits Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, and found myself very bored.  If Oliver had not been set to music, I would have been turned off by the immorality and violence of the tale.  But don’t you see that to make it musical, someone had to understand the story and love it enough to adorn it for the world to enjoy?  A radio interview and Chesterton again are responsible for the majority of the interest I have in Charles Dickens.  The former described the magic of the words the classic author used, how each word added to the tone of the novel. 

 

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote to Dickens, and shared his concern for their country’s social issues.  Through her stories I feel as though I receive commentary on Dickens, both a defense and a rebuttal of his work.  Her novels are more realistic, more on the border of the issues to enable her readers, themselves well outside the slums, to look in at a window, gently led like Mr. Scrooge by the ghost to look at the needs of others.  Her heroes have compassion held as an example to the readers.  They learn and love just like the rest of us.  Even her villains are not completely bad.  Each has a story that, while it cannot justify their rebellion, is a justification for kindness shown to them. 

 

To move my heart a story must be near enough my own experience.  Few people today have family feuds preventing childhood romance.  No one I know was beaten in an orphanage.  Maybe in some parts of the world or my city these things are the case, but my life is without them.  Jane Austen appeals to me because she writes about families with normal problems and interests.  Tolkien intrigues me because, though he sets it in a fantastic world of elves, goblins, and dragons, his epic deals with the basic cases of right and wrong, sacrifice and friendship, and the choices everyday to turn back.  More grown up than when I took literature class, I appreciate biographies for mapping the way individuals of the past navigated the questions of life.  New genres are opening to me; maybe soon I will love the classics on my own. 

 

Last summer I hosted a literature party in which each girl or lady was invited to bring a passage from her favorite children’s book.  There was Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Little House on the Prairie, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Alexander, and more.  I liked best loving those books through the eyes of my friends, to have them share with me what is so relevant or poetic or sentimental about the stories. 

 

So many people talk about classic authors.  I wonder if they do not derive some of their potency and meaning from being a matter of commentary and interpretation.  Is Shakespeare truly better when discussed?  Dickens wrote for the very purpose of stirring thought and inspiring movement in his society.  And what writer does not write to be read and to matter? 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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