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Some Shakespeare-Coined Expressions

Shakespeare’s impact on everyday speech is extraordinary. He introduced around 1,700 words and a multitude of phrases to the English language. You probably find yourself quoting him more often than you realize.

“A dish fit for the god” (Julius Caesar) Spoken by Caesar’s murderer Brutus, who described how his father should be elegantly and respectfully killed instead of being butchered.

“All of a sudden” (The Taming of the Shrew) Taken from the context in which how a servant marvels at how his master has fallen in love.

“As luck would have it” (The Merry Wives of Windsor) Taken from the context in which the aspiring seducer is detailing his escape from the adultress’ house in a laundry basket at the arrival of her husband.

“Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet) Cutting to the chase.

“Discretion is the better part of valor” (Henry IV, Part I) Used to explain how the tactic of playing dead on the battlefield has saved one’s life.

“The dogs of war” (Julius Caesar) A vivid image taken from Mark Anthony’s speech in the play predicting the bloody conflict that will follow his friend’s assassination.

“Fair play” (The Tempest) Originates where Mrianda accuses her lover Ferdinand of cheating at chess but admits she doesn’t mind.

“Good riddance” (Troilus and Cressida) The word “riddance” was used more widely in Shakespeare’s time and you could wish someone different kinds of riddance.

“Love is blind” This expression crops up in many plays.

“Wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet) Mercutio uses the phrase to refer to the fact that he and Romeo have been trading witticisms and one-upping each other in turn, a pastime clever, smart-arsed young men still enjoy today.

[813] King Lear – William Shakespeare

1carered

“LEAR. To say I and No to every thing that
said: I and No too was no good Divinity. When
the Rain came to wet me once, and the Wind to
make me chatter, when the Tender would not
peace at my Bidding, there I found ’em, there
I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not Men ‘o
their Words. They told me I was every thing:
’tis a Lie, I am not Ague-proof.” (4.6.100-107)

Under the coating of Shakespeare’s poetic language, King Lear is a straight-forward allegory on the battle of good and evil and about the prevailing of justice. At first introduction, Lear is a real monarch—“every inch a king.” As the play progresses, the coils of evil spread and Lear deteriorates into madness. The tragedy that engulfs the king swallows nearly all those near him as well.

The main plot involves King Lear, who takes the unusual step of abdicating and sharing out his kingdom among his three daughters. When asked how much they love their father, the older daughters, Goneril and Regan, both give effusive responses. The youngest, Cordelia, refuses to say more than that she loves him an appropriate amount. Outraged and offended, Lear disinherits Cordelia, who marries one of her suitors, the King of France, and leaves England.

CORDELIA. We are not the First
Who with Best Meaning have incurr’d the Worst. (5.3.3-4)

A parallel plot that mirrors the action between Lear and his daughters unfolds. The Ear of Gloucestor is deceived by his bastard son, Edmund, into turning against his legitimate son Edgar. Edgar has to take up the disguise of a beggar. The Earl is also betrayed by Edmund to Regan and her husband, Cornwall, who would rid of the Earl and make Edmund the successor and invade England. Edmund and Cornwall pair up to wreak havoc on Lear and Gloucestor’s family. This evil duo, along with Regan and Goneril’s adultery, drive the play forward to its tragic end.

The book is bleak but reflective of human nature. It deals with issues of justice and honesty, power and responsibility, youth and age. While Lear is responsible for his “blindness” and unwise actions, Shakespeare gives a rather gloomy message: the real world holds no guarantee of justice or fairness, and death comes to all of us, good or evil. Lear’s tragedy is a result of his inability to recognize reality; but ironically, he recognizes the grave errors of his ways and see things as they are during his insanity.

LEAR. I am a very foolish fond Old Man,
Fourscore and upward, not an Hour more
Nor less; and to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect Mind. (4.7.58-61)

Which entwines the notions of honesty and deception. Truth is often suppressed and honestly devalued. The older daughters and the bastard rely on cunning deception. This is also reflected in the blinding of Gloucestor. Similarly, it is only after Lear loses himself in the literal darkness of the storm and the mental darkness of his madness that he finally comes to know his true self.

King Lear is bleak, sad, and relentless. But even in the final tragic scene it has beauty. The beauty of truth. The world can be chaotic, untamed and dangerous but the truth will reign, regardless of the subversion.

270 pp. Everyman Library. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

On Grammar

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What is good English? Every teacher of English, particularly one who teaches foreign students, must have been asked the question “What is the correct pronunciation of —?” or “is it good grammar to write —?” and on giving his answer must have been confronted with the reply “But I have heard many Englishmen (westerners, Americans, native speakers…) pronounce it differently” or “But this eminent novelist breaks that rule; who is finally to decide which is right?” The answer, of course, is “No one”. There is no Academy or other body in England to determine the correct form (unless the Queen wants to). The chief criterion of correctness is established usage. Correctness in spoken English is conformity to the speech usages of the majority of educated people; correctness in written English is conformity to the usages of the best modern writers. The rules of grammar are like the laws of Nature. The laws were not made for Nature to obey, but are simply a few facts which wise men have observed as to the way Nature acts. So the grammarian merely examines the language of the best speakers are writers, and deduces rules from their use of it.

Custom is the basis of these rules, and custom is always changing. Pronunciation changes from generation to generation, words decay and become obsolete, and newcomers thrust their way in; words acquire new meanings, sentences are constructed on different lines, and even the syntax of the language undergoes modifications. It is the business of the grammarian to observe and record these changes (in usage) and differences and to decide as far as he can what is the form of language used by the majority of educated speakers and writers; and their usage is his only authority for saying what is “good” and what is “bad” grammar.