Shakespeare with words—at last!
I have written here about the Russian Measure for Measure and the Hamburg Ballet production of Othello—both wonderful. But after these, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Othello fell on my ears like a mad torrent.
It is an odd and useful experience to see Shakespeare without his words. It brings out how much more there is than just the script. There is setting and costume, expression and gesture, motions of the body, music and laughter, grunts, cackles, and screams of pain and agony.
But restore the words after their absence and they are fresh again. The feeling was particularly strong seeing Othello danced by the Hamburg Ballet and acted by Chicago Shakespeare Theater on successive nights.
We are correctly comfortable with the notion that Shakespeare invented a new dramatic language. He inherited the lofty poetic rhetoric of Thomas Sackville and Christopher Marlowe, ideal for denoting the elevated sentiments of noble characters. He then created a second, prosaic language out of the mouths of common people. In between them, he molded a third language in blank verse that is beautiful in the mouth and on the ear, and yet adapted to the rhythms of natural speech. Initially these languages are distributed among the characters according to social class, but in time Shakespeare dares to mix things up, and give gutter language to nobles and poetry to common folk.
From its opening lines, Othello rings the changes of Shakespeare’s dramatic language:
Roderigo Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
Iago ‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:
If ever I did dream of such a matter,
Roderigo’s outburst resolves into scannable iambic, only to be disrupted again by Iago’s curse, and resolved again—almost—into meter. In the process, their accents, their voices and their characters are established. But quickly we revert to Iago’s vulgar prose:
…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.
…though even here Shakespeare cannot resist the word play: “coursers” and “cousins,” “gennets” and “germans.” This wedding of coarse outburst with fantastical figures of speech accelerates as Iago fevers Othello’s jealous imagination:
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on—
Behold her topp’d?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk.
Many scenes later, as Othello greets Lodovico, the wedding of poetry and gutter speech is consummated:
You are welcome, sir, to Cyprus.—Goats and monkeys!
Chicago Shakespeare Theater has always distinguished itself with a purity of diction. Shakespeare’s language is spoken clearly and crisply, and is joined to gesture and expression. This is quite simply a matter of trusting the language. Any of us who have taught Shakespeare in the classroom have encountered students who believe that they don’t understand Shakespeare because of the language. The best refutation of this—the best proof to them that they do already understand Shakespeare—lies in the experience of the theater. Carefully spoken, as meaningful human speech, wedded to expression, the language becomes no less intelligible as the life around us.
This might sound like cant or bardolatry. But the demonstrable proof lay in the audience around me at CST’s Othello. As Roderigo, Iago and Brabantio poured out their swill (“His Moorship…the thicklips…an old black ram…a Barbary horse…the beast with two backs…lascivious Moor…the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou…”) I could feel the person next to me—a senior figure in Chicago wealth management—flinch with each racist slur. As Iago worked Othello with each tightening of the screw, the rise of tension in the audience was palpable. People listened even more than they watched, with acute understanding to the words. Such emotionally exact, insanely, rhetorically, over-the-top words as
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
After much silence, speech is a sharpened blade.
Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.