In 2003 a newspaper reported that the Arts Council for England had paid £2000 to test what became known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem. This claimed that an infinite number of monkeys, bashing random keys on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Six macaques were recruited for the study but only managed to produce five pages of text, mainly composed of the letter s. The experiment was taken further in 2011 when an American computer programmer claimed that his monkeys (virtual ones, this time) were 99.99% of the way through the Bard’s works. Academic scepticism naturally followed: ‘to type the complete works would take longer than the age of the universe.’ was the Daily Telegraph’s riposte.
These intriguing snippets were drawn from the Shakespeare Institute Library’s Cuttings Collection. Unique in the University of Birmingham, our archive includes articles from 1902 to 2017 – and ongoing – about every conceivable aspect of Shakespeare. No single day goes by without the appearance in the press of some reference or allusion to the man, his world or his works. Among a huge miscellany of topics, the language of Shakespeare is a constant thread throughout the Collection.
Tower of Strength
Among the earliest articles, Shakespeare is regarded as an architect of the English language: ‘Without (him)’ declares one columnist ‘much expression would vanish into thin air. We would be tongue-tied. He made English a tower of strength; those who think otherwise may knit their brows’. (1936). Another cutting, early in the last century, claims that Shakespeare’s treatment of English history elevates it to an artistic subject as great as the history of Rome. ‘His national self-dramatisation…made the English regard themselves as special – perhaps it still does.’
Exactly the same sentiment, over 50 years later, appears in an article by Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum. He writes:
‘Shakespeare gave England a new confidence in its own language and culture; at last there was a writer who was the equal of the greatest of the ancients… [he] forged a language that has certainly shaped how the English see themselves even today in relation to the world.’
With unconscious irony – this was pre-Brexit – MacGregor concludes that Shakespeare’s influence ‘still shapes the language in which to craft a proper place for the UK in relation to the European Union.’
Shakespeare’s legacy of words and phrases which have become permanent fixtures in the English language is considered regularly in the Cuttings Collection. An article from 1935 reports that compilers of a new English Dictionary at the University of Michigan, had counted 83 words (a number of them used or invented by Shakespeare) describing physical assault in Elizabethan English. There seems, too, a fascination with Shakespeare’s neologisms: ‘ Leapfrog, monumental and pedant’ were his coinings, a letter of 2009 informs us. Elsewhere, mention of the 17,000 words Shakespeare gave to the language is frequent. We are reminded of ‘eyesore, scuffle, buzzer and dedazzled’ but also ‘Bardic duds’ which never caught on such as ‘dispunge, fracted’ and ‘oppugnancy.’ The journalist Lynne Truss in 2000 offers more Shakespearian successes – ‘majestic, barefaced’ and ‘dwindle’- and more failures: ‘tortive’ and ‘vastidity’.
‘You vile standing tuck’
Newspaper articles across the Collection seem perennially to be fascinated by Shakespearean insults. A columnist from 2011, far from deprecating insulting language, suggested that 21st century swearing is too limited. We should emulate Shakespeare’s elaborate verbal inventions and avoid ‘the relentless barrage of four-letter words…(and)… the same flat monosyllables used in the present day.’ We know what he means. Shakespeare, meanwhile offers, ‘Pish for thee, Iceland dog,’ ‘Lazer kite of Cressid’s kind,’ ‘Viper vile’ and ‘Hound of Crete.’ Any of these, suggests the writer, might serve as ‘useful standbys in heavy traffic’.
One article of 2007 similarly laments the demise of the inventive and original insult and exalts Shakespeare as ‘the master of the well-turned slur.’ In fact, it usefully informs us, the Bard’s range of offensive terms is so large that there exists an insult kit for all occasions on the internet. Another columnist (2010) describes the birthday jumper given him by his daughter, emblazoned with Shakespearean abuse – ‘you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish.’ He hopes it marks a turning point in her education.
Historically, however, certain Shakespearean language has caused offence. A report from 1945 describes how Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V contravened the Hays Code – the set of moral guidelines that was then applied to motion pictures in America. The words ‘damn’ and ‘bastard’ were deplored, along with undesirable references to ‘the Deity.’ Olivier was required to reshoot the ‘offensive scenes.’ before the film could be released. Later that year, the crisis was over: ‘Profound thought’ says the Evening Standard sarcastically ‘has produced a solution. The word is now ‘dastard’.’ One imagines the difficulties had the play been King Lear – (think Edmund, think bastard). Times have changed though: there is actually an ‘Insults Chair’ in the RST, mentioned in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald’s 2009 article about the creation of new theatre complex. For only a small fee one can sit enthroned and enjoy a barrage of Shakespearean invective through headphones.
‘Stage knee-deep with debris‘
A striking concentration of references to Shakespeare occurs in newscuttings from World War 11 (1939-45). It appears that his is the only language adequate to expressing the mood and events of those critical years. ‘Words of comfort’ appear regularly in the Daily Mirror, offering short quotations from Shakespeare to cheer and rally its readers. As the end of the war approaches, the historian A.L. Rowse, contributes an article in which he comments on events:
‘It was Shakespeare’s fortune to live, as we do ourselves, in a heroic time for our people. He gave expression…to the soaring spirit and pride…having come through…the struggle with the great world-empire of Spain…we are one country that has held on against a stronger foe…until now… we stand on the threshold of the last assault.’
Numerous theatre productions of Shakespeare went ahead during these years, regardless of air-raids, and seemed to epitomise the true spirit of gritty English resolution and defiance. ‘Dared to put on Shakespeare in Bombed London’ declares a headline from 1940. The subsequent article relates how the actor-manager, Donald Wolfit, chose scenes and sonnets for lunchtime performance at the Strand Theatre. ‘[the actors]…work under difficulties’ says Wolfit, ‘Bombs have destroyed the dressing-rooms, blown away costumes and covered the stage knee-deep with debris.’ He continues, ’I chose Shakespeare… [because he] represents the fighting spirit of our country. Only the best is good enough…sirens or even…a bomb exploding do not distract.’ Similarly, Robert Atkin’s Regents Park Theatre Company, continued to play in the open air ‘though bombs…fell unpleasantly close and some theatrical equipment was destroyed. But the players played on and there was always an audience.’
It was hugely significant that Olivier’s film of Henry V was produced during these years. What other play could have so meaningfully addressed the times? A review headline describes it as the ‘D-Day of 1415’ inevitably linking Shakespeare’s Agincourt with victory over Germany. Comparisons to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tyrants serve to describe Nazi leaders and a line from Richard III – ‘ ‘the bloody dog is dead’ ‘ – occurs on several occasions to celebrate the death of Hitler.
Even after the war had ended, Shakespearean language continued to be prominent. At the trial of William Joyce (the traitor known as Lord Haw Haw who had broadcasted morale-sapping wireless addresses from Germany) lines from Henry V were quoted by the prosecution. And, in 1953, at the trial of 21 SS stormtroopers, accused of murder, a line from Richard III – ‘Say that I slew them not’ was quoted in a demand for a verdict of guilty.
‘Blingtastic rewritten cod Shakespeare’
In the last two decades, the vexed topic of Shakespeare in education has loomed large.Should he have a place in the National Curriculum or not? Should young people study the actual text, or should the text be diluted, translated, dumbed down,updated?
Several articles call for Shakespeare to de dropped altogether: ‘Force-feeding children…can only produce nausea and a lifelong aversion…it’s like handing children treasure in a locked chest’ says a writer in 1968. ‘The Bard’s language is inaccessible without a very expensive education’ is another, pompous contribution. A letter from a teacher of English states: ‘It makes perfect sense to update the language. I really think we should start with Shakespeare. No one knows what that bugger was on about.’ Yet another joins the chorus with ‘What sort of dullards…think that Shakespeare, so long out of date…could ever get through to the minds of rebellious fourth and fifth formers and convey anything at all to them except revulsion?’
In fact, there has been a relatively recent great upsurge of Shakespeare ‘in translation.’ It appears to have done him no harm at all and, if anything, has increased his standing. In 2011, the Globe theatre under Dominic Dromgoole put on a great multilingual Shakespeare festival. It entailed all 37 plays in 37 different dialects or languages, performed by 37 international companies. It was enthusiastically reviewed in the press. The success of this daring project seems to be a measure of the adaptability, timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s texts, while stressing the validity and increasing acceptance of non-standard forms of expression.
The development of the internet, the rise of social media, texting and emailing, together with the flourishing of television, cinema and radio, have inevitably had an impact on Shakespearean text. Even a TV series can involve him, as The Times reports in 2011: evidently the Klingon Language Institute (based on the Star Trek series) has translated Much Ado About Nothing (pagmo’ tin mis). Who would have guessed? But even those whose Klingon is patchy will recognise the inevitable quotation: ‘taH paghh taHbe.’
In 2012, a student was reported to have translated Act II of Romeo and Juliet into ‘text-speak’ so that Juliet’s balcony speech became ‘O rmo rmo, were4 art thou rmo.’ Accounts of a modern take on 15 of Shakespeare’s plays appear in two newspapers from 2005. This was the work of Martin Braum, author and self-proclaimed deviser of ‘Yoof-Speak’ and it features such titles as Two Geezas of Verona and Romeo And His Fit Bitch Jools. In ‘Amlet, Braum comes straight to the point with the opening line ‘Dere was somefing minging in the State of Denmark.’ Outrage! Sacrilege! But Baum believes that anything that introduces young people to Shakespeare is ‘a good thing.’
Well-wicked. He’s rad, man.
Shakespeare also gives a voice to the disadvantaged in society and raises self-esteem, writes the actor Paterson Joseph in his interview of 2007. ‘Coming from where I’ve come from (West London)… feeling I wasn’t worthy to say anything at all… But then I learned what it was like to have Shakespeare in my mouth. It is an empowering thing to be able to speak like that and have people listen.’ Joseph went on to make a documentary of his production of Romeo and Juliet, casting young offenders from the urban area of Harlesden. He was warned there would be few takers but, in fact, over 300 volunteers turned up, eager to derive the same benefits from Shakespeare as he had.
In the same spirit, the Intermission Youth Theatre (with the backing of the RSC) produced Wasted in 2007. It was a reinvention of Julius Caesar and, under the direction of Darren Raymond – himself a former resident of gangland Hackney -the play addresses the issues of violence and knife crime in urban London. It is written partly in the street slang which forms a large part of the identity of many young people, and the cast comprised teenagers who had fallen foul of the law.
Elsewhere, the veteran Shakespearean actor Janet Suzman recalls ‘I have worked with prisoners who have no education whatsoever, as well as homeless men in South Africa, and their response is shatteringly powerful. There’s an instinctive emotional connection: you don’t have to have an education to respond to it.’
And it is both moving and telling to read the articles reviewing the British Museum’s ‘Staging the World’ exhibition of 2012. Placed as the final exhibit, as if it is the one volume which sums up and defines our culture is the ‘Robben Island Bible’: the smuggled-in copy of Shakespeare’s plays which sustained Nelson Mandela and his ANC colleagues in prison.
Overall then, Shakespeare is good for us.He remains in the bones and blood of our culture however much we tweak, tinker with or try radically to reconstitute his language. And so perhaps the final word should go to Professor Phillip Davies of Liverpool University. An article of 2011 reports Davies’ investigation of the effects of Shakespeare on the brain. Using EEG and MRI scanning, he has concluded that Shakespearean language provokes a powerful neurological response in humans:
‘The Shakespearean functional shift appears to prompt activation in the visual association cortex, i.e. in regions normally activated by visualisation: that is, the mind’s eye.’
I wonder how those monkeys are getting on.
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant
The Shakespeare Institute Library’s vast Cuttings Collection is available to view anytime during library opening hours.