There’s Nothing Romantic About the Mistletoe in Shakespeare

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

While mistletoe has long been symbolic of life, renewal, hope, magic,  and love, and was highly sought after by the ancient druids because they believed it had powerful healing properties, it is mentioned only once in all of Shakespeare’s works. Ironically, mistletoe does not make its single appearance in some romantic romp set at Christmas, but rather in the dark and violent atrocity-fest that isTitus Andronicus.

Titus Andronicus has quite the body count: 14 deaths, numerous severed limbs, a live burial, and instances of rape, physical mutilation and insanity. Of those deaths, two of them occur in a pie which is then served to the victims’ mother. That’s pretty intense, even if one could argue that all three of them had it coming as the consequence of their own actions.

So where does the magical, mystical mistletoe fit into all of that?

In Act 2, Scene 3, Tamora finds herself in the forest not with her lover, Aaron, but rather on the receiving end of a whole load of abuse and insult from Bassianus and Lavinia. When her sons Chiron and Demetrius show up, they notice she isn’t looking so good. She tells them that Bassianus and Lavinia have lured her to that desolate part of the forest and threatened to tie her to a yew tree to die before calling her all sorts of names. In doing so, Tamora observes that even though it is summer, the trees around them are “yet forlorn and lean / Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe”.

In this context, the reference highlights the parasitic nature of the plant rather than any of its positive symbolism. Just as the trees of the forest suffer at the hands of parasites, Tamora implies that she does too.

In response, Demetrius and Chrion both stab Bassianus, who dies. Tamora is keen to stab Lavinia, but her sons want to rape her instead– an act which she wholeheartedly encourages. Lavinia begs Tamora to show her mercy as a woman, if for no other reason, but Tamora refuses. The young men drag Lavinia offstage, and Tamora exits to go and find her lover.

There is absolutely nothing romantic or magical about any of that.

Mistletoe in Shakespeare.
#vocabulary #Shakespeare

Ploce: It Is What It Is!

One of the catch-all phrases of the 21st century is “It is what it is.” On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but when you think about it, it’s a statement that can indicate acceptance, resignation, or simple acknowledgement of a thing or situation. It can communicate “that’s all you’re going to get” or “that’s the best I could do” or “that will have to do. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s a versatile statement to keep up one’s sleeve.

The repetition in this phrase is known as ploce, pronounced plo-chay .

Photo by Cristian Rojas on Pexels.com

Ploce is a very old word which came into English from Latin from the Greek work plokē meaning complication or twisting, which came from the ancient Greek word plekein which means to plait or weave.

That in itself is fascinating, as it gives a clear impression of the words twisting or weaving around themselves as they are repeated. It’s quite a visual image of what the language is doing.

Ploce is a literary and rhetorical device by which a word is repeated for emphasis.

  • It can be simple repetition, like Popeye saying “I am what I am, and that’s all I am”.
  • It can involve a change in the meaning of the word: 
    Examples:
    “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
    “I don’t want to hear you talk the talk, I want to see you walk the walk.”

    Note: This is also called antanaclasis, but you’ll probably never need to know that unless you’re studying Rhetoric, Classics or Shakespeare.
  • It can involve a change in the form of the word.
    Example:
    “She cried until there was no crying left in her.”

    This is also called polyptoton. You’ll probably never need to know that either, unless you’re studying… you get the idea.

Shakespeare made regular use of ploce in his plays, but my favourite examples are to be found in speeches by Queen Margaret in Richard III:

Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3
Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3

Margaret often makes use of elegant imagery and rhetoric in her speeches, and her use of ploce is certainly eloquent.

Sources:
Silva Rhetorica
ThoughtCo.
Britannica.com

Ploce: It Is What It Is
#words #vocabulary #Shakespeare

Shakespeare Nerd: Valentine’s Day Edition

This Valentine’s Day edition of Shakespeare Nerd is brought to you by the brilliant Mya Gosling, creator of Good Tickle Brain.

Image reproduced here with permission.
Image reproduced here with permission.

Shakespeare Nerd Valentine’s Day Edition via @goodticklebrain
#ShakespeareSunday #ValentinesDay

Shakespeare’s Baubles.


Because it’s December and Christmas decorations are everywhere, I wrote last night about the meanings and etymology of the word ‘bauble’ on WordyNerdBird. I wondered then if it were a word used by Shakespeare. To my delight, it was indeed!

Interestingly, Shakespeare references one of the continued senses and the obsolete sense of the word, and creates double entendre with it for extra credit.

In ‘Cymbeline’, the queen refers to Caesar’s ships bobbing around on the sea as ‘ignorant baubles’, describing them further as being like egg shells, being thrown and broken against the rocks.

A similar reference to boats as ‘baubles’ is made in ‘Troilus and Cressida.

In ‘Othello’, Cassio shows his disregard for Bianca by describing her as a bauble that follows him around and tries to make him fall in love with her.  That his companions laugh with him demonstrates that this use of the word to describe a pretty but not-so-valuable woman was easily understood at the time.

In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘bauble’ is used to refer to Kate’s hat – a decorative item of clothing, which is of little value in the play other than its use as a prop in her surprising demonstration of obedience to her husband, Petruchio.

‘Timon of Athens’ references a bauble as the staff of a jester or idiot, although in this instance, Aaron the Moor is suggesting that a king holding his sceptre and claiming to be faithful to God is the equivalent of his fool holding a bauble and pretending to be the king.

This sense of ‘bauble’ is extended in All’s Well That Ends Well, where the Clown refers to cheating on a man with his wife and giving her his bauble “to do her service”.  Clearly, this is a pun on the jester’s staff, used to reference an altogether different kind of rod with a special ending on it.

This is Shakespeare’s trademark wit in action, taking common language and creating word play loaded with double entendre that would delight the masses and the ‘gentlemen’ alike.

The Proud Man’s Contumely.

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

In Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy — the one that stars with “To be or not to be…” — the overthinking prince lists a number of problems that make life hard to bear. Most of these are things to which we can relate quite easily: oppression, love that is not returned, the wheels of justice turning too slowly, people being rude, and having to work too hard.

Hamlet III,i

Most people, though, would read the speech and get to the phrase ‘the proud man’s contumely’ and be completely stumped.  It’s not a word one comes across terribly often. In all honesty, it’s probably only literature scholars and high school students studying ‘Hamlet’ that are likely to come across the word, and only one of those groups are likely to know right away what it means.

Contumely is a very old word that means disrespectful, offensive or abusive speech or behaviour.

Contumely is interesting in that most English words that end in -ly are adverbs, which describe verbs, but this is a noun. It doesn’t follow the grammatical pattern of English because it is not originally an English word.

It came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word contumelie,. That came from the Latin word contumelia, which meant’ reproach’ or insult’, and is related to ‘contumax’ with means ‘haughty’ or ‘insolent’.

These days, we’re far more likely to use terms like ‘insolence’, ‘disrespect’ ‘scorn’ or  ‘abuse’ instead. 

Still, it could be fun to respond to someone’s arrogance with ‘I do not have to tolerate your contumely’. Hopefully, it would leave them as perplexed as those high school students reading Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time.

It could also be useful to know that someone behaving with contumely would be described as contumelious.

This word evolved in the 15th century, so it follows the common pattern of the noun form being used first and the adjective coming afterwards.  Mr Darcy’s haughty dismissal of Elizabeth Bennet at their first meeting, a lawyer strutting and posturing in the courtroom, or one’s mother-in-law’s disdain for their general existence could all be described as contumelious.

References:
Vocabulary.com
wordsmith.org
Online Etymology Dictionary

The Proud Man’s Contumely.
#EnglishLanguage #Shakespeare #Englishvocabulary

Shakespeare Halloween Party

Last year, I wrote a number of posts about the best Shakespeare scenes for Halloween.

This year, Mya Gosling has very kindly given permission for me to share her Shakespeare Halloween Party cartoons.

Mya is the creative genius behind Good Tickle Brain, where she turns Shakespeare’s characters and plays into insightful and amusing cartoons. I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do.

Used with permission.
Used with permission.
Used with permission.
Used with permission.

Shakespeare Halloween Party
#cartoons #Shakespeare #halloweencostume

“Thou art too malapert…”

Peacock malapert know-it-all overconfident showy
Image from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Malapert refers to a person who acts like they know everything and is confident that they are always right. 

While there are a number of characters in Shakespeare’s works whom we might consider to be malapert, Shakespeare uses the word only three times in his plays.

In Henry 6, Queen Margaret and her son, the young Lancaster Prince Edward, engage in a contest of insults with their captors: Clarence and Gloucester. As sons of Richard, Duke of York these two are the Lancastrian King Henry’s enemies, as the two houses are rivals for the English throne. Clarence calls the young prince malapert, highlighting his youthful confidence by calling him an “untutor’d lad”. 

Almost as proof of Clarence’s assessment, the prince responds by insulting them again. Despite the clevernesand bravery of his words, this proved to be a bad move, as “perjur’d George” and “misshapen Dick” respond by stabbing him to death. End of argument. 

In Richard III, the same Queen Margaret tells the Marquess of Dorset that he is malapert and warns him that his newly found nobility won’t protect him from being destroyed by the Yorks, particularly Richard (Gloucester) whom  she describes as a “bottled spider” and a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad”. Richard turns the insult back on Margaret, and Dorset promptly turns it right back on him. 

In the comedy Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch and Sebastian are engaged in an argument when Sir Toby insists that he “must have an ounce or two of this malapert blood” from his rival. 

Malapert
#words #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Book Review: The RSC Shakespeare – The Complete Works

The Complete Works, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and edited by Jonathan Bale and Eric Rasmussen, is a brilliant book. 

Having read and enjoyed several of the RSC texts of individual plays,

As always with RSC editions of individual plays, the notes provided are excellent. Each play has a thoughtful introduction that explores key ideas and themes, as well as providing insights for dramaturgy, performance and production.

The printing is clear, and of a good size —  not so small that it is almost impossible to read, as with many collected works editions —  and the paper quality is beautiful.

In addition to the texts, there are pages of annotated photographs and illustrations to give added context and to highlight RSC performances of the plays.

Physically, it is quite a big book, so it is  most comfortably used on a desk or table. The paperback is lighter in weight, but I am a little disappointed that I did not buy the hard cover edition, as that would make it more durable.  

Even so, I’m delighted with this volume and have found it very useful thus far.  Should I find that my paperback does not stand the test of time and regular use, I will definitely invest in a hard cover copy, as this is a book I will want to read and make use of for many years to come.

Desdemona’s Lament

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Often when I see a willow tree, I think of the  desperately sad song sung by Ophelia as she prepares for bed in Act 4, scene 3 of ‘Othello’.

‘Willow’ is a folk song that tells of lost love and resulting tragedy, although Ophelia doesn’t quite get that far in the song before she stops to talk with her maid, Emilia. The song was not written by Shakespeare, and it seems to have been widely enough known for the audience to have understood the gravity and foreboding of it being sung by Ophelia. 

Shakespeare did, however, make one significant change. The original song was about a man dying as the result of the cruelty of a woman, but when Ophelia sings it, the song is about a woman suffering at the hands of the man she loves. 

The poignancy of the song is heightened by Ophelia’s revelation to Emilia that her mother’s maid, from whom she learned the song, died tragically while singing it. 


The song takes another tragic twist when Emilia herself sings the song as she, too, dies from injuries inflicted by her own husband. 

Shakespeare uses this song to evoke pathos,  tragedy and foreboding in abundance. 

It seems to me that he willow tree, graceful and mournful at the same time, is a most fitting image for achieving that effect.


Desdemona’s Lament.
#Shakespeare #Othello #willow #tragedy #ShakesepeareNerd #blogpost

Life’s But A Walking Shadow

Macbeth, V.v

This short speech by Macbeth is his response to the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. It is not as emotional as Macduff’s response to the death of his wife and children, but instead is quite poignant and philosophical. A soliloquy might have been more expansive on his thoughts and feelings.

It is a reflection on the brevity and meaninglessness of life. Every day we live is someone else’s last, and our stories are full of noise and bother, but ultimately pointless. 

Perhaps he anticipated her death, given her descent into guilty madness. His observation that “She should have died hereafter; There would have been time for such a word” suggests that he thought he had bigger problems at that point, and he simply didn’t have time to grieve properly. Implying that her timing was inconvenient is the kind of self-interest that those who love to hate Macbeth might find satisfying. 

Either way, Macbeth’s musings on the futility of life contrast profoundly with his belief in his own invincibility and his headstrong determination to fight to keep the kingdom he usurped by killing Duncan and blaming it on his bodyguards. 

It just goes to show that you can not encapsulate a character in one quotation or by examining one event. Shakespeare’s leading characters are complex, conflicted individuals designed to provoke thought and conscience. Macbeth is no exception.