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William Shakespeare

by | Apr 26, 2021

William Shakespeare passed away on April 23, 1616, at the age of 53, leaving behind some 39 plays that he wrote alone or assisted in writing, for his acting company, the Kings’ Men. Two others in that company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published in 1623, 36 of his plays in the First Folio.

Of the 750 copies of the First Folio, only 235 remain in existence today. Heminges and Condell’s heroic editorial work preserved and saved from extinction the better of Shakespeare’s plays.

We all wonder and ask, “What is the big deal about Shakespeare?”

Isaac Asimov, a twentieth-century American author, answered that question best. “Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms.”

For example, the English playwright coined dozens of new words, including: accessible, addiction, assassination, batty, bedazzle, catlike, disgraceful, eventful, fitful, lackluster, lonely, moonbeam, pious, outbreak, quarrelsome, stealthy, useless, watch-dog, and well-read.

English speakers have adopted countless numbers of his expressions: one fell swoop, primrose path, bated breath, brave new world, break the ice, for goodness’s sake, foregone conclusion, full circle, heart of gold, wild-goose chase, tower of strength, snail paced, sorry sight, and spotless reputation.

People still repeat certain of his sentences today: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” “What fools these mortals be!” “There is a tide in the affairs of men.” “All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players.” “What a piece of work is man.”

“The lady doth protest too much.” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. “A plague on both your houses.” “The quality of mercy is not strained.” “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

In recent days I came across a passage from Hamlet that spurred me to investigate further. “Your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth, / And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, / With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out.” What did Polonious mean here?

The first phrase—bait of falsehood and carp of truth—refers to “making sure that your little lie brings out the truth.” The second phrase—wisdom and reach—means, “We’re doing this wisely.”

Now a windlass refers to “a horizontal cylinder, a barrel, which men on a ship or atop a mine rotate by a crank, and wind a rope or cable around it and draw up fishing nets or boxes of ore.” When Polonious mentions windlasses, he means he wants to see “roundabout or indirect methods” used.

And when he says, “assays of bias,” he refers to “a game of bowls, when a player must allow for a curving surface, in order to get his bowl to the mark.”

Then, “By indirections find directions out,” Polonoius means he will work in a roundabout manner, after he has examined the lay of the land. He will research and test first, and then apply himself.

Not all of Shakespeare’s passages require this degree of laborious investigation to understand the bard’s meaning. For example, in Cymbeline, John of Gaunt says, “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” He means that death will take us all, even the young and beautiful.

Shakespeare wrote mainly in blank verse, or iambic pentameter. Blank verse refers to poetic prose, or unrhymed poetry. Iambic pentameter refers to “five pairs of syllables, the first unstressed, and the second stressed or accented.” This is key to understanding Shakespeare’s skill with quill and ink.

For example, in The Tempest, here are three of Prospero’s lines: “Our revels are now ended. These our actors / (As I foretold you) were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” Count the syllables of each line, and you should get ten in each. (The word “revels” counts as one syllable.

Last Friday night on PBS’s “Great Performances,” I watched Romeo and Juliet performed on one of London back stages, a different approach.

Most viewers of the play, enjoy the balcony scene, the most famous scene in Shakespeare’s canon. It is young love, forbidden love, between a Montague, Romeo, and a Capulet, Juliet. Their families have disintegrated into a bloody feud, and yet these two star-crossed lovers fall for each other one night.

Yet, I am drawn to the final scene when both Romeo and Juliet are dead. The Prince charges the heads of the two families. “Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague! / See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

“A glooming peace this morning with it brings, / The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head, / Go hence to have more talk of these sad things; / Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished: / For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Here, Shakespeare ended his best play.

Can you count ten syllables in each of the Prince’s lines?