Recently my coach recommended that I read this book by Mark Forsyth called ‘The Elements of Eloquence’. My initial plan was to toss it in my never-ending TBR pile, but they say opportunity creates desire, so I picked it up. In this book, Forsyth uses his witty style to deconstruct works of famous authors to help readers understand the simplicity of language behind the complicated string of words. Taking inspiration from him, this is my own meager attempt at presenting a toned-down version of William Shakespeare, one of the most eminent writers to have graced the English Language with his genius.
Shakespeare needs no introduction; all school boards love him enough to ensure that almost every student of English studies his work. Although most do so begrudgingly, the impact of Shakespeare’s work on our language today is undeniable. Not only is he known as a timeless playwright, but also as the inventor of many words, enhancing and experimenting greatly with the English language. However, for many, the question still stands. Was he really a God-gifted genius?
Well, technically, no.
All the literature lovers, please don’t decapitate me.
I personally cherish reading Shakespeare’s take on comedy, romance, and tragedy. However, it is high time that we burst the bubble we’ve been living in. Shakespeare was a magician with quite a few tricks up his sleeve but he was definitely not a natural born talent. From all the stories one hears about his ruthless business tactics, he seems anything but a natural born talent. The finest works ever written in the history of literature were not handed to him by the fairies, nor were they proofread by the scholars of that era. Then, what exactly made his work so unique? To answer this question, I take myself back to one of Forsyth’s quotes,
“Shakespeare was a craftsman and if you told him that now people studied his attitudes to feminism more than his rhetorical figures, he would chuckle.”
Shakespeare had identified the importance of beauty in language long ago. He used the figures of rhetoric to add enough beauty to his work that the reader was ultimately cocooned in the lexicon of his pieces. He knew the words that begin with the same letter of the alphabet appease the human mind, so he used alliteration. Being masterful poet as well, he used an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables to create an iambic pentameter which mimics the rhythm of a heartbeat. This made his work not only pleasing to the ears, but gave a natural flow to the language, making his words so much easier to deliver, feel and understand.
And he wasn’t done here, so he thought: why not start every successive clause with the same word? Ergo, he included anaphora in his work. With his intimate understanding of the human psyche, rightly proven through his multiple soliloquies, he understood how repetition grasps our attention, so he repeated a phrase with a small number of intervening words. To quote an example of diacope used by Shakespeare, let’s take a trip to King Henry VI, Part 3:
“Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile,”
Not to promote any psychopathic behavior, but the truth is simple. Shakespeare altered the language, explored it, and learned its techniques. In his work, figures are alive. To quote Forsyth once again, “These figures grow like wildflowers, but they can be cultivated too.”
Shakespeare did the same, effortlessly embracing that one line from Julius Caesar, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”
He learned to master his fate, or well, language. If language was a city, he was an eager tourist who made sure to leave no road untravelled, delving deep into the language and bringing out its best. He was one of those great writers who actually heeded the ancient formula of language: the key to writing great lines is not writing something different but writing something simple, differently.
Shakespeare understood the human mind and befriended English. Taking a simple idea and dressing it in the cloak of rhetoric, he used his words to add skin to the mere skeleton of his ideologies. Personification, metaphors, and similes brought his works to life, which contributed significantly to the standardization of grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. Through his writings, we can understand the language much better. He not only simplified it for us but made it much more expressive and colourful—that is, if we can overlook the painful hours we spent trying to decipher it with our tiny brains in grade eight literature.
Nonetheless, language is a medium for all of us to explore. Just as a blank canvas awaits colors, the bland pages await the ink. Shakespeare wasn’t different but as normal of a human being as you and I. He learned through practice. He didn’t earn all his fame at his first play. In fact, no one knows which of his writings was his first. Through this journey, he left us all masterpieces to learn from. We may not be able to write as well as him, but the be-all and the end-all is to fall in love with the language.
“Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy, and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility. Clothes and language can be things of beauty, I would no more write without art because I didn’t need to than I would wander outdoors naked just because it was warm enough.”
― Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase