Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Shakespeare, the master craftsman

At this time last semester, for a course on the tragedies, I posted my first Shakespeare paper -- a commentary on how important the structure and literary devices contained therein were to the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet. In that post, I indicated that I wasn't sure how much I liked Shakespeare. Well, a semester later, I liked him enough to sign up for a course in the histories and comedies. Part of the reason I did so is the respect I've gained for what he's able to do with the English language. That first paper said a lot in terms of meter. This current paper, which is pretty much the same assignment but treating Richard II, focuses mainly on the Bard's use of rhetorical devices. And the praise I give him is genuine!

Franz S. Klein
Prof. Jane Carducci
English 514: Histories and Comedies
23 January 2008

Richard II Translation Exercise

Shakespeare’s Text:

“White beards have arm’d their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty; boys, with women’s voices,
Strive to speak big, and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown;
Thy very beadsmen learn to bend bows
Of double-fatal yew against thy state;
Yea, distaff women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat: both young and old rebel,
And all goes worse than I have power to tell.” (Richard II, 3.2.112-120)

Modern Prose “Translation”:

“Old men have covered their bald heads to defend themselves against you; youth with weak voices attempt to appear brave before you as they hold shaky knees with their stiff arms; your very own old men learn to take up hard-to-bend bows in defiance of you; Yes, weaving women hold long-unused pikes in defiance of you: both those who are old and those who are young rise against you, and the situation is more dire than I can am capable of describing.”

Textual Commentary:

Of the lesser-studied passages in Richard II, Scroop’s lines to a despairing King Richard upon his return to England make for a fair study in William Shakespeare’s expert use of the literary devices and metrical structures – a skill that makes him the foremost writer in the English language. In this passage, Richard returns from Ireland to discover that his army has abandoned him. Scroop’s words are hardly reassuring, and it is this very intimation of the utter hopelessness of the situation that breeds such a fertile ground for literary art. As this exercise will clearly demonstrate, much of this fertility would go to waste in the absence of the literary structures, and especially the literary devices, that Shakespeare employs.
Scroop’s passage consists of a warning to the king that is pure hyperbole in one sense but that elicits an otherwise unachievable, deadly serious accuracy in another. This is because, at least in part, the exaggerated elements of this passage provide the very basis of its accuracy. This becomes undeniably clear when Shakespeare’s text is compared to my modern “translation.” True, both versions convey exactly the same facts, namely, that every single person in England -- from the oldest to the youngest -- has abandoned Richard, leaving him friendless in the face of Bullingbrook’s onslaught. But at the same time, Shakespeare’s facts mean so much more.
This is because only hyperbole can truly capture the utter hopelessness of Richard’s situation. True, Shakespeare’s “[w]hite-beards” (3.2.112), are what I call “[o]ld men,” but the Bard’s attention to what makes them elderly -- their white beards -- overstates the case in a way my matter-of-fact passage can’t. The same is true for “boys, with women’s voices” (113), who are somehow far more than my “youth with weak voices,” or for the “beadsmen” (116) who have become additional “old men,” or even for the “distaff women” (118) transformed, as they are, into mere “weaving women.” The same holds true for their instruments of uprising, such as “bows/ Of double-fatal yew” (116-17) and “rusty bills” (118). In no way can “long-unused” convey the reality of “rusty” in this context. The fact that these pikes are rusty connotes an ancient hatred that has long lain unacknowledged, while “long-unused” simply states a fact about the bills. Similarly, “double-fatal” means so much more than “hard-to-bend.” The bows might be hard to bend, after all, but Richard shouldn’t be so concerned with the quality of the bows as with what they could do to him – hence Shakespeare’s “double-fatal.” These exaggerated images are undeniably powerful, and there are reasons this is so.
Chief among these reasons is the fact that Shakespeare uses hyperbole only when it really means something. His white bearded men and women-voiced boys are extremes that emphasize the totality of the king’s abandonment. England has abandoned its king, not merely from the oldest to the youngest, but from the whitest hair on the old men’s beards to the highest note of its youths’ voices. Only in this totality of abandonment does Richard’s totality of despair make sense: “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs...” (145). The situation is decidedly extreme, and only in imagery such as what Shakespeare utilizes can such extremity be maintained.
The Bard’s hyperbole is initially grounded in his use of synecdoche. Shakespeare takes the most identifiable part of an old man -- his white beard -- and uses it to represent the whole. Traditionally, the white beard of an old man signifies the wisdom that has come with his old age. Thus, when an old man pays his respects to someone, one knows that that person is important. Scroop reports not that the white-bearded old man have taken up arms, for they have gone even farther in arming “their thin and hairless scalps” (112). There could be no greater affront to a king than to have those who are wisest put cover their heads in his presence. Suddenly Richard’s identity crisis becomes clearer, for wisdom herself has covered her head in his presence. To have people take up arms against a king is certainly a normal occurrence, but to have those who are wisest no longer recognize him surely gives credence to the king’s doubts. And while the same idea is visible in my “translation,” the lack of synecdoche makes it less extreme, meaning that Richard’s extreme reaction would seem senseless if I “translated” further.
In a lesser way, synecdoche continues to play a role in this passage in reference to King Richard. While the white beards arm their heads against his “majesty” (113), the boys speak against his “crown” (115), the beadsmen are attacking his “state” (117), and the distaff women lay siege to his “seat” (119). All four of these terms -- majesty, crown, state, and seat -- are a part of the king’s “second body,” that of the office of God’s anointed king, for which Richard has been chosen and consecrated. “Majesty,” here, refers to the reverence due to Richard’s office, “crown” to his power to rule, “state” to the dominion he rules, and “seat” to his legislative power. Strip the king of his majesty, crown, state, and seat, and he will no longer be king in anything but his divine anointing. For each of these “parts” of Richard’s “double body,” I substituted a simple second person pronoun, which indicates that all these people are rising against the person of Richard. But what Shakespeare’s passage conveys is that they are attacking King Richard. Only Shakespeare’s use of synecdoche leaves nothing untouched in regard to the totality of an anointed Richard’s abandonment. And taken together with the other elements of synecdoche, it now makes sense that Richard is undergoing an identity crisis: “How can you say to me I am a king?” (177).
The hyperbolic imagery of this passage also gains strength through Shakespeare’s use of oxymoronic phrases. Nothing could be more paradoxical than boys with women’s voices striving to “speak big” (114). Certainly beadsmen, or elderly pensioners, would strike an odd pose in learning “to bend their bows/ Of double-fatal yew” (116-17). No less strange would be the image of distaff-women taking up “rusty bills” (118) in the battlefield. Oxymoronic on a larger scale -- in fact, infuriatingly so for Richard -- is how all these people stack up against the divine right of kings. Richard’s power is to be inviolable, but he is paradoxically falling to whitebeards, boys, beadsmen, and distaff-women. Furthermore, the instruments each takes up are those least useful for them. Boys are expected to speak big despite their inability to do so, feeble old men have bows of yew that they would be unable to bend, and women are armed for the battlefield. Certainly some vestige of these oxymorons remains in my “translated” passage, but it is no more than a faint vestige.
Containing 17 lines, missing a volta, and having no rhyme scheme apart from its concluding couplet, Scroop’s speech is certainly not a sonnet, nor any other poetical form. And given that some lines contain an extra foot (112, 113,) or syllable (120), or are missing a syllable (116), neither does Shakespeare appear overly concerned with maintaining a strict pentameter. Nor does he seem overly concerned with maintaining the iambs, as emphatic openings like “Strive” (114) and “Yea” (118) evidence. Even so, any movement from poetry to prose involves a loss of structure. Without the regularity of the passage’s structure, Scroop’s words fail to achieve a pattern and become monotonous. And Shakespeare’s exceptions to iambic openings like “Strive” and “Yea” serve a purpose in breaking up the alternative monotony that poetry could potentially convey. Likewise, the startling concluding rhyme of “rebel” (119) and “tell” (120) indicates that Scroop has finished and it is Richard’s turn to speak. Thus, there is a reason even less polished portions of Shakespeare’s plays, such as this one, appear within a metrical structure.
Certainly Scroop’s speech can’t claim the polish of some of Richard II’s other, more famous passages. But its structure and literary devices give evidence to why Shakespeare is considered a master writer. Although it contains exactly the same facts as Shakespeare’s passage, my modern prose “translation” fails to convey Richard’s utterly hopeless situation and becomes monotonous, structureless prose. Only through Shakespeare’s master use of hyperbole, synecdoche and oxymoron can the extremity of Richard’s situation be conveyed to the reader. And while anybody may be capable of using these devices, only a master writer can use them in precisely the right place and to precisely the right degree.

Work Cited:

Shakespeare, William. Richard II. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton, 1997.


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