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Shakespeare's Language de Frank Kermode

Shakespeare's Language (original: 2000; edição: 2001)

de Frank Kermode (Autor)

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574630,848 (3.7)10
Every so often there is a rebellion against the assumption that Shakespeare is a uniquely great writer. This feeling, strong at the moment, has vociferous supporters in the academics, teachers who want to be rid of what they regard as heritage lumber. some even profess to believe that the eminence of Shakespeare is the result of an imperialist plot. There are also those, in my view almost equally wrong-headed, who continue to adore the Bard without giving much thought to the problems he sets. My belief is that, like the very critical Ben Johnson, we should admire Shakespeare this side of idolatry; there was ever more to be praised in than pardoned. Like Johnson, we need not shrink from saying that some of the work is mediocre or worse. What we do need is new ways of saying why the best of him really is the best.… (mais)
Título:Shakespeare's Language
Autores:Frank Kermode (Autor)
Informação:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001), Edition: 1st, 342 pages
Coleções:Sua biblioteca

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Shakespeare's Language de Frank Kermode (2000)


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Frank Kermode

Shakespeare’s Language

Penguin Books, Paperback [2001].

8vo. xi+324 pp. Preface [vii-x] and Introduction [3-21] by the author. Index [317-24].

First published in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Published in Penguin Books, 2001.



Part One

Part Two

Julius Caesar
Troilus and Cressida
Measure for Measure
King Lear
Antony and Cleopatra
Timon of Athens
The Winter’s Tale
The Tempest
Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen



What’s in a name, indeed!

So far as I can see, this book is highly rated mostly because the late Frank Kermode was a big name in Shakespearean scholarship. He may have been, I don’t know about that. Nor do I care. A name, for me, is not enough. Another leitmotif in the praise is that this book is the result of a lifelong study of the Bard and his language. Well, this amounts to pretty much the same thing. It is no guarantee of value, either.

I couldn’t help laughing when I read the extravagant praise extracted on the front and back cover for the dubious benefit of the unknown reader. “The best book on Shakespeare that I have ever read”, an awestruck Melvyn Bragg wrote in the Independent and is quoted on the front cover. Mr Bragg must have read very few books on Shakespeare. The gems on the back cover are precious indeed: “a wonderful book”, “a formidable achievement”, “magnificent”, “marvellously clear-headed and accessible”, “breathes fresh air into Shakespeare’s work”. Believe all this at your own peril.

Since the human animal is so much conditioned by expectations, I might just as well say at the outset what I expected from this book. Basically, two simple things, and I didn’t get either of them.

First of all, I expected what I expect from every book I read. Good writing. Well, Mr Kermode is not a good writer. He is drier than the Atacama Desert, for one thing. With the possible exception of the “proletarian prose” that follows the opening sonnet in Romeo and Juliet, I cannot think of another example of anything that may pass for humour. This is bad enough, but much worse are his laboured, inelegant, stammering sentences. They make for a slow read. The best I can say about the style is that Mr Kermode is relatively – relatively! – free from pretentious academic lingo. He can still, however, come up with linguistic beauties like “old-style affectedness”, “old-fashionedly informative soliloquy”, “widening semantical spread” and the like.

Second and more important, I expected what I always expect from this type of book: additional insight into the works of Shakespeare. I have received a good deal of it from people like G. B. Harrison, E. K. Chambers, W. H. Auden, William Hazlitt, Harold Goddard, Isaac Asimov, Bernard Shaw and even Bill Bryson. These writers range from extreme Bardolaters (Goddard) to extreme Bardohaters (Shaw), from grandly rhetorical excess (Hazlitt) to unaffected simplicity (Auden), and from rigorous academics (Harrison, Chambers) to complete laymen (Bryson, Asimov). But they all provide, in one degree or another, some invaluable advice Bard-wise. I cannot say the same about Frank Kermode. He falls in the category of Dr Johnson and Harold Bloom. These provide only some mild amusement, if that.

Perhaps the greatest flaw of this book is the very subject. You see, language doesn’t really matter. This sounds ludicrous, especially in the case of Shakespeare, but it is nothing more than a refusal to be completely superficial. The only thing that matters, in a writer, is not the language but what use he makes of it. If the language of Shakespeare were the most important thing about him, the Sonnets and the narrative poems would be his most famous works. In fact, they are his least famous works.

But let us accept Mr Kermode on his own terms and see where they get us. I rather like his idea to ignore the plays as theatre. We’ve heard enough of the mantra that Shakespeare can be appreciated only in the theatre. Nonsense. The page is every bit as important as the stage. Neither makes full sense alone. And speaking of the theatre, I am of the opinion that Shakespeare should be staged less and filmed more. The screen offers not only spectacle, but also subtlety that no stage can achieve. There is no substitute for reading, however, both as preparation for productions or movies and as a way of delving deeper into the plot, the language and the characters. Just like every book worth reading only once cannot be a great book, so every play worth seeing or hearing, but not reading, cannot be a great play. Shakespeare, it must be admitted, wrote some great plays.

And if you must stage the Bard, for sure it doesn’t have to be in some Globe replica. The notion that Shakespeare’s plays can be truly effective only on that stage is just as misguided, and for the same reasons, as the so-called historically informed performances (HIP) in classical music. The HIPsters assume that great composers from the past, or Shakespeare for that matter, were satisfied with the primitive conditions under which they had to work. There is no reason to suppose they were. Of course they accepted and made the best of, and often transcended, the limitations of their times, but I’m sure they would have welcomed many modern innovations. Shakespeare, I have no doubt, would have enjoyed lavish sets and special effects just as much as Mozart and Liszt would have been delighted with large orchestras of modern instruments.

So, refreshingly, let’s look at the plays as poetry. No dice. Mr Kermode is maddeningly superficial. He treats language as an end in itself. This is never the case with Shakespeare, not even in his early plays where, as a rule, he is prone to much greater verbal excess. For Shakespeare, language is a means for telling a story, describing a place, creating an atmosphere, arguing a point, considering a problem and, above all, revealing a character. Shakespeare’s characters make him immortal, not his language per se.

For Mr Kermode, language is an intellectual exercise, an academic pastime, an elaborate mixture of poetry and prose, alliteration, synecdoche and oxymoron – anything, in short, but a means to higher ends. A man like that has no business writing about Shakespeare. Not that Mr Kermode wrote much. At least one third of his book consists of quotations from Shakespeare, sometimes neatly organised in separate paragraphs, but often messily inserted in quotation marks. The other two thirds consist of prose paraphrase of the quotations, breathtakingly pedestrian descriptions and very occasional attempt at analysis. For example:

The opening scene is masterly, establishing not only the narrative but the thematic interest. Lysander is accused of corrupting the fantasy of Hermia (I.i.27): disorders of the fantasy or imagination are a main topic of the play. When Hermia complains that her father cannot see Lysander with her eyes, Theseus tells her she is required to subordinate her eyes to her father’s judgement (56-57) or pay the penalty. Lysander and Hermia alone complain of the misfortunes of love: “So quick bright things come to confusion” (149). (The passage recalls not only Romeo and Juliet but also Venus and Adonis, 720-56.) Now “poor fancy’s followers” (155) decide to elope. Helena complains of her ill fortune, for Demetrius prefers Hermia’s eyes to hers. The emphasis is always on the eyes as the source of love, or rather of doting: Helena “dotes, / Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry” (108-9), and Lysander hopes Demetrius will “dote” on Helena (225). Doting is a disordered condition of the imagination, otherwise called “love,” and it originates in an eye uncontrolled by judgement. This formula is hammered home in the first scene, and the characteristic lamentations about the brevity and morality of love are introduced like a second subject in a sonata.

Captain Obvious couldn’t do it better. If you find this stuff useful, insightful or entertaining, you may agree with Melvyn Bragg that this is indeed the best book on Shakespeare ever written. Not in my book. And I’m by no means done with that one yet!

The very structure is lazy, repetitious and betrays Mr Kermode’s prejudices. He worships the critical canard that around 1599 the Bard experienced the white light of revelation and his style became far deeper than it was before. There is some truth in this, as evident in Julius Caesar and especially Hamlet, but I don’t think the change was quite so sudden and spectacular as many critics want to make it out. It was very well prepared in plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Mr Kermode dismisses all these, together with all early plays and even mature comedies like Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night usually dated around or after 1599, in the mere 60 pages of his Part One. Some scholar of Shakespeare’s language!

(There is another reason, more important if less frankly confessed than chronology, why Mr Kermode dislikes the great comedies. They are largely in prose, roughly 60 and 70 percent in the cases of Twelfth Night and Much Ado, respectively, and a little over 50 in the case of As You Like It. Mr Kermode is fan of dramatic verse. He doesn’t like prose. Another serious limitation of his study. As for the structure, a thematic approach would have been much better. Also, it would have been a much harder work.)

I will charitably ignore this first part which, by his own admission, doesn’t show Mr Kermode at his best. I absolutely don’t want to mention his (happily rare!) musical digressions, such as the one in the Introduction which argues, echoing the psycho hack Maynard Solomon, that Le nozze di Figaro (1786) owes something to the youthful serenades and divertimenti Mozart produced en masse in Salzburg of the mid-1770s...

I have read, with growing impatience and as much (or as little) attention as I could muster, eight chapters from Part Two. No improvement on Part One at all. Rather the reverse!

Mr Kermode continues to indulge in the same tedious description with special emphasis on trifles. What is the most important thing about the language of Hamlet, what do you think? Why, “it is obsessed with doubles of all kinds, and notably by its use of the figure known as hendiadys.” Everything’s in doubles. Marvellous, is it! Such a masterful linguistic device! Of course there is more in the play. Look at that oxymoron here (“defeated joy”, isn’t it dandy!) or that “string of synonyms” there! Isn’t all that going to make a real difference to your next reading of the most famous of all plays? It sure should!

If some people can’t see the wood for the trees, it is fair to say that Mr Kermode can’t see the play for the words. And not just Hamlet, either. Any Shakespeare play. Couple of searing observations more.

The most important thing about Antony and Cleopatra is that the word “become” and its derivatives occur 17 times. But wait, “fortune” is mentioned the staggering 44 times: “no other play has even half as many occurrences.” Stupendous significance! Even more portentous, Othello is second after Hamlet “in the frequency of its use of hendiadys”. But it must be admitted that here Mr Kermode is unusually expansive about the characters. Iago is a frigid and dirty-minded misogynist, Desdemona has her eye on the proper Lodovico at the most improper moment, and Othello delivers a “completely successful” speech to the Venetian senate. Monumentally perceptive! (As for Verdi’s Otello offering an “intelligent commentary on its source”, it is really more like an intelligent simplification, especially in the case of Iago whom Boito turns into a furious nihilist rather than “a gloomy nineteenth-century atheist”.) King Lear is “the craftiest as well as the most tremendous of Shakespeare’s tragedies” – a highly original claim. Coriolanus is “a play about anger, but it is calmly plotted” – whatever that means.

And so on, and so forth, fantastically useless “analysis”. Most of Mr Kermode’s points are either obvious to anybody who takes the trouble to read carefully the play in question or can be found in every decently annotated modern edition. Sometimes, and not so seldom either, the author’s revelations are so trite and petty that it’s impossible to take them seriously, much less remember them. I cannot think of a single thing about which I made a mental note of the sort “Ah, that is fascinating! Now that you’ve mentioned it...”

Mr Kermode has some curious central concepts, too. For instance, he maintains that Shakespeare’s business in his greatest plays was “to present character in all its inaccessibility, in language at least as opaque as necessary.” This is frightful nonsense. If Shakespeare’s characters had been so inaccessible, they never would have survived four centuries after his death. On the contrary, they are among the most accessible characters ever created. If the Bard is now and then obscure (or oblique/opaque in Kermodese) in the scenes and soliloquies of Brutus, Hamlet, Iago, Antony, Cleopatra, Lear or Macbeth, this is simply because he strove to convey the workings of the human mind as accurately as possible with a medium which is essentially inaccurate. Personally, I don’t think any of these o-words is accurate. Shakespeare’s greatest characters are profoundly ambiguous. That is why they have proved so enduring.

A good deal of these chapters – mostly in long footnotes in microscopic font, but sometimes in the main text as well – is not really about the language but rather about scholarly issues like textual variations, sources, dating, cuts and revisions. Besides being boring to the general reader, these matters contain at least one blatant factual error that should have been corrected. It is completely untrue that the scene with Cinna the poet from Julius Caesar (III.3) “is taken from a hint in the historian Suetonius writing about a latter epoch.” Baloney! The scene comes straight out of Plutarch (Julius Caesar, 68).

The book ends with a “dangerously simplified account” of the Folio, good and bad quartos, foul papers, prompt-books and other esoteric details from Elizabethan theatre and publishing. This short appendix is supposed to make the author’s countless references to those matters easier for the lay reader. A little glossary of the linguistic terms would have been better. The same goes for an extensive, detailed and annotated bibliography. There is not even the shortest list of cited works, an unforgivable omission in a book that pretends to be scholarly. The footnotes include full citations on first appearance and partial ones for later references – a cumbersome and confusing method.

To conclude, Shakespeare’s Language is a complete waste of time. Read Shakespeare’s plays instead. Frank Kermode only proved, yet again, how right Hazlitt was 201 years ago in the last two sentences of his aptly titled essay “On the Ignorance of the Learned” (1818):

If we wish to know the force of human genius, we should read Shakespear. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jul 1, 2019 |
The late Frank Kermode was one of the leading scholars in the field of Shakespearean studies, and this book clearly displays his ability to address complex technical issues in a clear and readily accessible manner.

Shakespeare’s language provides copious scope for debate. The full, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary provides illustrative quotations to show how the meaning of a word has developed over the years, and has more words whose definitions are supported by quotations from Shakespeare as the first recorded use than for any other single writer: he inherited an already copious and rich language, and bequeathed it a host of words of his own devising.

Kermode addresses this aspect of the Bard in detail, but he also looks more closely at the style of language that Shakespeare employed. He was, after all, writing for entertainment, and he adapted the flow and pace of his characters’ speeches to reflect their respective stations in life.

At the simplest level, Shakespeare showed marvellous dexterity at varying his characters’ language to suit their station in life. Noble characters deploy a far more venerable level of speech than the ‘ordinary’ citizenry. Similarly, Polonius, chief administrator and fixer for the usurping Claudius in Hamlet, comes across as ponderous and obfuscating, almost like his administrative descendant Sir Humphrey, whose discourses are intended to obscure rather than illuminate the machinery of government.

Kermode takes his analysis much further than this. Not only did Shakespeare have an acute ear for social distinctions within his characters’ speech, but his own use of language developed as he grew older. It is all too easy to resort to a quantitative approach to the study of literature, without uncovering anything particularly illuminating. One intriguing metric that Kermode highlights, however, is the differing proportion of prose and verse in his plays. There was a far greater preponderance of prose in his earlier works, sometimes rising almost to 40 per cent, whereas, once he hit mid-season form around 1600 onwards and embarked upon his later, great plays (Julius Caesar, King Lear, Hamlet), the proportion of the plays written in verse was far higher.

The first third of the book is given over to an analysis of Shakespeare’s works (including the sonnets) in general, while the rest of the book looks in detail at some of the individual plays. Kermode’s depth of knowledge about, and love for, his subject matter shines through at every stage.

Shakespeare’s mastery of the written word has never been in doubt, but this book shines a light on the mechanisms and artistry that underlie it. This is accessible scholastic analysis of the highest order. ( )
1 vote Eyejaybee | Dec 7, 2018 |
Sir Frank Kermode's Shakespeare's Language is a deeply significant publication, the result of a lifetime of writing and thinking on the Bard by one of our greatest critics, and it certainly lives up to its expectations. Kermode's numerous critical studies, such as The Sense of an Ending, have become classics and his recent memoir Not Entitled vividly captured a life of letters, characterised by a passionate commitment to the value of literature. The author begins by lamenting the fact that general readers have not "been well served by modern critics, who on the whole seem to have little time for [Shakespeare's] language". However, rather than launching into a diatribe against current literary fashions, he proceeds to offer an elegant and detailed account of how "Shakespeare became, between 1594 and 1608, a different kind of poet". For Kermode, Shakespeare "moved up to a new level of achievement and difficulty", associated with the rich complexities of Hamlet and the enigmatic poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. Kermode defines that shift as "the pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them. This is new: the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighing of confused possibilities and dubious motives". This leads Kermode to break his book into two parts. The first deals with the plays up to 1600, including some controversial dismissals of plays, including As You Like It, whilst the second part offers 15 detailed chapters on the tragedies, problem plays and romances. Each chapter is full of detailed and illuminating interpretations of the difficulties, but also pleasures of Shakespeare's language. This is classic Shakespeare criticism, written in the mould of Johnson and Coleridge.--Jerry Brotton
  Roger_Scoppie | Apr 3, 2013 |
Segnalato da Flavia Vendittelli
  Biblit | Apr 24, 2012 |
The true biography of Shakespeare - and the only one we really need to care about - is in the plays. Sir Frank Kermode, Britain's most distinguished literary critic, has been thinking about them all his life. This book is a distillation of that lifetime's thinking. The great English tragedies were all written in the first decade of the seventeenth century. They are often in language that is difficult to us, and must have been hard even for contemporaries. How and why did Shakespeare's language develop as it did? Kermode argues that the resources of English underwent major change around 1600.
  RKC-Drama | Mar 24, 2011 |
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Although a large proportion of Shakespeare's verse was spoken in the theatre, a fact that accounts for much that affected its extraordinary development, I am not, or not primarily, interested in purely theatrical matters, though I must occasionally have something to say about them.
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Every so often there is a rebellion against the assumption that Shakespeare is a uniquely great writer. This feeling, strong at the moment, has vociferous supporters in the academics, teachers who want to be rid of what they regard as heritage lumber. some even profess to believe that the eminence of Shakespeare is the result of an imperialist plot. There are also those, in my view almost equally wrong-headed, who continue to adore the Bard without giving much thought to the problems he sets. My belief is that, like the very critical Ben Johnson, we should admire Shakespeare this side of idolatry; there was ever more to be praised in than pardoned. Like Johnson, we need not shrink from saying that some of the work is mediocre or worse. What we do need is new ways of saying why the best of him really is the best.

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