How We Read Shakespeare's Language
Paula Blank




I. Introduction

The ornament of beauty is suspect.

—Sonnet 70.3

Is Shakespeare’s language “beautiful”? “Beauty” may well be the quality that people most often associate with Shakespeare’s words, seek to discover or rediscover. Among my students who are new to the poems and plays, some are hoping that Shakespeare’s language is as beautiful as they have been led to believe and are waiting to be shown that it so. Others are afraid or resentful of the fact that it is supposed to be beautiful and remain skeptical. But if my students have read any Shakespeare before, and most of them have, chances are they have experienced a little of both. They may have been struck by what they felt to be the beauty of a particular line or passage in the plays, but if they are willing to admit it to themselves, they probably also felt that other lines were lackluster or tiresome. In any case, the desire for Shakespeare to be (proven) beautiful prevails.

Yet despite the preeminence of “beauty” in our hopes for Shakespeare’s words, the distinctions we make between beautiful lines and unbeautiful lines remain implicit, if not mystified entirely, in the ways we currently write about Shakespeare’s language. It’s what we most want to talk about and feel most awkward talking about.

This wasn’t always the case. Up until the twentieth century, Shakespeare’s critics were intent on identifying the beautiful elements of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose and distinguishing them from his “Faults,” “Irregularities,” or “Deformities,” as Samuel Johnson variously referred to his ugly or awkward language.1 Scholars have long acknowledged Shakespeare to be central to the eighteenth-century rise of “aesthetics” as a discipline of knowledge, with “beauty” as aesthetics’ locus of inquiry.

When it comes to Shakespeare, we remain especially indebted to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). Although philosophizing on the arts goes back to the Greeks, we can credit Kant and his nineteenth-century German Romantic heirs with our tendency to think about Shakespeare in terms of beauty, creative genius, artistic freedom, and the sublime. When I say “our,” this time, however, I don’t mean Shakespeare scholars. Scholars don’t like to talk about beauty in Shakespeare anymore. It has come to seem too subjective a quality for professional analysis, an old-fashioned holdover from the days of “art appreciation,” before literary criticism established itself on a more scientific footing. One way or another, the beauty of Shakespeare’s language has become suspect. “Beauty” has gotten a bad name among scholars insofar as it has been shown to conceal cultural prejudices under assertions of timeless or universal value. And notions of individual, creative genius have given way to sociological readings of the ways culture produces text, among other methods of refuting “genius” as the source of art. In place of discussions of the beauty of Shakespeare’s words, contemporary Shakespeareans prefer to focus on its “powers” and “pleasures.” Both are intended in a transactional sense: “power” may be exercised on others or negotiated, “pleasure” may be given and received, paid for and consumed. At best, “beauty” is a mystification of such transactions.

Diagnosing a radical turn in our aesthetic judgments, especially since Kant, Sianne Ngai, in her fascinating book Our Aesthetic Categories (2015), argues that “beauty” is something we no longer reflexively see or seek in art and culture. Instead, she writes, our age of information, commercialization, and neurosis has shifted us away from old aesthetic categories such as the “beautiful” and the “sublime” toward ones that “dramatize their own frivolity or ineffectuality.”2 In our collective consciousness, for example, we have replaced the “beautiful” with the “cute.” Whereas “beauty” was traditionally associated with singularity, passion, and morality, “cuteness” depends on “the subject’s affective response to an imbalance of power between herself and the object.”3 Ngai’s examples are drawn from popular culture and include I Love Lucy and Hello Kitty. The power differential is crucial here: If we once aspired to surrender to the beautiful, we now condescend to the “cute.” Ngai names our two other dominant aesthetic categories as the “zany” and the (merely) “interesting.”

I am convinced, for the most part, by Ngai’s diagnosis of modern aesthetics. The problem, as I see it, is that most people aren’t actually done with “beauty” when it comes to Shakespeare. On the contrary, my experience with students suggests that we are much more like eighteenth-century critics than twenty-first-century critics when it comes to Shakespeare’s beauty, except that we are even more biased: Whereas eighteenth-century readers talked about ugly Shakespeare as well as beautiful Shakespeare, we only seem to talk about the latter (I will say more about Shakespeare’s “ugly” language at the end of this chapter).

So if we hear something beautiful, rather than something cute or zany, in Shakespeare’s language, what is happening? Does it mean that our tastes, when it comes to Shakespeare, belong to a former age? Does it mean that we allow ourselves to indulge in an older aesthetic category because Shakespeare is old, even older than “aesthetics” itself? Do we reserve “beauty” as a key aesthetic category for certain contemporary experiences but not others? We need to look more closely at our habits and expectations while reading Shakespeare, to sort this out.

As it happens, eighteenth-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, a key figure in the rise of “aesthetics,” is also a key figure in a trajectory of Western criticism aimed at the problem of critics’ own biases, as they judge works of art. In his essay on Shakespeare, Herder critiqued neoclassical critics who judged the plays against the “rules” for dramatic writing they believed had been established by Aristotle. Herder suggested that works of art, whether by Aristotle’s beloved Sophocles or by Shakespeare, can only be judged by the aesthetic standards of their own time. Just as importantly, Herder emphasized that such critics are trapped by their own cultural prejudices, including a very reductive form of classicism. As one Herder scholar has summed up his essay: “This is the most damaging of all prejudices: that of imagining that one’s own outlook is untainted by the historical and cultural context in which it finds its shape.”4 Herder’s solution to this problem was historicization; he advocated what scholars now call “an anthropological turn”5 that situates both works and their readers in context.

As I discussed in Chapter 1, most of our recent efforts to understand Shakespeare’s effects place them back in the context of the “linguistic resources of his time.”6 Scholars routinely follow Herder’s mandate, and foreground the alterity of past cultures. But once Shakespeare’s aesthetics is the issue, historicism has its limits. An exclusively historicist take on Shakespeare’s beauty must presume either (1) that truly to experience Shakespeare’s beauty, we can or should give up our own standards for beauty for those of the sixteenth century, or (2) that we still find beautiful what Shakespeare’s contemporaries found beautiful, which would mean that aesthetic standards are timeless. The problem, in either case, is the implication that we do not have aesthetic experiences independent of our study of Shakespeare’s linguistic contexts, or that if we do, they may be the wrong ones. If we follow Herder more fully, and consider our own historical biases, as well as Shakespeare’s, we may arrive at the same place—and conclude that we ought to leave those biases behind as part of a personal or cultural false consciousness. Or, if we are more generous about our current biases, we could conclude that we just appreciate Shakespeare more than his contemporaries did (i.e., that Shakespeare was ahead of his time, aesthetically). But that just reverses, rather than changes, the same kind of judgment—making us “right” and his contemporaries “wrong.”

Pace Herder, the way we do historicism these days is never going to get to Shakespeare’s beauty (or lack of it). If we find Shakespeare beautiful, and wonder why, we will never get a full answer from the Renaissance, or even directly from Shakespeare himself. We will never get a full answer from self-reflection, either. Our best chance is to consider the moment we make contact with his texts, the moment of our interlinguistic participation.

As the philosopher Alexander Nehamas, in a brilliant book on the topic of beauty, reminds us, “the effect of beauty is immediate,” and “the beauty of things strikes us as soon as we are exposed to them,”7 even if study can enhance that instantaneous experience. This being the case, we cannot be wrong when we feel that Shakespeare’s language (or anything else) is beautiful. Of course, we cannot exactly be right about it, either. Speaking of “we” and “ourselves” in this way is politically incorrect in literary studies these days, as I’ve also discussed in my first chapter. But I want to add that this is especially true when it comes to the question of what “we” find beautiful. Philosophers of aesthetics since Kant, however, have happily made such claims on us. When a writer talks about beauty, philosopher Stanley Cavell observes, he or she “turns to the reader not to convince him without proof but to get him to prove something, test something, against himself. He is saying: Look and find out whether you can see what I see, wish to say what I wish to say.”8 Nehamas concurs: “Whenever I find something beautiful, even when I speak only to myself, my judgment goes outwards: I expect that others should join me, or would join me if they only had the opportunity.”9 Ngai, too, affirms that “aesthetic judgment is less like a propositional statement than an intersubjective demand.”10 Nehamas explains, “The judgment of beauty is . . . essentially social. . . . But although it is neither completely objective or public, it is also not purely subjective or private. Between these two domains, which have sometimes seemed to exhaust all available social and logical space, there is a third, which extends well beyond the private but falls short of the public. The judgment of beauty is personal.”11 Matters of beauty are personal judgments that, by their very nature, move us to include others, not in order to prescribe their responses, but to invite them to find out if they share in ours.

I, too, wish to issue such an invitation in this chapter. But I would qualify the inclusiveness of the approved philosophical gesture. The “we” I am addressing isn’t all or any readers, but more specifically, contemporary speakers of Modern English. Needless to say, “Modern English” represents a broad and diverse constituency. I am inviting Modern English readers to test out examples of Shakespeare’s rhetorical beauty that I will present to them here, against a horizon of our shared linguistic expectations. Of all of our twenty-first-century historical biases, it’s our Modern American English, in relation to Shakespeare, that makes a shared aesthetic community among us possible.

I’ll begin with a couple of generalizations. Beauty in Shakespeare often resides in what the Russian formalists of the early twentieth-century termed “defamiliarization,” or what playwright Bertolt Brecht called “alienation effects.” These modernist aesthetic principles refer to the ways that writers deliberately seek to “make the familiar strange” by exposing the artifice of poetic or theatrical conventions. Alienation effects served Brecht’s purpose of making it hard for audiences to identify or empathize with characters or situations.

But while Shakespeare often makes our familiar English strange, this playwright cannot be said to do so deliberately. My focus, here, will be on English that has become strange over time. Shakespeare’s “alienation effects,” moreover, sometimes draw us closer to the plays, rather than distancing us from them, even when we aren’t entirely sure we get what his characters are saying. As Nehamas writes, “The art we love is art we don’t yet fully understand. . . . Beauty always remains a bit of a mystery . . . more like something calling me without showing exactly what it is calling me to.”12 Shakespeare’s unusual language can produce, in an important turn of phrase by scholar Ruth Morse, “alienation effects which do not alienate.”13 It somehow invites us in.

Related to our response to “strangeness” is our attraction to Shakespeare’s apparent disregard or even disobedience when it comes to our rules of grammar. I don’t think we have tolerance, let alone aesthetic appreciation, for sustained “alienation effects” of this kind, for a succession of lines that make no sense to us at all. But a word that appears in an unexpected place, proper forms for declensions or conjugations transgressed, a clause broken here or there, suggests to us daring, exuberance, or even sublimity. Once again what’s crucial here is that “strangeness” and “error” are not absolute terms, fixed in Shakespeare’s language itself, but rather dependent on whose English sets the standard. What was strange for Shakespeare may or may not be strange for us any longer, and vice versa. What are grammatical errors for us may or may not have been back then, and vice versa. And once again, the examples I fix on in this chapter will show how the “beautiful,” today, often involves forms and phrases ordinary enough in Early Modern English. What is beautiful in Shakespeare sometimes arises from what second-language acquisition theorists call positive transfer. Novelty and deviation are key to our sense of Shakespeare’s beauty, but not always in the ways we’ve suspected.

Another general idea regarding what’s ahead: When we think of beautiful language in Shakespeare, we are likely to think first of soliloquies or monologues, that is, a long set of lines uttered by one speaker. Our judgments here are continuous with an ancient Western emphasis on oratory as the model for rhetoric and poetics; we still talk about a long Shakespearean passage as a “speech.” Our modernist legacy only reinforces the notion that long passages are more significant than short ones. Long passages come across to us as if they were separate or separable works or “objects” of art. They are easier than short passages or pieces of dialogue to cut off from their contexts, including the plots that animate them. Shakespearean actors may still audition with “set speeches,” which no doubt give an actor more of a chance to display depth of character. Still, I think it also displays a tendency to hold “speeches” as the most meaningful form of Shakespearean verse or prose.

But I think we are sometimes more ambivalent about the beauty of long passages than we admit to ourselves. We believe we are “supposed to” admire them. Samuel Johnson, for one, had no such compunctions. Of Henry V’s famous “Saint Crispian’s Day” call-to-arms, in which the young king charismatically rouses his weary and dwindling troops to battle, Johnson complains, “This speech like many others of the declamatory kind is too long. Had it been contracted to about half the number of lines it might have gained force and lost none of the sentiments.”14 Stage and film directors today often silently cut Shakespeare’s long speeches for much the same reasons. We don’t easily accept that strong feelings lead to verbosity, as Shakespeare often does. Here, I will be placing a greater emphasis on the unexpected beauty of individual phrases and lines, as opposed to soliloquies and speeches, than has been done before. Readers may be surprised by many of my examples; I choose them precisely because we have never attended to them. I believe our deepest, albeit unacknowledged, sense of Shakespeare’s beauty owes, cumulatively, to some of the pervasive if fleeting “beauties” I will describe here. We’ve overlooked them because of our presuppositions of where beauty is to be found, not because of where and how we actually experience it.

A final generalization I must mention is my use of the word “beauty” itself. Of course, beauty does, and can, mean many things to many people. I will be moving freely among four of beauty’s modes—“grand” beauty (lofty, dignified, majestic); “emotional” beauty (tender, fervent, poignant); “contemplative” beauty (composed, reflective, wistful); and “sensuous” beauty (attractive, luscious, vivid—i.e., beauty that appeals directly to the physical senses). Effects of sensuality, sexuality, and the erotic will be reserved for Chapter 3. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive or authoritative consideration of beauty, but just a start and an invitation.


1. Samuel Johnson, Mr. Johnson’s Preface to his Edition of Shakespear’s Plays (London: J. & R. Tonson et. al, 1765), xvii.

2. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 20.

3. Ibid., 54.

4. Kristin Gjesdal, “Shakespeare’s Hermeneutic Legacy: Herder on Modern Drama and the Challenge of Cultural Prejudice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2013): 67.

5. Ibid.

6. Seth Lerer, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 129.

7. Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 16.

8. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 95–96.

9. Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness, 79.

10. Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 40.

11. Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness, 85.

12. Ibid., 76, 78.

13. Ruth Morse, “Reflections in Shakespeare Translation,” Yearbook of English Studies 36, no. 1 (2006): 89.

14. William Shakespeare, The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, with the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators, vol. 17, ed. Edmond Malone (London, 1821), 208 n. 1.