In a lecture given in 1978 the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges observed that nations tend to choose authors to represent them that do not resemble their national character, citing, as a striking example, the discrepancy between a ‘hyperbolic’ Shakespeare and an England of ‘understatement’. His observation resonates with the central argument of my book, namely that what I call Shakespeare’s ‘extravagancy’ (borrowing one of his invented words) works against the idea of an exclusionary, separate and homogeneous community of (the) English— people and language. This idea, which emerged in post-Reformation England, and which found its most recent expression in the Brexit vote is resisted by Shakespeare through linguistic practices which traverse boundaries of English and not-English, strange and ‘proper’ senses and which tend to the production of a ‘gallimaufry’ of ‘our English’. A recurring figure of an inclusive, mobile and changing mix ‘the gallimaufry’ of ‘our English’ stands against ‘the King’s English’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s one comedy located in England and the one play to feature this phrase or trope.
My second chapter provides the first history of this trope, which emerged in the last decades of the sixteenth century when it was mobilised by protestant cultural reformers to produce the bounded, stable linguistic centre it represents. Crucially, it was used not descriptively, but performatively to produce the centre through exclusion, which is how it has continued to be used, although today it looks set to disappear in the global ecology of world ‘Englishes’. In early uses those excluded from the centre that ‘the King’s English’ represents were not only ‘strangers’ but also members of the male elite, perceived as using ‘outlandish’ latinate and romance words picked up, like their dress and manners, on their travels in continental Europe. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly identified as ‘traitors’, untrue to the proper or ‘true’ character of the English, members of the male elite are thus ousted from the centre the trope represents, which is occupied rather by the figure of the plain speaking, plainly dressed, educated, protestant citizen. This lends a new significance to the humiliation by citizen wives of the linguistically extravagant courtier John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor which, I argue, draws out the ideological implications of the banishment of Falstaff in the second tetralogy. For this is performed by a prince — Hal — who on his accession to the throne as Henry V undergoes a ‘reformation’ to the character of a plain temperate English citizen. Tellingly it is in the reign of the historical Henry V that the origins of ‘the King’s English’ probably lies.
If ‘the King’s English’ is explicitly ironised and undercut in the one play in which the trope is invoked, the idea it represents of a bounded, stable national vernacular, which is linked to the idea not only of a closed, bounded nation, but also of a closed, bounded self, is put into question throughout by Shakespeare’s linguistic practices. Of these practices, which are discussed in chapter 5, the two most important in this respect are the practice of ‘synonymia’ — or variation — and new word formation. The second is named ‘enfranchisement’ by the English schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster who thus applies to words the administrative term for the formal admittance of ‘strangers’ into the community of ‘our English’ — a status roughly equivalent to the ‘settled status’ for which European citizens have to apply in post-Brexit Britain.
The analogy between linguistic and human ‘strangers’ was a commonplace, but this instance highlights what was at stake in Shakespeare’s traversing of linguistic frontiers to form new words such as ‘peregrinate’ (Love’s Labour’s Lost) ‘extravagancy’ and ‘frutify’ (Twelfth Night) all of which reflect on the practice that they illustrate. Wandering or ‘straying’ across frontiers between national languages this practice is generative (or fruitful), expanding the expressive possibilities of ‘our English’. This is highlighted by the practice of ‘synonymia’ when words with similar meanings are used in sequence. Eschewed by cultural reformers (including fellow playwright and rival Ben Jonson), practised by a range of Shakespearean characters — from Holofernes to Falstaff to Fluellen to Hamlet — ‘synonymia’ affirms the linguistic capital of ‘manifold Englishes’. This is how the Italian born John Florio describes the multiple English equivalents to Italian words in the preface to his dictionary of 1598. For Florio, however, this capital belongs to the male elite of ‘gentlemen’, whereas Shakespeare rather redistributes it to the broad social constituency that made up theatre audiences.
Given the commonplace analogy between human and linguistic ‘strangers’ , Shakespeare’s linguistic practices imply the welcoming of human strangers. The focus of chapter 4, Shakespeare’s advocacy of hospitality towards strangers is most explicit in his contribution to the co-authored playtext Sir Thomas More, which, I show, is deeply consistent in this respect with early comedies and the second tetralogy of history plays. While the history plays highlight the diversity of the communities that make up what is shown to be a nation of mutual strangers, the comedies repeatedly stage the ‘straying’ into the condition of a ‘stranger’.
These plays thus bear out the argument made by Shakespeare’s More that this condition is common and contingent, a condition, that is, in which anyone may find themselves, if they ‘stray’ from the boundaries of the (more or less local) communities in which they are known. Inviting hostile citizens on stage and off to see themselves in ‘the strangers’ case’, Shakespeare’s More urges explicitly what the history plays and comedies urge implicitly: fellow feeling and the practice of the ‘charity’ which makes one ‘worth the name of a Christian’ as the servant clown Lance puts it in what is possibly Shakespeare’s earliest play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
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