Word of the Day: Unborn

August 5, 2011 in Word of the Day

Standing with the corpse of Caesar at their feet, Cassio tells Brutus:

> Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
> Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er
> In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

These four lines fall almost precisely at the centre of Julius Caesar, and mark a particularly vertiginous moment for the play’s audience. A great part of the dizzying effect depends on the use of two words beginning with ‘un-’. In this case the use of the prefix (as opposed to writing “not born”, for example), captures the special sense of Cassio’s speech: future states and accents have not yet come in to being, but they will. The word ‘unborn’, like all words beginning with such a prefix, unites two states: being born and not being born. Thus there is an added element of tragedy to the grief of Richard II’s childless wife, when she tells the courtier Bushy:

> Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb,
> Is coming towards me, and my inward soul
> With nothing trembles; at some thing it grieves
> More than with parting from my lord the king.

Many commentators take this line to refer to a stillborn heir; if so, then “unborn”, capturing both the possibility of birth and its tragic denial, is the apt and awful word for the occasion.

There are over 700 different words beginning with “un-” in Shakespeare’s works, all (excluding those with the under- prefix) of them preserving the balance of possibility and denial already seen with “unborn”. Particular examples include: Octavius arguing that one should “let determined things to destiny / Hold unbewail’d their way” in Antony and Cleopatra; both Lear and, metaphorically, Othello appearing “unbonneted”; the young prince Humphry describing “unfather’d heirs” at the end of Henry IV part II; Cymbeline fearing to appear “unkinglike”; Henry V apologising to the future Queen Katherine for his provoking or “untempering” visage; and, strangest of all, Isabella talking about “unwedgeable oak”. This last example is part of an exchange between the heroine of Measure for Measure and its villain, Angelo, where Isabella’s emotion appears in such dense and passionate speech on the topic of abused authority that it merits quotation:

> [...] Could great men thunder
> As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
> For every pelting, petty officer
> Would use his heaven for thunder;
> Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
> Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
> Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
> Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
> Drest in a little brief authority,
> Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
> His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
> Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
> As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
> Would all themselves laugh mortal.

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