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Word of the Day: Philomel

James Harriman-Smith - October 15, 2011 in Essay, Word of the Day

This is an article on the daughter of Pandion I and Zeuxippe, raped by her sister Procne’s husband, Tereus, in the Thracian woods and transformed, along with Procne, into a bird. It is not an article about a little-known string instrument. The former we now write ‘Philomela’, the latter ‘Philomel’, but Shakespeare, bound by poetic rhythm, frequently adopts ‘Philomel’ as a name for the woman who was not only raped, but also had her tongue cut out by her brother-in-law, and whose story has been told or referenced by Ovid, Chaucer, Sir Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney and many more, as well as ten times by Shakespeare.

The name Philomela, although Ovid thought that it came from the Greek for ‘lover of song’, actually seems to mean lover of fruit, lover of apples (one thinks of Paris’s choice) and lover of sheep. These bucolic references recur in Shakespeare’s sweetest evocation of the Philomel story, the songs chanted by Titania’s fairy attendants in the woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Philomel, with melody,
Sing in our sweet lullaby:
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm, nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good-night, with lullaby.

Of course, no mention of Philomel could ever be completely without menace, and, despite the fairies’ wishes, Oberon soon appears to charm his lady into humiliating infatuation with an ass. Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde has a roughly similar scene, when Criseyde, not long before she and Troilus consummate their love in the night, whiles away nightfall listening to the nightingale, the bird into which tradition holds Philomela was transformed, as it sings “ayein the mone shene, / […] a lay / Of love, that made hir fresh and gay”. Of course, Criseyde’s misfortunate is both further off and much more grave than the recumbant Titania’s, yet still both scenes portray the two halves of the Philomela story: the evil dealt to a woman at the hands of a man, and the beauty of the bird’s song that charms and testifies to the tragedy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, himself hellenophile and here rephrasing a common Ancient Greek sentiment, wrote that “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.” The words come from his Julian and Maddalo, a poem heavy with the poet’s own introspection, yet they also play out the shape of the Philomela story: great suffering and beautiful song. Shakespeare’s sonnet 102 draws a parallel between the sonneteer and the songbird (here called ‘Philomel’), since “like her, I sometime hold my tongue: / Because I would not dull you with my song.” Being Shakespeare, this is something of a new twist: the silence of the nightingale is the interest of the amorous sonneteer; the lack of music both the promise of future, better, sounds, and the repudiation of a link between song and suffering. This contrasts with Raleigh’s poem (written in response to one by Christopher Marlowe), where the silence of the nightingale is, if anything, more terrifying than her song, being a sign of “cares to come”.

Yet Shakespeare does not shy away from this menace either: his Lucrece, herself a victim of rape, sings “her nightly sorrow” like the nightingale in The Rape of Lucrece, and then, not soon after, curses the joyful morning chorus and instead invites Philomel’s avian to warble an accompaniment to her grief. Elsewhere, Iachimo, the villain of Cymbeline, notes with glee that Imogen, the woman whose love for Posthumus he will misrepresent, read before sleeping “The tale of Tereus” and “that the leaf’s turn’d down / Where Philomel gave up”. Whether evil man or female victim, the Greek myth serves to sharpen the emotion of the scene. The danger, of course, is that things may seem too pat, the identification between Greek heroine and Shakespearean character too neat, and the art thus fatally blunting the articulation of sorrow felt or sorrows still to fall.

This point brings us to Titus Andonicus, where an early-career Shakespeare is, even more than elsewhere, interested in the limits and techniques of his writing. Specifically, the playwright seems to be measuring himself against the Latin poet Ovid, whom he would have studied at length in school and whose version of the Philomela story he would consequently know. It is to this chapter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that a tongueless Lavinia turns to tell her family about what the young Goths have done to her; yet, as her father Titus himself remarks, Lavinia is in a state “worst than Philomel”. Titus’ brother Marcus is even clearer, bursting into an uncomfortably long speech before the mangled woman to say that her agressor “hath cut those pretty fingers off / That could have better sew’d than Philomel”, Ovid’s heroine communicating her plight in a tapestry sent to her sister Procne.

If we add all this emphasis on Lavinia suffering more than Philomela to poets’ connections between suffering and song embodied in the nightingale trope, a few observations can be made. What pushes Shakespeare’s Lavinia beyond the Ovidian pale is a particularly obvious wound: Philomela’s rape and the cutting of her tongue are not immediately visible injuries, whereas the loss of Lavinia’s hands is. In this respect Shakespeare surpasses Ovid in a dimension offered to him as a playwright and not to Ovid or other writers of poems: the actor’s physical body on the stage. Even the rudimentary stagecraft of an Elizabethan stage could bind and bloody hands, and Lavinia’s appearance on a stage without these appendages makes for a theatrical spectacle as much as a poetical one. In a very specific, dark sense of the term, Lavinia is Shakespeare’s transformation of Philomela, her metamorphosis marked right before the spectator’s eyes.

Word of the Day: Pelican

James Harriman-Smith - September 30, 2011 in Word of the Day

Many of the colleges that make up Cambridge University, founded in more pious times, have religious names: Trinity, St John’s, Peterhouse (as in ‘The House of Saint Peter’, and thus never to be called ‘Peterhouse College’), and others are all more or less recognisable as institutions that once taught theology above all else. The most obvious examples of the phenomenon are, of course, Christ’s College and Jesus College, but coming in a not so distant third place is the only college founded by the citizens of Cambridge (in 1352 following a plague outbreak), Corpus Christi. The College name translates as ‘the body of Christ’, and the college symbol is a pelican. Believe it or not, there is a method in this unusual symblic alignement of our Saviour and the seaside-dwelling avian, as revealed by Laertes’ words in Hamlet:

LAERTES To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms;
And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood.

With these words, the hot-blooded lord promises cooperation with the friends of his murdered father (such as Claudius), even as he plots brutal revenge on his father’s murderer, Hamlet. The idea of the pelican wounding itself to feed and sustain its young, perhaps the result of the peculiar way in which the bird will hold its beak-pouch when regurgitating food for its infants, makes for an image of self-sacrifice that dates back to medieval texts. The self-sacrificing pelican, supposedly giving up its blood, imitates Jesus giving up his life, having offered his blood and body in the form of bread and wine to his believers at the Last Supper.

We find the Christian-avian overlap elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works: King Lear reverses the trope when he points to a noticeable lack of Christian charity in his “pelican daughters”, trying to drain him dry; elsewhere, John of Gaunt (near to death at the start of Richard II) accuses the King with another bitter reference to the “life-rendering pelican”:

GAUNT O! spare me not, my brother Edward’s son,
For that I was his father Edward’s son.
That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapp’d out, and drunkenly carous’d

Here one may draw out similarities between Richard’s improper treatment of Gaunt and the improper use made of the blood (or wine) of the pelican (or Christ). Given the strength of the association between pelicans and divinity in the medieval period, as evinced by Corpus Christi College’s heraldry, and given the fact that the historical John of Gaunt (brother to the Earl of Cambridge) died in February 1399, one may even say that this pelican, so odd to modern, secular ears, even adds a bit of period colour to this Elizabethan play

Word of the Day: Hawthorn

James Harriman-Smith - September 23, 2011 in Word of the Day

Crataegus monogyna, or, to give its more usual name, the common hawthorn is fairly common in Shakespeare’s plays. For Henry VI, it even represents the ideal insouciance of the common people that he, as a persecuted king, longs for:

Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

Indeed, shepherds are not the only commoners to make use of the common hawthorn: the mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream turn a hawthorn bush into their “tiring house”, that part of their makeshift rehearsal space where they will go and change their clothes (‘attire’). There is something of a joke here, since the hawthorn plant forms very dense bushes indeed, and so makes for a tiring house that would be rather difficult to enter into. Orlando, in As You Like It, would certainly be aware of this density, having – according to Rosalind at least – hung “odes upon hawthorns” in her honour, despite the obvious difficulty of attaching anything to plants so tangled and boxy that Edgar, in King Lear describes the power of a winter wind as something capable of blowing through “sharp hawthorn”.

As well as all this movement through, under, onto and into hawthorn bushes, there are one or two references to their buds. The branches of this plant, when in flower, used to be carried during May Day celebrations each year, until the shift to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 meant that the hawthorn started flowering in the middle and not the start of the month. However, the link between hawthorns, May, and all that May stands for in terms of young love, was alive and well in Shakespeare’s time, when Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can bemoan such beauty in Hermia that it is more charming than all that goes on when “hawthorn buds appear”.

Last, but not least, we have the berries, and Falstaff’s contribution to this article. Declaring his love for Mrs Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he points out that she is not one of those “lisping hawthorn-buds that come like women in men’s apparel”, although quite what this might mean is beyond me. I shall content myself by guessing that such “hawthorn buds” stand for pathetic, weak lovers (Mercutio denounces the “lisp” of Tybalt and other “fantasticoes” in Romeo and Juliet), something that Falstaff and Mrs Ford are most certainly not.

Word of the Day: Apoplexy

James Harriman-Smith - September 16, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is not a pleasant word, used from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century to describe any sudden death that began with a loss of consciousness. Its roots, like much medical terminology, lie in ancient Greek; in this case, an anglicisation of apoplexia (striking or hitting – ‘plexia’ – away – ‘apo’). The word only occurs four times in Shakespeare’s works, five if we count a variant that we find in Hamlet, when the prince attacks his mother for having married her husband’s brother:

> HAMLET […] Sense sure you have,
> Else could you not have motion; but sure that sense
> Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
> Nor sense to ecstacy was ne’er so thrall’d
> But it reserv’d some quantity of choice
> To serve in such a difference.

Note here that apoplexy occurs only as part of a metaphor: for Hamlet, Gertrude’s senses must have all but shut down, since such a wedding could not have occurred otherwise, in spite of all (and here comes another Greek word) the “ecstasy” she may have felt. The language of the Prince of Denmark on this topic of remarriage is full of words with classical roots and references to classical myths: one thinks of his paralleling Old Hamlet and Claudius, the former being to the latter as “Hyperion to a satyr”.

Hamlet’s description of “apoplex’d” senses may well be a sign of his hiding behind the words he learnt at university in Wittenberg; another example of the word, this time in *Coriolanus*, is far more blunt , with the word employed to describe what the play’s eponymous hero considers the dullness of peacetime.

> CORIOLANUS […] Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.

Coriolanus’ assessment of peace could not be further from that of Henry IV, the only character in Shakespeare’s works to die of apoplexy, and a man obsessed with maintaining the fragile equilibrium of peace installed after his rebellion and dethroning of Richard II. As Falstaff puts it, “This apoplexy […] is a kind of lethargy, […] a kind of sleeping in the blood, a tingling. […] It hath it original from much grief, from study, and perturbation of the brain”. All his information, we soon learn, comes from “Galen”, quite possibly one of those books in Greek on the shelf of the young Prince of Denmark back in Wittenberg, and almost certainly present in the library of that other famous Wittenberg graduate: Dr Faustus.

Word of the Day: Return

James Harriman-Smith - September 9, 2011 in Word of the Day

Word of the Day has been on leave recently, but has decided to come back in its usual self-referential style, with a word that occurs one hundred and ninety-seven times in Shakespeare’s works. Hear follows, necessarily, a short yet eventful cherry-pick of some of the best uses of the word ‘return’ in the plays and poems.

I take my first example from *Richard II*, not least because the word return occurs a great deal in the so-called history plays, where messengers are forever being sent to various English and French courts only to be returned again with a polite reply or, in one memorable case after a delivery of tennis balls, a declaration of war. The lines below, however, do not deal with messengers but with two quarreling Dukes, Bolingbroke and Mowbray; Richard orders them to stand down in a rare display of royal authority, even as this point marks the slow erosion of his sovereignty until he eventually resigns the crown to the returning Bolingbroke.

KING RICHARD Let them lay by their helmets and their spears,
And both return back to their chairs again:
Withdraw with us; and let the trumpets sound
While we return these dukes what we decree.

King Richard is not the only king in Shakespeare to talk of returning: Lear, who also shares Richard’s downward trajectory, has a very well-known speech about his desire not to return to his daughters’ houses. With the dethroned Lear wandering the countryside, he would resemble those messengers at the other end of the normal hierarchy, forever being sent hither and thither in the history plays, were it not for his stubborn refusal to reject all houses.

LEAR Return to her, and fifty men dismiss’d?
No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To wage against the enmity o’ the air;
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl,-
Necessity’s sharp pinch!–Return with her?
Why, the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took
Our youngest born, I could as well be brought
To knee his throne, and, squire-like, pension beg
To keep base life afoot.-Return with her?
Persuade me rather to be slave and sumpter
To this detested groom.
[Pointing to Oswald.]

My last example, before I leave off for this week and prepare my own return to action at a slightly slower rate than Ariel, returning to Prospero “ere your pulse twice beat”, is taken from the *Sonnets*. These poems, charting the speaker’s emotional engagements are full of references to separation and return: my favourite, by virtue of its wonderful conclusion, is number 56.

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
To-morrow sharpened in his former might:
So, love, be thou, although to-day thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love, with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
Or call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

Word of the Day: Foundation

James Harriman-Smith - August 19, 2011 in Word of the Day

“God save the foundation!” says the constable Dogberry to thank Leonato for a gift in Much Ado About Nothing, tactlessly treating his benefactor like an official charity. Funnily enough, Dogberry’s use of the word is not too far from that in the title of our parent organisation, the Open Knolwedge Foundation, which has served as inspiration for a triptych of word of the day articles (part I & II). Foundation, in the business and organisational word means “an organization or institution established by endowment with provision for future maintenance” (Merriam-Webster), in the case of the OKF, this becomes a “not-for-profit organization”. I am not too interested, though, in the precise status of a foundation, but rather – as befits the literary bent of this series – the metaphorical resonance of the term. For, apart from Dogberry’s apposite exclamation, the word foundation is found in eight other Shakespearean speeches, many much grander than the constable’s phrase. Take Macbeth demanding to know his future from the witches, no matter what the cost, as an example:

> MACBETH I conjure you, by that which you profess,–
> Howe’er you come to know it,–answer me:
> Though you untie the winds, and let them fight
> Against the churches; though the yesty waves
> Confound and swallow navigation up;
> Though bladed corn be lodg’d, and trees blown down;
> Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
> Though palaces and pyramids do slope
> Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
> Of nature’s germins tumble all together,
> Even till destruction sicken,–answer me
> To what I ask you.

The image of buildings falling to their foundation recurs in Venus and Adonis, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale. Each time the power of the description turns on the fact that ‘foundation’ stands for both origin and fundamental level, making such destruction doubly total. Yet there is a more hopeful rendering of the idea to be found too. After all, foundations should also be where things begin, as Lord Bardolph is keen to impress on the rebels of Henry IV pt II:

> LORD BARDOLPH. […] in this great work,
> Which is almost to pluck a kingdom down
> And set another up, should we survey
> The plot of situation and the model,
> Consent upon a sure foundation,
> Question surveyors, know our own estate,
> How able such a work to undergo,
> To weigh against his opposite; or else
> We fortify in paper and in figures,
> Using the names of men instead of men;
> Like one that draws the model of a house
> Beyond his power to build it; who, half through,
> Gives o’er and leaves his part-created cost
> A naked subject to the weeping clouds
> And waste for churlish winter’s tyranny.

As many will know, the rebellion of this sequel, like that of Henry IV part I, is crushed. That said, I can still find one – albeit sentimental – example of something springing from a foundation and succeeding: Open Shakespeare itself. Given previous reflections on openness and knowledge, perhaps my thought here on the OKF should be the observation that the concept of ‘foundation’, of laying out the start of something (call it what you will: trailblazing, pathfinding, innovating…), underpins everything that this project and the OKF does. Is this in tension, though, with the hopes of creating stable, flourishing open communities? Or rather, as I personally believe, the rhetoric necessary to the establishment and motivation of such groups. The only thing certain is that when talk is no longer of founding, then the project and the OKF will have changed utterly. For now, there is much work to do: “God save the foundation”, indeed.

Word of the Day: Knowledge

James Harriman-Smith - August 17, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is the second part of a triptych on the three words that make up the name of our parent organisation, the Open Knowledge Foundation. After Shakespeare’s openness, we come to Shakespeare’s knowledge. Again, we shall begin with the OKF’s own definition of the word:

> The term knowledge is taken to include:
> – Content such as music, films, books
> – Data be it scientific, historical, geographic or otherwise
> – Government and other administrative information

Shakespeare might have been able to grasp this (apart from the word data), although this kind of knowledge is, admittedly and unsurprisingly, far removed from his sense of the word, which already had (and still has) a complicated history, with its roots in both the concept of knowing something through experience (savoir) and that of knowing through the senses (connaitre). For a neat marriage of the two, take the disguised Duke’s rebuke to Lucio’s profession of love for the Duke himself towards the end of Measure for Measure:

> DUKE Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with dearer love.

Here, knowledge covers both Lucio’s blindness to the facts of the situation (i.e. that the Duke he professes to love is in fact standing, disguised as a friar, in front of him – savoir) and Lucio’s complete lack of tact (if he really did experience “love” for the Duke, he would not be shouting it in such a context – connaitre). In this respect, knowledge resembles something rather more abstract than its definition as content/data/information by the OKF would have it. Of course, such concrete, intellectual (knowledge as savoir) terms are necessary for articulating the aims and work of the foundation; when it comes to the world of Shakespeare’s plays, however, more subtle, personal flavours of knowledge emerge, blends of savoir and connaitre. The phrase “my knowledge” gets, for example, eleven airings in various plays, whilst one of the greatest speeches on ‘knowledge’ in all Shakespeare must surely be that in which Leontes, in the opening half of The Winter’s Tale, announces that he believes his wife disloyal:

> LEONTES How bles’d am I
> In my just censure, in my true opinion!–
> Alack, for lesser knowledge!–How accurs’d
> In being so blest!–There may be in the cup
> A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
> And yet partake no venom; for his knowledge
> Is not infected; but if one present
> The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
> How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
> With violent hefts;–I have drunk, and seen the spider.
> Camillo was his help in this, his pander:–
> There is a plot against my life, my crown;
> All’s true that is mistrusted:–that false villain
> Whom I employ’d, was pre-employ’d by him:
> He has discover’d my design, and I
> Remain a pinch’d thing; yea, a very trick
> For them to play at will.

Leontes’ suspicions ultimately prove groundless, and he spends the rest of the play regretting the outcome of his jealous rage, until finally offered redemption from daughter and wife in the final act. What this speech shows above all else in the personal nature of knowledge: Leontes’ “knowledge” is so personal that it is in fact delusion, and he lives in his own terrifying world of spiders and “pinch’d” things, a stark example of the terrible consequences of isolation and suspicion. The lesson of Leontes and of other uses of the word “knowledge” in the Shakespeare corpus is clear: again and again, the bard shows us how knowledge becomes personal, how we become attached to the things and people that we know, and how sharing this attachment is important. This is also, I suppose, ultimately what lies behind both the fear of exposure and the benefits of community that are inherent in openness as the OKF understands it: those that resist the opening of data fear the release of knowledge that has become personal to them, and those that support such openness seek the chance to build communities on a personal level.

Word of the Day: Open

James Harriman-Smith - August 15, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is the first part of a trio of articles, inspired by the name of the organisation behind Open Shakespeare: The Open Knowledge Foundation. Each post will take one of the words behind the OKF and see how Shakespeare used it, comparing that against the modern organisation’s moniker. The hardest word, with one hundred and fifty-eight entries, comes first. There is one gleam of hope however: the Open Knowledge Foundation, at least, defines precisely what it means by open:

> A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.

Unfortunately for me, Shakespeare would have understood about half of the words in the above sentence in the same way that we do. He never uses the word “data” (despite its possession of those Latin roots so attractive to the poet elsewhere) and the concept of wider reuse and redistribution of any work is far from thinkable in a cultural era dominated by the Stationer’s Company. Instead, “open” for Shakespeare often has a rather more concrete meaning:

> STEPHANO. Come on your ways: open your mouth; here is that which will give language to you, cat. Open your mouth: this will shake your shaking, I can tell you, and that soundly [gives CALIBAN a drink]: you cannot tell who’s your friend: open your chaps again.

This scene, from the inebriation of Caliban in The Tempest, is just one of many involving the verb in its sense of “moving from a closed position”, be it mouths (“chaps”), doors, or anything else on stage.

Perhaps more curious than this banal example is the use of open as an adjective, where it is sometimes associated with vulnerability. This is often also a criticism of our modern, technological sense of the word ‘open’: if everything was such, would not plagiarism and artistic penury run rampant? Of course, the devotee of openness replies that it promotes community, and that ‘open’ is hardly a synonym for unprofitable. This very website is living proof of this fact, harvesting annotations and promoting the study of Shakespeare worldwide. In our modern, internet era, the publisher, the software designer, or the artist that decides to go open finds themselves in an international community and support network, and thus in a far better position than these few hapless usages of the adjective ‘open’ in Shakespeare’s works:

1) Salisbury, contemplating the moral and political landscape in King John
> Murder, as hating what himself hath done,
> Doth lay it open to urge on revenge.

2) Two gentlemen concerned that walls might have ears when it comes to discussing the fate of Katherine of Aragon in King Henry VIII
> We are too open here to argue this;
> Let’s think in private more.

3) Anne, hoping something nasty will happen to the future king, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in Richard III
> Either, heaven, with lightning strike the murderer dead;
> Or, earth, gape open wide and eat him quick,
> As thou dost swallow up this good king’s blood,
> Which his hell-govern’d arm hath butchered!

Peculiarly, one might add that all these Shakespearean associations of openness and vulnerability listed here involve politics and government. For more on the topic of open government in our own time, I strongly suggest a visit or at least a following of the OKF’s own Open Government Data Camp, due to take place in Poland on 21st October. I guarantee a more positive outlook on the idea than Shakespeare’s images of the “hell-govern’d arm”.

Word of the Day: Skull

James Harriman-Smith - August 12, 2011 in Word of the Day

I owe this word of the day to an extraordinary video by Jim Meskimen that went viral last week. In the video, he recites a famous speech by Clarence, brother to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (future Richard III), and drowned by the evil prince’s underlings in a “malmsey-butt” moments after having revealed the contents of a most extraordinary dream.

> CLARENCE […] Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
> Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
> Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
> Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
> All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:
> Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes
> Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
> As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
> Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,
> And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.

The image of the skull in this speech, articulated in the voices of Boris Karloff, George Clooney, Tom Brokaw and Harvey Keitel by Mr Meskimen, serves in part as a memento mori (something that recalls mortality, as seen in this <a href=“” extraordinary sixteenth-century church sculpture), and aptly so, given Clarence’s imminent end. The seventeen other skulls in Shakespeare are often caught up in the same memento mori tradition: Hamlet and the gravedigger is the most famous example, but Surrey offers an insulting reference to the trope in Richard II when he tells Fitzwater to think on “thy father’s skull”, and Romeo and Juliet contains multiple macabre references to the cranium.

One other use of skulls, not too far removed from reminding us of our mortality, is as part of some particularly gruesome image. My favourite of them all comes in The Tempest, when Prospero describes how both the condition and cure that he imposes on Antonio, Alonso, Gonzalo, and the rest.

> PROSPERO A solemnt air, and the best comforter
> To an unsettled fancy, sure thy brains,
> Now useless, boil’d within thy skull!

Word of the Day: Purple

James Harriman-Smith - August 11, 2011 in Word of the Day

What colour comes into your head when you read the word “purple”? Imagine it, and then consider this passage from Henry VI part III, which suggests a rather different shade classed under the same name:

> KING HENRY Woe above woe! grief more than common grief!
> O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!–
> O pity, pity! gentle heaven, pity!–
> The red rose and the white are on his face,
> The fatal colours of our striving houses;
> The one his purple blood right well resembles,
> The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth.
> Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!
> If you contend, a thousand lives must wither

For King Henry, mourning the death of a unnamed father’s son on the battlefield near Towton, “purple” is the colour of blood, and blood is the colour of one of the English roses, the ‘Red Rose of York’. In this respect, when we read the word “purple” in Shakespeare’s plays, one should think of a redder hue than what we now call purple. A rose, as they say, by any other name would smell as sweet, but, to the mind’s eye, it may well look pretty different.

In some places the meaning of the word ‘purple’ is clearer than elsewhere: blood, for example, is frequently described as ‘purple’ where we would now say ‘red’, in Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, Henry VI part II (“purple tears”), King John, Richard III, Richard II (“the purple testament of bleeding war”), Romeo and Juliet, and the Sonnets. Elsewhere, the exact colour meant by Shakespeare’s word “purple” is open to investigation. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a particularly good test case: Bottom the Weaver and wannabe actor has a “purple-in-grain beard” and is fed “purple grapes” at Titania’s behest; Oberon places a purple dye into the love potion that infatuates the lovers and Titania, and describes its source in a flower struck by “Cupid’s fiery shaft”; as for the audience member, the exact colour of any of this is obscure.

One bastion of security remains, however, in Shakespeare’s reference to the original ‘imperial purple’ (Greek porphyra), carefully manufactured from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail, and thus a rare and status-granting tint. The sails of Cleopatra’s barge are an example of this colour’s role in ostentatious displays of power:

> ENOBARBUS […] The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
> Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
> Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
> The winds were love-sick with them […]

The colour of this purple can be precisely established, since the process by which it was created is still known to us. Yet for all these other mentions of the colour, some degree of ambiguity must always be present. Is this not true of other colours though? When we hear of “ivory globes circled with blue” do we all imagine the same shades on Lucrece’s chest? And how is this blue different from the “two blue windows” that the dawn opens in the sky at the start of the same play? Of course, the question of a word’s precise meaning is not limited to colour either, other descriptive terms (such as those for expression or posture) suffer from the same problem when we read the plays. It is only when we see the plays that some of this ambiguity is removed, and we learn the exact colour of Malvolio’s stockings, for example; even then, this leaves some mysteries unresolved and thus each spectator as each reader, imagining their own personal Shakespearean reds and purples in their head.