Word of the Day: Canker

James Harriman-Smith - March 23, 2012 in Word of the Day

Canker comes to us from the classical Latin ‘cancer’, meaning the sign of the zodiac, an actual crab, and anything from a whole range of tumours, abscesses, sores and even worms. According to Paulus Aeginata’s Epitomae Medicomae, the overlap between crabs and tumours in the word ‘cancer’ arises from the apparent resemblance between the swollen veins around a tumour and the limbs of a crab. This seventh-century a.d. hypothesis being the only available explanation for the link between crustaceans and carcinoma, the OED cites it.

Jumping forward to Shakespeare’s time, and the playwright’s twenty ‘cankers’ cover almost all the various meanings of the word, save that of ‘crab’. First, and most simply, a ‘canker’ is a tumour, of the kind that a misanthropic Timon wishes would “gnaw” the heart of Alcibiades. Second, a ‘canker’ is another word for the damage caused by oxidation, as is clear from the way Venus concludes a speech designed to entice Adonis into her arms: “Foul-cankering rust the hidden treasure frets, / But gold that’s put to use more gold begets.”

By far the most frequent use of canker in Shakespeare’s works, however, is in relation to its botanical meaning. A ‘canker’ is either a type of wild rose (for Hotspur, Bolingbroke is a “canker” next to the “lovely rose” that was Richard II; and Much Ado’s Don John would “rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in [the] grace” of his brother, Prince of Arragon) or a ‘cankerworm’. This ‘cankerworm’ is a type of insect that attacks the fragile buds and flowers of plants: Blake reuses the motif in his ‘The Sick Rose’ (1794), and Shakespeare has no less than six clear references to this worm. Titania orders her fairies to hunt “cankers in the musk-rose buds” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Proteus and Valentine bandy talk of “cankers” in “the sweetest bud” between them at the start of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the famous rose-picking scene of Henry VI part I would not be complete without the future Richard III asking Somerset if his white rose “Hast not […] a canker”.

Beyond all these specific uses of the word, each more or less metaphorical or allegorical, Shakespeare makes ‘canker’ his own in two other distinctive ways, both rich with insight into the thoughts of his characters. It becomes, for example, part of a compound adjective, as in Edgar’s pithy and bitter summary of his ordeals at the end of King Lear: “Know my name is lost; / By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit.” In this transformation, we leave the original cankerworm far behind. Similarly, Prospero concentrates all his disdain for Caliban into the word ‘canker’, turning it into a verb in the process, to describe “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, / Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost; / And as with age his uglier body grows, / So his mind cankers.”

Introduction: The Comedy of Errors

James Harriman-Smith - March 16, 2012 in Introduction

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, following The Taming of the Shrew, the Henry VI cycle and Richard III, but preceding A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. It is also one of his funniest, but like all of his comedies there is a dark undertone.

The story is deceptively simple. Two sets of identical twins are separated as small children. One set, both named Antipholus, are sons of a wealthy merchant, the other their servants, both named Dromio. They grow up in separate cities and the fun begins when one Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Syracuse where the other Antipholus and Dromio have lived since childhood. Antipholus of Syracuse is married to Adriana and is an established and well-respected citizen. What is comical, often side-splittingly so, is how these two sets of twins, Adriana, her sister Luciana, and the townspeople of Syracuse all keep running into each other, but never the twins together, so that all manner of confusions arise. “Who are you?” is answered by “you’ve known me all my life”; “I just gave you a bag of money” is answered by “I’ve never seen you before in all my life”; “I love you” is answered by “But you’re married to my sister”, which is answered by “I’m not married”, then by “Oh you cad”…

Things all work out in the end of course, with the twins astounded to confront their exact lookalikes. What isn’t so funny, though, is the anguish the characters go through as their sense of identity is warped out of all recognition. In the process marriages and lives are threatened, power is used and abused, servants protest against cuffs and kicks, and women struggle against oppression by husbands and the church. In other words, though the characters are as individually quirky yet universal as Shakespeare’s characters always are, the depth in the play is based on what Stephen Greenblatt calls, in the introduction to the Norton edition, “the hidden strangeness of ordinary existence” and the “alienation and existential anxiety” found in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Comedy of Errors is not one of the most widely performed of the Shakespeare collection, nor have many movies been made based on it. It did, however, rate a musical, The Boys from Syracuse (1940), and several productions of the play have been televised, most notably one directed by Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench in the 70’s, and the BBC Complete Works of Shakespeare version in the 80’s with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing the two sets of twins. In 2003 a Japanese film version, directed by and starring Mansai Nomura, was released. It’s time for a new English language version. With the rich potential of interpreting the class and gender conflicts within the power struggle between the church and state and the basic hilarity of the play, Kenneth Branagh or Julie Taymore could create another masterpiece to bring Shakespeare alive once again to young (and old) audiences.

Contributed by Ruby Jand

Word of the Day: Varlet

James Harriman-Smith - March 2, 2012 in Word of the Day

“A good varlet, a good varlet, a very good varlet”, says Shallow of his servant, after having drunk a few too many glasses of “sack” (wine). The question is, though, is the inebriated rustic being decorous or insulting? To judge by some of Shakespeare’s twenty-one other uses of the word “varlet”, it seems pretty likely to be an insult. An irate (and malapropism-prone) constable Elbow turns, for example, on an aspersion-casting Pompey with the words “Varlet, thou liest; thou liest, wicked varlet: the time is yet to come that [my wife] was ever respected with man, woman, or child.” And King Lear, as well as Measure for Measure is also rich in varlets, with Kent calling Oswald a “brazen-faced Varlet”, and Lear repeating the insult a few scenes later.

If there were a prize for ‘varletry’, however, it would have to go to Troilus and Cressida. Thersites calls Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus a “male varlet”, Troilus asks for his “varlet” to help him unarm, and Thersites, again, this time surveying all the Greek and Trojan heroes, sums the lot up as a “bunch of incontinent varlets”. This great variety allows us to see the various senses of the word a little more clearly, and, hence, resolve the Shallow conundrum that I began this article with. When Troilus asks for his “varlet”, he is simply asking for a servant, in the same way one might ask for a ‘valet’. If this is Shallow’s sense, then he is being pretty positive about his “very good” servant.

Unfortunately, the sense of ‘servant’ is not too far removed from some less positive meanings, such as ‘social inferior’ (that used by Lear and Kent to insult the courtier Oswald), or even ‘sex slave’ (Patroclus as “Achilles’ male varlet”). All this eventually brings us to a more general meaning of ‘scoundrel’, employed by Elbow to describe Pompey and Thersites to describe everyone around him. Not employed, however, by Shallow, whom I take as an incompetent but far from malign presence in Henry IV part II, and thus not likely to cast aspersions on his servant as he enjoys some wine with his old friend Falstaff.

‘That store of power you have’: Repositories

James Harriman-Smith - February 17, 2012 in Community, News, Technical

No Word of the Day this week, but an announcement instead. All the code behind Open Shakespeare, as well as the data is now freely available on GitHub. You can get to it with the following links:

This “store of power”, as Helena puts it at the end of All’s Well that Ends Well, has been around for a while, but the addition of the data puts the entirety of the project in one place. As well as the plays and poems, you will also find the Droeshout engraving of the bard, material from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and some useful scripts (capable, amongst other things, of using XSL to produce high quality PDFs via Latex).

If you have any questions about using the repository, check out the readme or get in touch with us on our mailing list. Making this stuff freely available is a key part of our belief in openness, and it would be truly wonderful to see other projects grow out of our own.

Word of the Day: Haggard

James Harriman-Smith - February 10, 2012 in Word of the Day

Although it’s not very polite, one can still say nowadays that someone is looking a bit ‘haggard’. Unfortunately, what we use the word to mean – “Wild-looking, applied […] to the injurious effect upon the countenance of privation, want of rest, fatigue, anxiety, terror, or worry.” (OED) – is not the same as Shakespeare’s aim, as this passage from The Taming of the Shrew makes clear:

HORTENSIO Would all the world but he had quite forsworn!
For me, that I may surely keep mine oath,
I will be married to a wealtlly widow
Ere three days pass, which hath as long lov’d me
As I have lov’d this proud disdainful haggard.

Here Hortensio abandons his attempts to woo Kate (the eponymous ‘shrew’ of the play), taking leave of a woman he finds “proud, disdaindul”, and a “haggard”: that is to say, not ‘run-down’, but rather “wild”, or, better yet, “untamed”. “Haggard”, although it evolved to mean ‘wild-looking’, actually originates in falconry, where it means “a wild (female) hawk caught when in her adult plumage” (OED). Thus Petruchio, following what was once a common, euphuistic, metaphor, describes his plans for Kate, his shrewish future wife:

PETRUCHIO […] Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come, and know her keeper’s call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat, and will not be obedient.

Peculiarly, this way of describing people in Shakespeare is only ever applied to women, and often carries overtones of male domination. Petruchio’s is ultimately comic, but Othello’s talk of haggards certainly is not. Enthralled by Iago, he promises that “If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings, / I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune.” Removing the metaphor, one could paraphrase as folllows, ‘If I find out that she’s disobedient, then – no matter what the cost – I’d cut all ties (jesses) between us.’

Last but not least in this swift flight over Shakespeare’s falconry, we have a woman using the word “haggard”. However, this woman is Twelfth Night’s Viola and she uses the word when disguised as a man. Continuing the gender-bending, she even portrays a man, and not a woman, “haggard”. That man is Feste, whom she likens to the touchy “haggard” who “check[s] at every feather / That comes before his eye”. The Fool of the play, unconstrained by decorum, reminds us of the wildness and hence the particular dramatic potential within this word in Shakespeare’s falconing time.

Word of the Day: Pawn

James Harriman-Smith - January 27, 2012 in Word of the Day

Everyone knows that this word refers to the most insignificant piece on the chessboard, and from this, it is tempting to understand Kent’s use of the word in his pledge of loyalty to an irate King Lear in a particular way:

KENT My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.

The tempting paraphrase of this, and the one given in the No Fear Shakespeare (and in many translations), is “I never considered my life as anything more than a chess pawn for you to play off against your enemies”. This is, however, quite likely to be wrong. The word ‘pawn’ never refers to a chess piece in any of Shakespeare’s twenty-eight other uses of the word. Instead, it often appears as a verb, and often in close proximity to the word “honour”.

There are several other meanings of the word pawn in the OED. The chess term, going back to 1400 and the Anglo-Norman for foot-soldier (paun), is the first; but the sense that interests me here, and the sense that Shakespeare uses widely, is the third, from the Middle French pant:

The state or condition of being given or held as a pledge, or as security for the repayment of a loan; chiefly in at pawn, in pawn, †to pawn, etc. Also fig.

This is quite clearly what the Hostess of King Henry IV part II is talking about when she complains that Falstaff has been running up a tab of such proportions that she will have to “pawn both my plate and the tapestry of my dining-chambers”, even though she eventually softens up and serves him, regardless of the fact that she might have to “pawn [her] gown” to pay for it.

Returning to questions of honour, and loftier characters than the Hostess, the word “pawn” as noun or verb is everywhere: Tarquin is described “Pawning his honour to obtain his lust” in The Rape of Lucrece; the history plays are full of challenges in which the throwing of the guantlet is accompanied by the words “There is my honour’s pawn”; an Old Athenian begs for Timon’s approbation with the words “Pawn me to this your honour”; and Imogen, agreeing to keep a chest of jewels in her bedchamber (with – unbeknownst to her Iachimo – hidden inside), says, with some dramatic irony, that she will “pawn my honour for their safety”.

All this and more suggests that the correct reading of those lines from King Lear has nothing to do with chess. Rather,

KENT My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.

Means: ‘I considered my life as something to be pawned, to be pledged on my honour, in order to secure thy safety’. The word “wage”, which might mislead here by evoking the language of combat too strongly, nevertheless means also, to quote the OED once more, “To deposit or give as a pledge or security”. Kent’s life is no chess piece, but rather something with a clear value in terms of both his own sense of honour and his service to Lear.

Word of the Day: Brimstone

James Harriman-Smith - January 20, 2012 in Word of the Day

Given that it’s been a while since I last wrote about Shakespeare and fire, I decided to return to the topic with this thrice-occurring word. Although we now talk about the ‘brim’ or edge of an object, the first syllable of today’s word is a distant descendant of the verb ‘burn’, as can be seen in the German for brimstone, bernstein (incidentally, also the surname of the composer behind the famous adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story).

Brimstone is another word for sulphur, since sulphur is highly inflammable. The term used to be very common, and, tellingly, made it into the first English translation of the Bible. At one end of the good book, Genesis 19:24 talks about “brimstone and fire” that God rained on Sodom and Gomorrah; and, at the other end, Revelations 19:20 describes how idolators and those with the mark of the beast “were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone”.

Given these Biblical overtones, it is unsurprising to find two out of the three uses of “brimstone” in Shakespeare’s works involve oaths. Sir Toby, never one to speak with much refinement, bursts out with “Fire and brimstone!” when he overhears Malvolio’s daydreams about his employer and Toby’s sister, Olivia, for the first time. Elsewhere, Othello shouts, “Fire and brimstone!” when Desdemona unwittingly mentions how fond she is of Cassio. Given that Othello normally speaks with great polish, his slip into the same language as Sir Toby gives us a sense of how strikingly vulgar his emotional explosion must appear.

One last instance, again from Twelfth Night but this time from Sir Toby’s companion, Fabian, explaining to Sir Andrew Aguecheek that Olivia’s behaviour towards the disguised Viola/Cesario was obviously only intended to “ put fire in your heart and brimstone in your liver”. Although, as soon becomes clear, Aguecheek’s wrath is far from possessing divine proportions…

Introduction: Henry VIII

James Harriman-Smith - January 18, 2012 in Introduction

The First Folio provides Henry VIII’s only authoritative text (1623), probably a clerical copy and not a performance script. It provides a sequel to the triumph of Henry VII which ends Richard III, using episodes from the careers of his son Henry VIII and other descendants of figures in that earlier play. The script shares Richard III’s cyclical structure, borrowed from the Fall of Princes theme in earlier chronicle plays, specifically the falls of the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Wolsey – followed by Archbishop Cranmer’s escape from a similar fate through intervention of King Henry VIII, as the king increases in political skill. Henry’s later tyrannical aberrations are not presented. Beyond the trial scenes, the play stresses pageantry: the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the crowning of Queen Anne Boleyn, and the baptism of the future Queen Elizabeth, whose prominence is forecast by Cranmer in the play’s coda. Such historical content somewhat justifies the play’s initial title: All Is True.

The first production destroyed the original Globe Theatre on 29 June 1613, through over-elaborate staging: at Wolsey’s banquet (1.2.49): canons fired blanks with wadding which set fire to the thatched roofing. The production could have transferred to the King’s Men’s indoor theatre at Blackfriars, location of the historical divorce trial in the play, which uses the Queen’s original words. This realistic production offended Sir Henry Wotton (who described the fire): “The King’s Players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the Reign of Henry 8, which was set forth with many extraordinary Circumstances of Pomp and Majesty, even to the matting of the Stage; the Knights of the Order, with their Georges and Garter, the Guards with their embroidered Coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous.” Supposedly, after playing Henry VIII, John Lowin passed on Shakespeare’s directions to his godson, Sir William Davenant, for a Restoration revival. This tradition, preserved by Kean, Irving, and Tree, favoured Holbein’s images of King Henry’s court; but stage dominance passed from Henry (Betterton) to Queen Katherine (Siddons) to Wolsey (Irving, Tree). Siddons intensely identified with her role, like Ashcroft (Nun, R.S.C., 1969) .

Samuel Johnson rated the dying Katherine’s scene (4.2) “above any other part of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and perhaps above any scene in any other poet, tender and pathetic, without gods, or furies, or poisons, or precipices, without the help of romantic circumstances, without improbable sallies of poetical lamentations, and without any throes of tumultuous miseries.” Though often produced for British coronations, the play suffered discrediting censure after James Spedding questioned its authorship (1850). Since then, on stylistic, not historical grounds, many scenes have been attributed to John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as the King’s Men’s dramatist. Such views discouraged the play’s appreciation and production until Tyrone Guthrie’s (R.S.C.,1949). However, scholars judged Henry VIII as the best play in the BBC Shakespeare series (with Claire Bloom as Katherine; 1979).

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

Word of the Day: Falchion

James Harriman-Smith - January 13, 2012 in Word of the Day

In Latin, the word ‘falx’ means sickle, the sharp but relatively small and harmless object whose name has – through vulgar Latin falcion-em, Italian falcione, Old French fauchon and Middle English fauchoun – come to mean a broad sword, often slightly curved with the edge on the convex side. The word ‘falchion’ (pronounced with a soft ‘ch’, f-’or-l-sh-u-n) thus comes from peaceful origins to appear eight times in some of the most bloody scenes of Shakespeare.

York, in Henry VI part III describes how “oft Edward came to my side / With purple falchion painted to the hilt”; Anne tells Richard (currently Duke of Gloucester but future Richard III) that “Queen Margaret saw / Thy murderous falchion smoking in [her husband’s, the same Edward York is talking about] blood”; and a dying King Lear recalls that “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion, I would have made them skip”. Elsewhere, The Rape of Lucrece accounts for half of all Shakespeare’s uses of the word, fittingly enough as ‘falchion’ is noted by the OED as often being a poetic synonym for the monosyllabic “sword”. Shakespeare’s concentration on Tarquin’s “falchion” in his long poem, however, hints at another meaning:

His falchion on a flint he softly smiteth,
That from the cold stone sparks of fire do fly;
Whereat a waxen torch forthwith he lighteth,
Which must be lode-star to his lustful eye;
And to the flame thus speaks advisedly:
‘As from this cold flint I enforced this fire,
So Lucrece must I force to my desire.’

The coordintation of Tarquin’s falchion, the sparks of its sharpening, and the fires of lust in this stanza underline a link between the Roman man’s weapon and his libido. Indeed, what is obvious here can be glimpsed in King Lear’s regret that he was no longer sufficiently strong and manly to wield a falchion in defence of Cordelia. Taking this connection between falchions and the phallus in a different direction brings us to Shakespeare’s last use of the word, and the only one from a comedy. Boyet, joining in the group mocking of Holofernes at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, tells the poor man that his face resembles “The pommel of Caesar’s falchion”, by far the least impressive part of this weapon.

Word of the Day: Nonce

James Harriman-Smith - January 6, 2012 in Word of the Day

What is a nonce? The OED offers us two meanings: the first (going back to 1175 and the original Old English root of ‘anum’) appears to be something to do with the number one; the second (origin unknown but possibly Lancastrian slang) is that of “a sexual deviant”, especially someone convicted of child abuse, and, as it only appeared in the late twentieth century, can be safely left out of this discussion.

You normally find the word ‘nonce’ in phrases with ‘for’, and Shakespeare gives us two of these. The most famous by far occurs at the end of Hamlet, when Claudius reveals one of the measures he will take to ensure Laertes victory in the upcoming duel between him and Claudius’ son-in-law.

CLAUDIUS When in your motion you are hot and dry,–
As make your bouts more violent to that end,–
And that he calls for drink, I’ll have prepar’d him
A chalice for the nonce; whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom’d stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.

Here, “for the nonce” means ‘for the particular purpose’ or, more likely, ‘for the particular occasion’. Both phrases depending on the original Old English sense of nonce as ‘one’ and thus also translatable as ‘for that one purpose’ or ‘for that one occasion’. The second of Shakespeare’s uses of the word ‘nonce’ – in <Henry IV part I – illustrates this clearly, as Pointz explains how he will camouflage his and Prince Hal’s clothes, for the express purpose of surprising Falstaff and the others on Gad’s Hill even more effectively: “sirrah, I have cases of buckram for the nonce, to immask our noted outward garments.”

One final nonce, that occurring in Henry VI part I. An Auvergnat Countess has taken the British captain Talbot prisoner, and is more than a little puzzled by the way in which her captive laughs and jokes about his being only Talbot’s “shadow”, since the captain is without his soldiers.

COUNTESS This is a riddling merchant for the nonce;
He will be here, and yet he is not here:
How can these contrarieties agree?

The ‘nonce’ here is probably best glossed as the third sense of the phrase ‘for the nonce’: quite simply, ‘verily, indeed’.