Shakespeare’s grammar: “He words me”

A neuroscientist describes one of the things that is so remarkable about Shakespeare’s language:  The way he–along with the Elizabethan English of his time–can use words for different parts of speech:

E. A. Abbott (1838-1926) was one of the great Victorian schoolmasters, who wrote, at the age of thirty, A Shakespearian Grammar. He described it as an attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Victorian English so that his students could understand that the difficulty of Shakespeare lay not so much in the individual words, which could always be looked up in a glossary, as in the syntactic shaping of his thought. In Elizabethan grammar, he said, ‘it was common to place words in the order in which they came uppermost in the mind’ – and then fit the syntax around that mental excitement. Elizabethan authors, he continued, never objected to any ellipsis – any grammatical shortcut – ‘provided the deficiency could be easily supplied from the context’.

I told my brain scientists that one small but powerful example of this quick Elizabethan shorthand is what is now called functional shift or word-class conversion – which George Puttenham, writing in 1589, named ‘enallage or the figure of exchange’. It happens when one part of speech is suddenly transformed into another with a different function but hardly any change of form. It sounds dull but in performance is almost electrically exciting in its sudden simple reach for a word. For example: an adjective is made a verb when in The Winter’s Tale heavy thoughts are said to ‘thick my blood’. A pronoun is made into a noun when Olivia in Twelfth Night is called ‘the cruellest she alive’. Prospero turns adverb to noun when he speaks so wonderfully of ‘the dark backward’ of past time; Edgar turns noun to verb when he makes the link with Lear: ‘He childed as I fathered.’ As Abbott says, in Elizabethan English ‘You can “happy” your friend, “malice” or “foot” your enemy, or “fall” axe on his head.’ Richard II is not merely deposed (that’s Latinate paraphrase): he is unkinged.

This mental instrument of fresh linguistic coinage, which Shakespeare used above all, holds in small within itself three great principles. Namely: the creative freedom and fluidity of the language at the time; the economy of energy it offered for suddenly compressed formulations; and the closeness of functional shift to metaphor – that characteristic mental conversion that Shakespeare so loved – in the dynamic shifting of senses.

via Literary Review – Philip Davis on Shakespeare and Neurology.

My favorite example of this is in Antony & Cleopatra (II.ii) when Cleopatra responds says to her handmaidens of  Octavius Caesar’s smooth but deceptive rhetoric:  “He words me, girls, he words me.”

Some of Shakespeare’s language-bending has entered into the language has a whole, to its great enrichment.  For example, he took “lone,” as in “lone wolf,” which simply means “one.”  He added -ly to invent “lonely,” the feeling you get when you are “lone.”

The scientist goes on to do an experiment to try to find out how this works in the brain.  But this is also good literary criticism; that is, noticing what an author is doing.

HT: Joe Carter

Updating myself at Redeemed Reader

J. B. Cheaney writes for World and for children.  With fellow children’s lit author Emily Whitten, she has a blog entitled  Redeemed Reader | Kids books. Culture. Christ.  They discuss kiddy-lit, yes, but also lots of other things, from homeschooling to our current cultural condition.  Anyway, they did an interview with me, which they are posting in two parts.  In addition to discussing classical education and vocation,  I take the occasion to update some of what I wrote in my books Reading Between the Lines and Postmodern Times.

Who was left behind?

I’m writing this on Saturday morning, but I’ve set it up so that the post appears on Monday.  So I MIGHT be raptured by the end of the day.  I don’t know yet.  Right now I’m either in Heaven or Texas.

So who is left?  We need to hear from you.  Are the Lutherans all gone?  Where are the Calvinists?  Did the Baptists get taken?  Are the non-denominational Christians gone, or did they need to belong to a denomination after all?

We need to hear from the individuals who are always getting in theological arguments so that we can see if you have been right or not.  Roll call:  Grace?  Porcell?  Todd?  DonS?

Does anyone know if Mr. Camping is still here?  If so, what is he saying?  Just because we might not have noticed large groups of people disappearing doesn’t mean the rapture didn’t happen.  Maybe the gate is so narrow that only a handful of true Christians exist.  Maybe some homeless people, some New Guinea tribesmen, and some persecuted Christian Arabs–individuals no one would notice–got raptured.

So now let’s get ready for the Tribulation!  And the End of the World on October 21!

What do we learn from all of this?

Odin, Thor, and our Christianized paganism

Lars Walker, the novelist who is a long-time commenter on this blog, has written a perceptive review of the hit movie Thor.   He liked it–as did I, actually, for the most part–but what struck me in his review is his point about how even our pop paganism has been influenced by Christianity.  Lars, an expert in all things Norse, points out that the notion of a benevolent deity–taken for granted even by atheists–is distinctly Christian, and that the actual pagan gods were very, very different:

To anyone schooled in Norse mythology, the Odin of the movie is almost unrecognizable, except for his long beard, lack of one eye, and possession of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse (which provides an extremely cool special effects moment). Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is wise and good, full of benevolence and cherishing a horror of war. He’s kind of like a professor of English or some social science at an Ivy League university—wooly-headed enough to throw away the gods’ greatest weapon at a moment of dire military threat.

The Odin of the Vikings was most of all an extremely powerful magician, a wizard—not the nice kind of wizard like Gandalf, though he was one of Tolkien’s inspirations for the character, but the old kind of wizard—treacherous and murderous, with lies on his lips and blood under his fingernails. He delighted in war for two reasons—one in order to feed the wolves and ravens that were his familiars, secondly in order to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand with him at Ragnarok, the last great battle. To this end he raised heroes up and then brutally betrayed them. He was also, according to the eddas, a sexual predator and a known deviate.

The difference between these two Odins, I think, is suggestive of important—and generally unrecognized—elements in western culture. The script writers have confused Odin with the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians. It doesn’t even occur to them that a high god could be anything but kind and peace-loving, since we all have so thoroughly internalized Christian suppositions that even people who reject the Christian religion—and I assume that a large proportion of the people who made this movie do—can’t conceive of a religion founded on darkness, brute force, and the domination of the weak by the strong.

In an odd plot element (I’ll try not to spoil it) Thor submits to a Christ-like humiliation for the sake of others. This is something that would have never been said of him in the old religion, except as a joke. Even Thor has grown richer through acquaintance with Jesus.

via Touchstone Magazine – Mere Comments: “Thor”: Norse Mythology Mediated By Christian Ideas.

Let us now praise comic books

Nice article about Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, now 88, whose comic book creations such as Spider Man and now Thor, have gone from cheap pulp paper to the silver screen, making him a rich man:

Stan Lee professes no deep and analytical insight into the human soul. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” he begs off. “All I know is, the good superhero movie has got action, suspense, colorful characters, new angles — that’s what people like.”

The rangy 88-year-old — sitting poised against the leopard-print pillows on the couch in his POW! Entertainment office, several days before “Thor’s” premiere — is a natural at delivering the dramatic angle. Asked to strike a towering pose, he springs to his feet and in a blink is balancing with feline ease atop a chair.

Seventy years to the month after the nom-de-toon “Stan Lee” first appeared in a comic book, “Thor” is similarly perched atop the box office. In one sense, the origin story of Stanley Martin Lieber resembles that of the Norse superhero he co-created, only told backward. Thor is to the godhead born until, because of his impudence, he’s sentenced to a mortal existence. Lee was a mere Manhattan comics-industry mortal for decades until, because of diligence and vision, he was elevated to Marvel Comics demigod, creating — alongside fellow legends Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — the likes of Spider-Man and Iron Man, the Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

All those characters have already appeared in feature films, and the latest wave of Hollywood superheroes is gathering force as it rolls in this summer. “Thor’s” domestic opening last Friday will be followed in short order by “X-Men: First Class,” DC’s “Green Lantern” and Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Meanwhile, casting decisions for the next Superman and Batman films — as well as the Spider-Man reboot and the cinematic assembling of the Avengers — have sparked feverish online speculation and reaction.

The superhero film is still as unstoppable and resilient and globally enduring as, well, Stan Lee himself. . . .

“My theory about why people like superheroes is that when we were kids, we all loved to read fairy tales,” says Lee, beaming behind his trademark tinted glasses. “Fairy tales are all about things bigger than life: giants, witches, trolls, dinosaurs and dragons and all sorts of imaginative things. Then you get a little bit older and you stop reading fairy tales, but you don’t ever outgrow your love of them.

“Superhero movies are like fairy tales for older people,” continues Lee, whose voice envelops the listener with a raspy, lilting warmth. “All those things you imagined — if only I could fly or be the strongest — are about wish fulfillment. . . . And because of that, I don’t think they’ll ever go out of vogue.”

via In a superhero-heavy summer at the movies, Stan Lee talks about genre’s appeal – The Washington Post.

When I was a kid, I was a comic book fan.  Comic books taught me to love reading and sent my imagination soaring.  I liked D.C. comics–Superman, Batman, also Flash and the Atom–better than Marvel, whose heroes were too angst-ridden for my taste, but Dell had some good titles too:  TarzanTurok, Son of Stone.  (Somebody should make a Turok movie!  Indians and dinosaurs!)  I liked Classics Illustrated too.  They really did lead me into great literature.   In fact, I see a direct line from my comic book phase to my literary scholarship!  Comics are an interesting combination of visual art and writing.

Does anyone else have any comic book testimonials?

“Screwtape Letters”: The Movie

Yet another seemingly unlikely book by C. S. Lewis is getting made into a movie:

Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media, the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web.

Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”

Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Dickerson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”

While the film is on a “fast track” and a 2012 release is likely, Winter is in no hurry to get it into theaters. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who ruined it,” he said. “So I’m gonna go slow … We’ll get there in God’s timing and when it’s right.”

via Cathleen Falsani: Christian Film? What Should Be Coming to a Theater Near You.


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