(National Poetry Month, Day 23)
Today is the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and possibly also of his birth (in different years, of course!).
Shakespeare’s sonnets are very well known. Large swaths of his plays are written in verse, too, leading to some powerful poetic pyrotechnics embedded in his plays of all types.
Today, in honor of Shakespeare day and my sister’s jury duty (what a banner day!), let’s read “The Quality of Mercy,” spoken by Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
The Quality of Mercy
by William Shakespeare
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest—
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest—it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway:
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ’gainst the merchant there.
My students often explain to me that the reason that Shakespeare’s writing is somewhat challenging to understand is that he wrote in “Old English.” They are skeptical, incredulous, nay, even horrified when I tell them that he wrote not in Old English, nor even Middle English, but Modern English! Now, of course, Shakespeare’s Modern English was early Modern English—but it was Modern English, nonetheless. By Shakespeare’s time, the Great Vowel Shift was well underway, and the Germanic elements of English (brought by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) had melded with native Celtic elements, and the Latinate elements that made their way to England via the Norman Conquest had thoroughly permeated the language.
Printing came to England less than a century before Shakespeare’s birth, and until William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, encountered the problem of the lack of standardization in punctuation, spelling, and other language-related issues, no one had worried too much about these things. The standardization of English was still being worked out during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the creative bard took full advantage of the situation, coining not only phrases that we still use today but even words! Some of Shakespeare’s greatest to our language are only two syllables long!
Just imagine being in the audience at the Globe Theatre and hearing, for the first time, the words listed in this article. Would you have thought that they’d become staples of the language and remain in common parlance for centuries to come?