Come Roundly or say what you mean!

Why doesn’t Shakespeare just say what he means? Or why does he take so long to say something simple? These were questions brought up in my group last Friday. For some reason this was a question I have always taken for granted having forever been fascinated by sounds. And who else has better sounds than Shakespeare? In my mind it was an automatic response, that Shakespeare’s long windedness was there to create a parade of sounds. I’m so enchanted I have never paused to think about the function of the language. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous guidelines of design was ” form follows function”. Does the same apply to Shakespeare’s language or is it all just a glorious form without function?

There may be no better person’s language to break down than Sir. John Falstaff. In Act 2 sc 2
I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company: the
rascal hath removed my horse, and tied him I know
not where. If I travel but four foot by the squier
further afoot, I shall break my wind. Well, I doubt
not but to die a fair death for all this, if I
‘scape hanging for killing that rogue. I have
forsworn his company hourly any time this two and
twenty years, and yet I am bewitched with the
rogue’s company. If the rascal hath not given me
medicines to make me love him, I’ll be hanged; it
could not be else: I have drunk medicines. Poins!
Hal! a plague upon you both! Bardolph! Peto!
I’ll starve ere I’ll rob a foot further. An ’twere
not as good a deed as drink, to turn true man and to
leave these rogues, I am the veriest varlet that
chewed with a tooth. Eight yards of uneven
ground is threescore and ten miles afoot with me;
and the stony-hearted villains know it well enough:
a plague upon it when thieves cannot be true one to another!
Whew! A plague upon you all! Give me my horse, you
rogues; give me my horse, and be hanged!

First this speech serves the practical function of setting the scene for Elizabethan audiences. In our own theatres today with projections, realistic sets, and modern sound design, a stolen horse could be shown in a variety of different ways. However for The King’s men this was not an option. The Globe theatre had no scenery it was a fixed space that was altered minimally for performances. If Shakespeare wanted the audiences to see something they would have to hear it described through the actors on the stage.
It takes Falstaff eighteen lines to tell his friends to quit the joke and give him back his horse. Had this been a contemporary play Falstaff probably just would have said something along the lines of ” Give me my #$%^ horse back before I kill you bros, remind me why I hang out with you again F#$%”. However the wealth of information provided by Falstaff is beyond the quick to the point prose of today. For one thing amongst the hyperbolic complaining there is a real sense of affection towards Poins and Hal even as Falstaff threatens to kill them with the lines ” Yet I am bewitched with the Rogue’s company…. ” If the rascal hath not given medicines to make me love him, I’ll be hanged”. These lines add so much depth to Falstaff’s character, not mention create a context for the relationship between himself and Hal. Within a speech that at first appears as verbose hot air that rambles only for comical purpose show cases the unconditional love Falstaff has for Hal. This love and relationship established here in this speech serves as a foil to the relationship to Hal and King Henry. King Henry has none of this sort of love for his own son and confesses early on within the play his desire for his son to be Harry Percy. All of this creating a deeper complexity and context for future action within the play. It is in this speech which proves that form does indeed follow function!


2 thoughts on “Come Roundly or say what you mean!

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    I love your contemporary paraphrase of Falstaff's speech, Gianna! Even, more, thanks for your reflection on the verbosity of Shakespeare. I think it is always important to remember that, lacking elaborate sets and scenery, Shakespeare creates with language. This is one of the characteristics of his writing that has engaged generations of readers. I can picture Gadshill very clearly in my mind, even though it emerges only from words on the page.

  2. Rachel Ritacco

    This is a great point about the purpose beyond Shakespeare's verbosity, which many may write off as being "fluffy" language. I believe that without the grand description and detailed imagery that Shakespeare provides, we would not appreciate his work half as much as we do; he might simply be a man who wrote a large number of plays – some happy, some sad, others historical – but they would lack the heart and soul which he so eloquently pours onto the page. A great teacher at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival said that he figured out why Shakespeare's characters take so long to make their points: they are trying to figure out their purpose. I think this is an astute observation which can be applied to many of his works.


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