Approaching Shakespeare's late style

Brian Vickers

Brian Vickers . "Approaching Shakespeare's late style."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 6.1-26 <URL:>.


  1. When I first saw Russ McDonald’s book[1] announced, I was pleasantly surprised. After all these decades of relentless politicizing and fragmenting of literary studies into interest groups (new historicists, cultural materialists, feminists, queerists, psychocritics), I welcomed the idea of a book addressing the language of Shakespeare’s plays as a valuable topic in itself. However, to write such a book is no easy undertaking, and several crucial decisions must be made when planning it. The major problem is one of agency and origins: who is responsible for the utterances in these plays? The obvious answer is Shakespeare himself (accepting the scholarly evidence that he worked with co-authors on six plays)[2]. But we must distinguish between the stylistic resources that he drew on (vocabulary, rhetoric, imagery, prosody), and his deployment of them to characterize his speakers and to make their interaction clear and effective. ‘The words are mine’, he might say, in the same spirit as the Gravedigger answering Hamlet’s question, ‘but I use them for my creations’. It is universally agreed that Shakespeare submerges himself in his own characters, nowhere gives us his own opinions or attitudes. The only two surviving works where he speaks in propria persona are the dedications to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. It is significant that these brief passages of prose use the same stylistic resources that are used so profusely by the characters who speak prose in his plays,[3] but once Shakespeare had learned how to use rhetorical figures he then put them in the mouths of his creations.

  2. These two exceptions prove the rule, that the language of Shakespeare’s plays is the language of Shakespeare’s characters, words written to be spoken in the theatre, subsequently printed for readers and for anyone who wishes to perform the plays, in any language. In reading Shakespeare we are always trying to recreate in our imaginations the exchanges between men and women in unique fictive situations.

  3. Studies of Shakespeare’s language have fallen into two main groups, which I shall call the scholastic and the dramatic. The scholastic approach treats the language as a thing in itself, independent of character and dramatic context, to be analyzed according to grammatical categories, or vocabulary, rhetoric, word-play, and other stylistic features. Scholastic approaches include the studies of Shakespeare’s grammar by Edwin Abbott, Jonathan Hope, and several books by Norman Blake.[4] Studies of vocabulary include work by Hilda Hulme, Paul Jorgensen, R.W. Dent, David Crystal and Ben Crystal.[5] Shakespeare’s word-play has been memorably studied by William Empson and M.M. Mahood[6], while his use of rhetoric has been analyzed by several scholars.[7] Regrettably little work has been done on his syntax, John Porter Houston’s book being a rara avis, and nothing of significance on his use of rhyme since F.W. Ness in 1942.[8] Shakespeare’s verse has attracted traditionally-based studies by George T. Wright, but the most important contribution has been made by Marina Tarlinskaja, using the quantitative prosodic methods of Russian linguistics to provide for the first time accurate and replicable analyses of Shakespeare’s development.[9]

  4. These scholastic approaches have illuminated many aspects of Shakespeare’s language, and are required reading for serious students. Other studies have been addressed more to general readers, often taking a broadly chronological approach. They include G.L. Brook, The Language of Shakespeare (1976); S.S. Hussey, The literary language of Shakespeare (London, 1982), which considers vocabulary, syntax, grammar, register and style; W.F. Bolton, Shakespeare’s English: language in the history plays (Oxford, 1992), which uses a different approach for each play, and Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language (London, 2000), which is organized chronologically. There are several valuable essay collections, including one by Madeleine Doran, a presentation volume for Kenneth Muir, and an excellent anthology of previously published essays compiled by Vivian Salmon and Edwina Burness.[10]

  5. Several of the books in this category have intermittently adopted the second, or ‘dramatic’ approach, as I term it, considering language as an instrument used by specific characters for specific purposes. A properly theatrical approach would be to understand speech acts in drama as the means by which represented personages negotiate with each other, attempting to gain power, position, or happiness.[11] Shakespeare’s characters interact on a scale between massive self-centredness, usually at the expense of others (King Lear before his madness; Goneril, Regan, Edmund), and non-manipulative openness to others (Lear restored to sanity, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar). All their utterances reflect their goals and values, aggressively or defensively. Their styles are individualized to a degree that no other dramatist ever achieved, and within their idiolects their registers vary according to the changes in their situation. A properly theatrical approach recognizes that within an individualized role language is dynamic, expressing insincerity, deceit, surprise, frustration, anger.

  6. It is not easy to write a sustained account of the linguistic structure of any play, let alone a sequence of plays, in terms of the functions of language in expressing the interaction of characters. But to my mind it is the best way to understand Shakespeare’s achievement in creating individualized speakers.


  7. As this brief survey suggests, there is no single ‘correct’ way to study the language of Shakespeare’s plays. But each choice brings with it certain consequences. To judge from the chapter headings, Russ McDonald seems to have opted for the scholastic approach. After the Introduction he discusses ‘The idioms of the late tragedies’ (Macbeth, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra), before addressing the late plays’ use of ‘Elision’, ‘Syntax’ (divided into two topics, ‘divagation’ and ‘suspension’), ‘Repetition’, concluding with a chapter on ‘Style’ and the making of meaning’. These titles seem to promise a straightforward confrontation between the critic and the text, but in effect a number of subordinate choices constantly deflect McDonald from attaining this goal.

  8. The first, and most surprising factor is that his orientation is essentially biographical. That is, the nature of Shakespeare’s late plays, his choice of genre, his use of language – these and many other questions are explained by invoking the dramatist’s ‘preoccupations’, or attitudes towards  life and the theatre. But since we have no access to what Shakespeare actually thought about any of these issues, such arguments depend on tendentious readings of the plays, attributing to Shakespeare utterances which are always made by individual characters in unique life-situations. For most of the twentieth century the reductively biographical interpretations of Shakespeare both by Victorian critics, like Edward Dowden, and anti-Victorian critics, like Lytton Strachey, were universally discredited, and it is not only surprising but disturbing to find McDonald endorsing their work in the twenty-first century.[12] He quotes Dowden’s 1877 division of Shakespeare’s career into four phases, ‘In the workshop’ (the early plays), ‘In the world’ (the histories and mature comedies), ‘Out of the depths’ (the problem plays and tragedies), and ‘On the heights’ (the last plays). In this final period Shakespeare supposedly emerges from ‘his trials and sorrows and errors’ to a state of ‘pure and serene elevation’, displaying towards human frailty ‘a grave tenderness, which is almost pity’, emphasizing repentance and forgiveness. McDonald finds Dowden’s ‘rhetoric’ to be ‘overheated’, but strangely believes that he continues to exercise ‘a potent, lasting influence’ on Shakespeare criticism. (Presumably this claim could be tested by using a citation index.) McDonald then cites Lytton Strachey’s 1906 attack on Dowden, which, although iconoclastic, was equally biographical. According to Strachey, in his last period Shakespeare was ‘getting bored’ with life, drama, or anything but ‘poetical dreams’, which is why he wrote perfunctory ‘pompous verse’ in The Two Noble Kinsmen, broke off ‘the tedious history of Henry VIII’, and assembled ‘the miserable archaic fragments of Pericles’ (p. 12). Disturbingly, a hundred years on, McDonald believes that ‘Strachey has perceptively identified some cardinal features of Shakespeare’s late work: the comparative unimportance of character, the fabulous plots and fairy-tale atmosphere..., the episodic and putatively undramatic structure of romance..., the  relative undifferentiation among speakers’ (p. 13).

  9. Herman Melville coined the phrase ‘the shock of recognition’.[13] Reading Russ McDonald’s Stracheyan summary of the late plays I experienced the shock of un-recognition. How can he attribute ‘the comparative unimportance of character’ or ‘undifferentiation among speakers’ to the dramatist who created Leontes, Hermione, Paulina, Autolycus, and Perdita, each of whom speaks in completely individualized styles? In Cymbeline Imogen, Iachimo, Cloten, Posthumus, and  Belarius are equally individual and differentiated: none of their speeches could be given to any other character. In The Tempest even school-children can recognize the differences between the styles of Prospero, Miranda, Caliban, Gonzalo, Ferdinand, Sebastian, and Trinculo. As for their plots, each play uses what McDonald imperiously dismisses as the ‘episodic and putatively undramatic structure of romance’, but in differing degrees of elaboration. The Winter’s Tale has a sharply-defined two-part structure, The Tempest fluidly synthesizes past and present, while Cymbeline organizes several plot-strands into a staggering final scene, which includes 25 successive dénouements. Which other dramatist displayed such mastery of such widely varied structures? Russ McDonald claims that romance is ‘resistant to definition’ (p. 38), but if he had given more throught to narrative form he might have realized that, as Vladimir Propp pointed out long ago,[14] plot-units have a predictive power: a quarrel opens up the possibility of a reconciliation, a separation makes possible a reunion, a misunderstanding can be cleared up in the fullness of time. In the late plays Shakespeare opens up many such narrative possibilities, resolving them when he feels that the moment is ripe. Readers and playgoers for nearly four hundred years have had their expectations aroused and satisfied over and over again: husbands are re-united with wives, parents with children, and Prospero, despite finally having his enemies in his power, forgives them once again. McDonald vastly over-states the difficulties of defining romance (pp. 37-40), as if to show the huge problems that the critic faces, and will heroically overcome. But he fails to understand the genre if he can refer to ‘the open-endedness of the romance form’ (p. 182).[15] Romances are satisfying because they resolve apparently irrecoverable losses. Even if he has to wait fourteen years, in these plays Jack doth get Jill.

  10. In his attempts to define the ‘late plays’ within Shakespeare’s career McDonald continually sets them against the preceding tragedies, seeking out modern critics who echo Dowden in attributing the transition between genres to changes in Shakespeare’s personality. He follows Anne Barton and others in attributing to Shakespeare,  ‘in the tragic period’, a negative attitude towards drama and language (pp.43,44, 50, 51, 52-3, 106, 212, 249-50, 251). McDonald subscribes to a quite different agenda in endorsing the clichés of feminist critics, that Shakespeare associated ‘ambiguous speech especially with predatory females’, a phobia which apparently gave him an ‘acute ambivalence’ and ‘anxiety’ about language itself. This is an extraordinary leap from the particular situation of a few male characters (Iago, Othello, Leontes, Posthumus) who, at moments of real or apparent ruin, blame an apparently unfaithful wife for their suffering. It is an elementary logical error to take these utterances as somehow expressing Shakespeare’s attitude to language. In the case of Macbeth, often cited by feminists as a woman-hater, the witches’ ambivalent gender is far less significant than their apparent supernatural powers clearing his way for the crown. And when he blames his ruin on the witches’ use of ambivalent utterances the audience knows that he should be blaming himself and his wife for their destructive ambition. As for Posthumus and Leontes, the one gulled by a plot, the other self-deceived, they use language as an instrument to express both their anger at the imagined deceptions and their relief and contrition when they are reunited with their honest and maligned wives. Their bitterness is temporary, and tells us nothing about their creator’s attitude to language. One of the most damaging developments in late twentieth-century Shakespeare studies was the rise of interest groups who gave distorted readings of the plays in order to further their own self-serving agendas.[16] It is most disappointing to find Russ McDonald, supposedly addressing Shakespeare’s language, passively endorsing these and other distortions, such as the feminist accusation that Shakespeare wrote ‘misogynistic’ tragedies, which reveal his own ‘anxiety about gender’, or ‘profound concerns about ... women’[17] (pp. 43, 44, 62-6, 69, 71, 72-3, 74, 75, 235-7, 247; as the page references show, these topics are pursued with much repetition). Shakespeare’s tragedies are obviously not misogynistic, for all the women accused – Desdemona, Emilia, Imogen, Hermione – are fully vindicated, their accusers shown to be malicious, or deceived.

  11. Having agreed with each other about the dramatist’s ‘misogyny’ in the tragedies, exponents of Current Literary Theory magnanimously attribute to the Shakespeare of the Romances a remorseful attitude to women, not unlike that of Leontes or Posthumus. McDonald duly aligns himself with the feminists and psychocritics (C.L. Barber, Richard Wheeler) who praise these plays for effecting ‘an imaginative recuperation of the female and a concentration on the redemptive associations of femininity’ (pp. 220, 244, 246, 247-8, 250). McDonald then adds his own seal of approval, claiming to ‘discover in the last plays a refreshed view of language, an affirmative attitude towards theatre and representation generally’ (pp. 41, 107, 176-7, 180, 218, 220, 222, 225, 226-7, 230, 235, 248). But, as we shall see, McDonald then delimits Shakespeare’s ‘refreshed view of language’ to a concern with aural features, sounds divorced from sense. Some readers may be relieved at the amnesty these critics accord to Shakespeare, but at both stages of this scenario pseudo-biographical explanations for stylistic changes merely push the issue back a stage, where no evidence exists. They explain nothing, and in a work whose announced ‘aim is to describe the components of [Shakespeare’s] verse’ (p. 32), they are irrelevant. It is especially regrettable that McDonald should use this pseudo-biographical mode to assure a position of superiority, accusing Shakespeare of ‘stylistic recklessness’ or ‘carelessness’, showing an ‘insouciance’ towards his drama and his audience, being ‘casual in arranging his speakers’ poetic sentences’, displaying a ‘cavalier attitude’ which at times gives ‘the impression that the inattentive poet is merely piecing phrases together without regard for sequence or interrelation’ (pp. 86, 90, 98, 104, 109, 147-8). The critic who attempts to seize the moral high ground to reprove Shakespeare’s faults merely displays his own inability to understand the extraordinary range and dynamism of the language in these plays.

  12. By consciously adopting a pseudo-biographical approach Russ McDonald deflects his, and the reader’s attention away from the text to external considerations which are then read back into the plays, forming an interpretative loop. When he begins to discuss their language his scholastic approach acts as a further barrier to a direct encounter with the drama and its protagonists. He lumps together all the plays, and all the diverse utterances of the characters, subsuming them under the category ‘late style’.  And instead of engaging directly with Shakespeare’s text, McDonald first assembles a mosaic of quotations from other writers (A.C. Bradley, B. Ifor Evans[18], F.E. Halliday, A.C. Partridge, Frank Kermode), which he has chosen to emphasize the ‘difficulty’ of this ‘late style’.[19] When these judgments (some made in passing) are all run together, they give an exaggerated impression of the plays’ complexity. Dr McDonald overlooks the fact that Shakespeare’s Romances were written to be performed before spectators of varying educational attainment, who were expected to understand them at first view. They have continued to hold the stage throughout four centuries, delighting audiences in every country where they have been produced, and in the most diverse styles. Of course, to emphasize a work’s difficulty places the scholastic critic in a heroic light, as he prepares to offer his readers enlightenment. But it also shows that this analytical method cannot treat plays as theatrical experiences.

  13. Given McDonald’s choice of the scholastic approach, we might expect him to have thoroughly researched the secondary literature studying Shakespeare’s language, which dates back to the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, he has no interest in the past, and makes little use of modern work on the vocabulary or diction of these plays. He has a few comments on grammar (taken mostly from Jonathan Hope’s work), but gives more attention to syntax. As for rhetoric, he identifies (not always correctly)[20] a few of the over 200 rhetorical figures that Shakespeare used, but reluctantly, and with little explanation. Many of the passages he quotes owe their linguistic characteristics to Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical devices for clearly-defined functions, as traditionally described, but McDonald makes no comment on their contribution to the plays’ expressive language. This is, however, a deliberate choice, as he explains: ‘In studying textual details I usually employ non-technical vocabulary, avoiding the diction of linguistic scholarship: at least in the study of early modern dramatic verse, such specialized terminology usually impedes rather than fosters clarity and understanding’ (p. 33). But if the style of the late plays is as complex as he repeatedly claims, a scholar will need to use all relevant historical terms and categories in order to identify the causes of this complexity. (McDonald seems more concerned to adjust down to his readers’ level of awareness than to raise it.) In the field of stylistics McDonald’s main sources are George T. Wright on prosody and John Porter Houston on syntax. He adds little to their work, indeed he takes away from it, for his citations from their books silently edit out their technical terminology, eroding the careful distinctions they make within Shakespeare's use of these resources, and depriving himself of useful analytical tools. Most regrettably, he does not draw on Marina Tarlinskaja’s outstanding study.[21] Her system is complex, but it can be communicated to a general public by degrees, and provides a method for prosodic analysis capable of analysing Shakespeare’s adaptation of metrical conventions to recreating the inflections of the spoken voice and representing a wide range of mental states. Compared to her illuminating use of modern quantitative prosody, it is frustrating to see McDonald unable to go beyond occasional comments on ‘a trochee replacing an iamb’, or inarticulately counting the number of end-stopped or hypermetrical lines (pp. 86-7, 95-8, 138, 164-5, 200-01). This book fails to perform any fresh or original analyses of Shakespeare’s style in the late plays.

  14. Once McDonald begins his scholastic analysis he makes another unfortunate choice, which deflects him further from his announced aim ‘to describe the components of [Shakespeare’s] verse’. He believes that the individual features of Shakespeare's style are significant because they somehow ‘mimic’ the overall structure of a play, a group of plays, or even a whole genre. In the first paragraph of his discussion of stylistics he announces this assumption programmatically, quoting a remark by the French literary theorist Gérard Genette to the effect that ‘what is true of individual elements is equally true of larger units’.The curious reader who checks the context of this remark in Genette’s Fiction and Diction[22] will find that it occurs in a chapter where the author outlines ‘a semiotic definition of style’ (p.85). Genette discusses several binary categories that have been used in modern times to describe and differentiate ‘style’ from mere communication (denotation/connotation, meaning/signification, exemplification/evocation). Moving back and forth between Frege, Barthes, Sartre, and Nelson Goodman, Genette concludes that ‘in addition to what it says (denotes), discourse is at every moment  this or that (for example, dull as dishwater). Sartre would say quite rightly, in his own terms, that words, and thus sentences, and thus texts, are always both signs and things’ (p.113). Genette modestly describes these thirty pages as an ‘elementary (in the literal sense)…description’, and adds a footnote recording that
    in the interest of brevity, I have based my argument up to this point on verbal elements (essentially words), charged with illustrating the stylistic capacities of discourse in general on that level; my methodological postulate is that what is true of individual elements is equally true of larger units. (p.113, n. 39)
    Recreating the full context makes it clear that Genette’s words refer to his own preceding discussion, and were not meant as a general pronouncement about the symbolic relation between the whole of a complex literary work and any of the hundreds of stylistic devices which can be found within it.

  15. McDonald, however, seizes on the twelve words he has picked out of Genette to give himself far ranging interpretive licence: ‘Delineation of such identities assumes that the smallest grammatical and poetic details not only correspond to larger narrative or dramatic preferences but also serve, especially in the aggregate, as reliable indicators of an artist's way of apprehending the world’ (p. 27). Thus, he declares, in the romances as a group Shakespeare’s ‘arrangement of his dramatic materials corresponds, in shape and effect, to his ordering of the poetic constituents’ (p. 38). Any ellipsis in a phrase or sentence, then, ‘corresponds’ to a gap in the plot. A long sentence, where the sense is completed at the end, supposedly mimics the dramatist’s intended suspension of meaning, and similarly for a parenthesis, a digression, or an aposiopesis (breaking off a sentence incomplete). Commenting on the impatient, tumultuous speech that Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline, delivers en route to Milford Haven, eager to meet the husband from whom she has been separated before their marriage could be consummated, McDonald generalizes from part to whole: ‘The apprehension of meaning in dramatic speech demands that we follow the speaker along a winding grammatical path, an experience that, putting it crudely, represents an aural equivalent of the reversals and deviations of the wager plot’ (p. 151; my italics). The trouble with such an a priori conception of a necessary relationship between part and whole is that the part becomes subsumed into a thesis which denies it any intrinsic significance, and which ignores all other aspects. A Shakespeare play of any period will include ellipses, but it will also include any number of conjunctions, copulas, hypotactic sentences and other linguistic means of emphasising connections, consequences, causes and effect. Which of these is the more representative of the play ‘as a whole’? Such analogies between a linguistic element, even a whole sentence, and a long and complex play, are the product of a scholastic approach which operates at a more abstract level than that of reading a play or seeing it performed, and foregrounds one detail at the expense of the whole. Such analogies cannot be anything other than superficial. But McDonald uses this supposed ‘correspondence between the part and the whole’ as the organizing principle of two whole chapters discussing Shakespeare’s syntax: one on 'divagation' (p. 108-48), the other on ‘suspension’ (pp. 149-80), and he repeats it with numbing repetition.[23] Collectively, these sequences set up generalized descriptions at quite some distance from Shakespeare’s text, and become self-generating, self-confirming, and seriously misleading.

  16. The true significance of any linguistic element lies in its dramatic context, that is, the use that characters make of it in exposing their own feelings, desires, or goals, and in interacting with other characters who may or may not share them. English rhetoricians in Shakespeare’s age, whom McDonald dismisses as ‘cataloguers’ (p. 82), were pioneers in understanding how rhetorical figures could be used to represent human emotions and thought-processes.[24] Of the figure aposiopesis, for example, which breaks off an utterance incomplete, George Puttenham wrote in The Arte of English Poesie (1579) that ‘when we begin to speak a thing and break off in the middle way’ it shows that ‘either it needed no further to be spoken of, or that we were ashamed, or afraid to speak it out. It is also sometimes done by way of threatening, and to show a moderation of anger’.[25] This description lists some of the life-situations in which a rhetorical device provides an appropriate way to show a character speaking under the influence of this or that emotion. The reason why audiences, then as now, can understand these plays at first experience is that the characters and their goals have been vividly defined and differentiated: we know what they want, and why, and we observe their attempts to achieve it. It follows that the language of any utterance in drama is best analyzed in terms of the character who makes it, and for the purposes it is intended to fulfil.

  17. Although Russ McDonald claims to observe ‘the relevance of the dramatic context’ (p. 5), all too often he removes a speech from its place in a play, ignoring its local function, and taking it as ‘typical’ of ‘the late style’. But the soliloquy in which Cymbeline, duped by Iachimo into believing that Imogen has betrayed him, expresses his anger and despair in misogynistic terms, is typical of what such a man might say in such a situation, and cannot represent the four romances as whole (p. 112). When Paulina confronts Leontes with the news of Hermione’s ‘death’, her delays in getting to the point have an immediate dramatic function, to arouse attention and build up to a devastating attack on him as a tyrant. They cannot be reduced to proving that ‘the unexpectedly interpolated phrase becomes more prominent in Shakespeare’s late work’ (p. 119), or showing ‘Shakespeare’s mischievous pleasure in grammatical deferral and surprise...’ (p. 163). In the realm of interpretation there will always be disagreement, of course, but McDonald does not even reach the threshold of critical discussion when he attempts to establishe a ‘stylistic profile’ of the late plays at the cost of ignoring the complex motives and feeling-states behind very diverse speeches by Iachimo (pp. 124, 129-30), Cloten (pp. 131-2), Imogen (pp. 151, 162, 184), and above all Leontes (pp. 156, 159, 189, etc.). On the rare occasions when he does respect the dramatic context, as when Iachimo insinuates to Imogen that Posthumus has betrayed her, and McDonald comments that 'Iachimo is torturing Imogen theatrically, suspending her in a painful syntactical maze' (p. 178), we realize what he has failed to do elsewhere.

  18. One other principle in the linguistic and stylistic analysis of drama (or any form of literature) is so fundamental that one would hardly think it worth stating, namely that the primary function of language is to communicate meaning, and that all other aspects – sound, metre, rhetoric – are subordinate to this end. This is a basic principle of Renaissance linguistic and literary theory. But McDonald ignores history, going off on an idiosyncratic present-day tangent which deflects him still further from a creative involvement with the language of individual characters in unique life situations. Having endorsed the late twentieth-century psychocritics’ magnanimous amnesty towards Shakespeare for having achieved ‘an imaginative recuperation of the female’ in the late plays, McDonald hijacks their upbeat conclusion by attributing to Shakespeare a ‘rediscovered pleasure in artifice and verbal delights’, ‘a devotion to ornament’, and a new realization of ‘the value of surfaces’. McDonald presents no evidence for this pseudo-biographical theory, which does, however, give him the interpretative licence to treat the sound of words as a thing in itself. Here again he is able to cite a recent precedent, siding ‘with critics such as Stephen Booth and Mark Womack who have sued for a divorce between “acoustic functions” and “semantic ones”’ (p. 29). Their ahistorical manifestos encourage him to look for ‘aurally exciting effects’ in Shakespeare’s verse, involving ‘sonic echo’ and offering ‘repetitive pleasure’ (p. 49). The chapter on ‘Repetition’ (pp. 181-218) includes many passages pointing out ‘aural repetition’ as something that ‘delights the ear and excites the mind’ (p. 181) – but not for the meaning or feelings involved, only for the pleasurable effect, as when the ‘repeated letters’ in an alliteration produce ‘beguiling sounds’ (p. 187). According to McDonald, this resort accounts for ‘the incantatory appeal of all the romances’ (p. 189), and ‘the language of the late style generally’, with its ‘melodic attractions’ (pp. 192-3). This readiness to separate sound from meaning, and to take repetition in itself as pleasing – a view authorized by Freud, no less (p. 206), results in a hedonistic approach to language as an ‘aural’ experience, which trivializes Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry. Where readers might expect a coherent analysis justifying these claims, all they receive are inventories of acoustic effects, divorced from character and context. When Imogen anguishedly questions Pisanio on the whereabouts of her husband, McDonald quotes twelve lines of her speech (with a complex system of italics, underlining, and bold face type for varying degrees of emphasis which I will not attempt to reproduce), beginning ‘Where is Posthumus? Which is in thy mind / That makes thee stare thus?’ (3.4.4-12), and offers the following commentary:
    An initial w sound begins each of the first three sentences, and the pronoun “One” that opens the fourth effectively mimics the w. Eight instances of “th” occur between the last foot of line four and the end of line six. This assertive pattern of alliterated initial consonants is augmented by further repetitions: the pairing of initial consonants, as in “thy mind / That makes,” or “thee stare ... that sigh”; the repetition of internal consonants, such as the r sounds in “stare ... Wherefore ... breaks” (5), and the assonantal and consonantal rhyming of “thy mind” (4) and “makes ... breaks” (5). Further, in addition to the p sounds that decorate lines six through eight, the appearance of a pattern is underscored by the interlocking use of “be,” “er,” and “ex” in “be interpreted a thing perplex’d / Beyond self-explication.” (p. 184)
    This is a purely external inventory of the ‘sonic echoes’ in this passage, implying that they exist to create ‘a pattern’. But the dramatic context is of an increasingly desperate Imogen fearing the worst as Pisanio, instead of answering her questions, merely offers her a letter to read. The key dramatic effects here are those of tempo and tone, suggesting Imogen’s imminent breakdown (‘ere wildness / Vanquish my staider senses’, as she puts it). McDonald’s scholastic catalogue of sounds without meanings or feelings is at several removes from the drama. Many passages in Shakespeare could be made to yield comparable sound-catalogues, but there is only one Imogen.

  19. McDonald offers more of these reductive sonic inventories as commentaries on such marvellously diverse theatrical moments as Pericles’ reunion with Marina (pp. 187-8), and Leontes’ psychic breakdown as he witnesses Mamilius playing – where what he terms ‘the sonic integuments of the speech are created by the chiming of “iss” in “issue” and “hiss”’ (p. 189). (This is to assume Elizabethans did not pronounce the word ‘ishue’, as is common today.) In his concern to prove that in the late plays Shakespeare ‘exhibits an almost self-indulgent attraction’ to aural effects (p. 184), McDonald pays special attention to Antonio’s sarcastic series of phrases in apposition describing Claribel – ‘She that is Queen of Tunis; she that dwells / Ten leagues beyond man’s life...’ (p. 194). But he wilfully misses the dramatic point of this scene by claiming that ‘This skein of clauses – it is not even a sentence – is calculated to enchant the auditor into rhythmic sympathy...’. By ‘auditor’ McDonald might seem to be referring to Sebastian, Antonio’s intended accomplice in the murder of Alonso, but by the end of the paragraph he comes clean: ‘Antonio and Sebastian are the agents of a playwright seeking to seduce his audience with words’ (p. 194). Is this all that Shakespeare is doing here? This is to remove the ‘aural surface’ of the play’s text from the context which alone gives it meaning. Alonso and all his court have been put to sleep by Prospero’s magic, giving Antonio a unique chance to work Sebastian up to killing Alonso and usurping his Dukedom, just as Antonio had done to Prospero. Like Macbeth, duped by the witches, Antonio’s confidence grows as he sees this apparent opportunity to seize power, and he waxes eloquent in persuading the unwitting Sebastian. The audience’s feelings are aroused as they perceive Antonio’s vicious egoism, and tension grows as his dupe slowly grasps the tenor of this persuasion to murder a sleeping man. But we also know that his supposed chance is provisional, dependent on Prospero’s omniscience, and Ariel soon returns to wake the Court to their danger. We are hardly ‘enchant[ed] into rhythmic sympathy’.

  20. McDonald justifies his decision to divorce sound from sense on pseudo-biographical grounds, alleging that Shakespeare was experiencing a ‘new and virtually unalloyed pleasure in sounds’ (p. 218). He has no evidence to support this claim, and he conveniently forgets the frequent use of alliteration and other acoustic effects in the earlier plays – always used functionally, in relation to the speaker’s meaning and intention. This seems to me a regressive step, going back beyond the ‘New Critics’ and F.R. Leavis, with their rigorous treatment of sound and sense as a unified element in poetry, to the work of Edith Sitwell, with its readiness to indulge in meaningless sounds. I dare say that no theatre-goer has ever regarded Shakespeare’s late plays as a pleasing aural experience divorced from meaning. If you were to overhear another member of the audience leaving the theatre and praising The Winter’s Tale in these terms you would wonder what was wrong with them.


  21. Reviewing this book has been a dispiriting experience. Despite the work Russ McDonald has expended, the result fails to advance our understanding of Shakespeare’s remarkable linguistic achievements in these four Romances. His announced aim was ‘to describe the components of [Shakespeare’s] verse, to attend to the acoustic surface [sic] of the late style and thereby to assemble an illustrated taxonomy, a survey more specific and wider-ranging than any attempted so far’ (p. 32). He is evidently unaware how little he has done to realize those ambitions, being constantly deflected to other agendas, and having made a series of unrewarding choices. The task of analyzing the dramatic language of the late plays is doubtless not a simple one, but some extant work shows that it is not insuperable.

  22. Two modern essays on the remarkably individualized language of Leontes can serve to show how a critic can illuminate a play by treating character in context. Jonathan Smith studied ‘The Language of Leontes’ in terms of vocabulary,[26] documenting ‘the struggle between two kinds of language’ as the King moves between public and private discourse. When Leontes talks affectionately to Mamilius, while Hermione is obediently urging Polixenes to extend his visit, his vocabulary is at first colloquial, Anglo-Saxon, even jocular (‘pash’, ‘shoots’, ‘Most dear’st, my collop!’). But as he broods on ‘Affection’ (passion), Leontes shifts to ‘words of Latin root, ... used in their specific Latin sense’, some of them words or word-forms that Shakespeare seldom, if ever, used again: ‘intention’, ‘communicat'st’, ‘co-active’, ‘credent’ (in the sense of ‘credible’), and ‘conjoin’ (p. 317-18). Significantly, Smith notes that a majority of the rare Latinisms that Leontes uses in this scene (1.2) and later (2.1) were included in Henry Cockeram’s English dictionary, or a new interpreter of hard English words (1623), as if Shakespeare had intuitively registered the extreme end of the linguistic spectrum.[27] As Leontes cross-examines Camillo as to what he has ‘seen ... or heard? ... or thought?’ each reference to the senses is attended by a parenthesis, a device normally used to modify or qualify an utterance by adding a new consideration. However, Leontes's parentheses add nothing, such as this final one: ‘or thought? (for cogitation / Resides not in the man that does not think) / My wife is slippery?’ Smith comments that ‘With increasing speed Leontes falls into intellectual circumlocution... “For cogitation .. think” is meaningless, the stiff fumblings of a man given to a decorous mode of language which, although retaining the outward form, is now disembodied, the words of a man losing his faculty for cohesive thought’ (p. 321). In his dealings with Hermione and Antigonus in 2.1, Smith shows, Shakespeare gives Leontes more of these excessively rare Latinisms, ‘the words of a man seduced by his own rhetoric and prerogative’ (p. 323), again indulging in ‘verbose and vacuous ... self-justification’ (p. 324). After Mamillius’s real and Hermione’s apparent death, Leontes’ language changes in response to these disasters, taking on ‘a grave simplicity’ (p. 325), and when we see him again in the final act he has found ‘a completely new language’, now ‘unequivocal, purged [both] of the pseudo-rational phraseology and the portentous’ (p. 326).

  23. Where Jonathan Smith’s essay focussed on vocabulary, J.P Thorne focussed on Act 1 scene 2 in order to define ‘the grammar of jealousy’.[28] Unaware of Smith’s work, Thorne reached the same conclusion, that Shakespeare wrote ‘the speeches of Leontes in two quite distinct styles, one virtually indistinguishable from that of the other characters in the play, the other highly idiosyncratic’ (p. 56). Thorne picks out several ‘unusual features’ of grammar and syntax that give Leontes ‘a quite distinct idiom’, such as the line ‘To mingle friendship far, is mingling bloods’ (1.2.109). Normally the nominalisation on either side of the verb to be would take the same form, so it is unusual to combine the infinitive (‘to mingle’) with a participle (‘mingling’). Thorne comments that ‘the asymmetry of the phrases on either side of the copula draws attention to how forced is the identification that Leontes is making ...’ (p. 57). I would add that this present participle is uttered in full view of Hermione courting Polixenes, as if Leontes is anticipating, or re-living, his deluded belief that the two have had sexual intercourse, in which, according to classical biological theories, the couple’s blood mingled.

  24. Another syntactical peculiarity which helps define Leontes’ state is the ‘irresolvably ambiguous’ word order in the sentence ‘This entertainment / May a free face put on’ (1.2.111-12), where ‘the occurrence of the second phrase between the modal and the main verb makes it impossible for one to decide whether it is the subject or the object of “put upon”’. It is revealing of Leontes’ mental state that he ‘is capable of producing sentences so ambiguous...’ (p. 57). Thorne’s analysis clarifies the reader’s sense – in the theatre one cannot re-read his utterances – that Leontes is creating an imaginary edifice out of verba alone, with no corresponding res or matter. Thorne points out how often Leontes tends ‘to turn his sentences into lists’, often little more than synonyms or near synonyms: ‘How she holds up the neb! the bill to him!’ (1.2.183) – ‘They’re here with me already; whispring, rounding’ (1.2.217). As Thorne puts it, ‘Leontes’ fantasy is built up word by word. The words of one sentence expressing his morbid imaginings suggest the words of the next, thus extending and elaborating his delusion; the effect on Leontes himself being to convince him that he has a mass of objective evidence’ (p. 58).

  25. Thorne’s most penetrating observations concern ‘the words Leontes uses most frequently in this scene: nothing (negative indefinite pronoun), something (positive indefinite pronoun) and it (positive indefinite pronoun). Apart from the features animate / inanimate, pronouns are semantically empty’ (pp. 58-9). Two passages in particular show how Shakespeare makes Leontes place great weight on these semantically empty parts of speech. The first comes from his meditation on ‘Affection’, to which he attributes the powers of creation ex nihilo:
    With what’s unreal thou coactive art,
    And fellow’st nothing; then ’tis very credent
    Thou mayst conjoin with something, and thou dost
    (And that beyond commission) and I find it.... (1.2.138-49)
    Here the ‘striking peculiarity in Leontes’ use of pronouns’ concerns the final it, for ‘the noun phrase to which it is related is itself a pronoun – something. That is, the semantically empty it derives from a form that is also semantically empty. Hence no interpretation attaches to it in this sentence’. (Thorne’s analysis converges with Smith’s, who had described Leontes’ language as ‘disembodied’ and ‘vacuous’.) Leontes’ impression that a positive interpretation exists merely shows his ‘tragic capacity to take his own expressions of jealousy as reports of states of affairs actually existing in the outside world’ (p. 59).

  26. The second passage is the famously extended rhetorical question that Leontes puts to Camillo, ‘Is whispering nothing?’, a passage of ‘syntactic incoherence’, as Thorne describes it, in which the imaginary cuckold concludes that if all these imagined signs of adultery be ‘nothing’, then ‘The covering sky is nothing, ... nor nothing have these nothings’ (1.2.284-96). Drawing on the work of two modern linguists[29], Thorne describes the indefinite pronoun something as ‘a noun phrase consisting of the indefinite determiner some, and a “proform”, the product of re-writing the noun symbol, not as a full noun, but as a dummy noun, or variable, which appears in the surface structure as thing, one, or body’ (p. 63). A further characteristic of indefinite pronouns ‘is that they do not have plurals’, so that the conjunction of ‘determiner’ and ‘proform’ has to be split in order to distinguish the utterances ‘I saw something in the room’ and ‘I saw some things in the room’. Reverting to Leontes’ use of the word ‘nothing’ we can see that his mistake ‘is to confuse the pronoun with the noun (“nor nothing have these nothings”)’. But, in Thorne’s words,
    This is a mistake Leontes has been making all along. The most obvious symptom of Leontes’ disturbance, the basis from which his whole jealous delusion is projected, is to be found in the use of these forms – the mistake that makes him believe that to talk about something is to talk about some thing (p. 63).
    I cite these essays by Jonathan Smith and J.P. Thorne as examples of the illumination that can result when a critic focusses on dramatic language as both the embodiment of an individualized character and the instrument of interaction with their world. Thorne makes two additional point relevant to Russ McDonald’s scholastic, generalized approach to the language of the Romances. First, that ‘it seems that in his later plays Shakespeare was making an increasingly successful attempt to reproduce in his dialogue the effect of actual speech, with all its hesitations, repetitions, and syntactic irregularities’ (p. 64). This awareness of language as the instrument of social exchange in the real world, whether of Shakespeare’s day or our own, is sadly lacking in McDonald’s work. Secondly, and even more aptly,
    It is important that one should not try to judge the writing in Shakespeare’s later plays in terms of a single criterion, but attempt, as far as possible to relate the (in fact) extreme diversity in the writing of these plays to the wide range of dramatic effects they achieve. (p. 64)
    Any scholar considering embarking on a study of Shakespeare’s late style can be reassured that a good treatment of it is still much needed.


[1] Shakespeare’s Late Style. By Russ McDonald (Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006). X+260pp. £48;$85. ISBN 0521820685.

[2] See, e.g., Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author. A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays (Oxford, 2002), discussing Titus Andronicus (with Peele), Timon of Athens (Middleton), Pericles (Wilkins), King Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen (Fletcher). See also Vickers, ‘Incomplete Shakespeare: denying co-authorship in 1 Henry VI’, Shakespeare Quarterly 58 (2007): 311-52.

[3] See Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare’s Prose (London, 1968, 2005), pp. 36-8.

[4] E.A. Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar (London, 1886??); Jonathan Hope, Shakespeare’s Grammar (London, 2003); N.F. Blake, The Language of Shakespeare (London, 1983) and A Grammar of Shakespeare’s Language (London, 2002).

[5] Hilda M. Hulme, Explorations in Shakespeare’s Language. Some Problems of Lexical Meaning in the Dramatic Text (London, 1962); Paul A Jorgensen, Redeeming Shakespeare’s Words (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962); R.W. Dent, Shakespeare’s Proverbial Language. An Index (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981); David Crystal and Ben Crystal, Shakespeare’s Words. A Glossary and Language Companion (London, 2002).

[6] William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (London, 1930); ‘Honest in Othello’, The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1951), pp. 218-49; M.M. Mahood, Shakespeare’s Wordplay (London, 1957). See also Herbert A.Ellis, Shakespeare’s Lusty Punning in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (The Hague, 1973); William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (Princeton, NJ, 1976); Keir Elam, Shakespeare’s Universe of Discourse. Language-Games in the Comedies (Cambridge, 1984).

[7] See, e.g., Sister Miram Joseph, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language (New York, 1947); Brian Vickers, ‘Shakespeare’s Use of Rhetoric’, in K. Muir and S. Schoenbaum (eds.), A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 83-98; George T. Wright, ‘Hendiadys in Hamlet’, PMLA 96 (1981): 168-93.

[8] John Porter Houston, Shakespearean Sentences. A Study in Style and Syntax (Baton Rouge, LA, 1988); F.W. Ness, The Use of Rhyme in Shakespeare’s Plays (New Haven and London, 1941).

[9] George T. Wright, Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988); Marina Tarlinskaja, Shakespeare’s Verse -  Iambic Pentameter and the Poet’s Idiosyncrasies (New York and Frankfurt, 1987).

[10] Madeleine Doran, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language (Madison, WI, 1976); Shakespeare’s Styles. Essays in honour of Kenneth Muir, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank and G.K. Hunter (Cambridge, 1988); V. Salmon and E. Burness (eds.), Reader in the Language of Shakespearean Drama (Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1987).

[11] This is the organizing principle in my book on Shakespeare’s prose (note 2).

[12] See Edward Dowden, Shakspere, his mind and art (London, 1877); Lytton Strachey, ‘Shakespeare’s Final Period’, The Independent Review, 3 (1906), reprinted in Books and Characters (London, 1922), pp. 49-69.

[13] ‘Genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole world round’. Hawthorn and his mosses (1850).

[14] See Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk-Tale [1928], tr. L. Scott, 2nd edn. rev. L.A. Wagner (Austin, TX, 1968), and Brian Vickers, Towards Greek Tragedy (London, 1973.), pp. 183ff.

[15] McDonald shows no knowledge of the scholarly literature identifying the stylized structure of the Greek novel as the main influence on Shakespeare’s romances.

[16] See, e.g., Brian Vickers, Appropriating Shakespeare. Contemporary Critical Quarrels (New Haven and London,1993); John M. Ellis, Literature Lost. Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven, 1997); Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral (eds.), Theory’s Empire. An Anthology of Dissent (New York, 2005).

[17] The evasions and self-contradictions behind this claim were exposed in a classic essay by Richard Levin, ‘Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy’, PMLA, 103 (1988): 125-38, giving rise to a counter-attack by 24 feminist critics and a cogent reply by Levin in PMLA, 104 (1989): 77-9. Both texts are reprinted in Levin, Looking for an Argument. Critical Encounters with the New Approaches to the Criticism of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Cranbury, NJ, and London, 2003), pp. 29-54.

[18] McDonald claims that Evans ‘cannot conceal his impatience with the late work’, and that he ‘gives up on The Winter’s Tale midway into the play’ (p. 19). I hold no brief for Evans as a major critic, but ‘in fairness’, as McDonald puts it (p. 19, n. 48), it should be recorded that Evans’s final chapter (pp. 176-88) shows no impatience with these plays, indeed responds to their many variations in style with appropriate quotation and comment. Nor does he ‘give up’ on The Winter’s Tale at the point McDonald indicates (‘p. 207’; it is p. 182 in the 1952 edition), but goes on to discuss Act IV.

[19] Cf. pp. 30-7.

[20] For instance, he defines asyndeton as ‘the omission of conjunctions between words’ (p. 56), but that figure is known as brachylogia. As for McDonald’s knowledge of Latin, having quoted Quintilian’s comment that ‘Figures generated by subtraction ... aim principally at the charm of brevity and novelty’ (brevitatis novitatisque maxime gratiam petunt; 9.3.58), he seems to think that ‘gratiam’ is the nominative form of the noun (pp. 85, 94, 106). His account of the ‘Ciceronian’ movement (pp. 61-3) relies on the work of Morris W. Croll and George Williamson, unaware of two comprehensive refutations: Brian Vickers, Francis Bacon and Renaissance Prose (Cambridge, 1968), and Robert M. Adolph, The Rise of Modern Prose Style (Cambridge, MA, 1968). McDonald’s linking of this issue with the misogyny of the Church fathers is ludicrously misplaced.

[21] McDonald knows the book (note 8 above), since he reviewed it in Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 360, 362-3. However, he found it ‘not an easy read’, complaining about its ‘daunting charts and graphs and tables’, and ingraciously conceding that Tarlinskaja ‘demonstrate[s] statistically what we all “know” to be true: that Shakespeare’s metrical style evolved from strict to loose over the course of his career’. (We knew it, but we lacked the tools to demonstrate it.) However, when McDonald writes that her analyses of the progressive shift in emphasis from the fourth to the sixth foot provides ‘helpful evidence’ to ‘those of us interested in the sound of the line and the connection between that sound and other dramatic functions or ideas’ (p. 362; my italics), he adds an alien element to Tarlinskaja’s work, which is concerned solely with verse movement, not sound.

[22] Fiction and Diction (Ithaca and London, 1993), tr. Catherine Porter from Fiction et diction (Paris, 1991).

[23] See, e.g., pp. 34, 38, 39, 40, 54, 56, 75, 80, 90, 94-5, 98, 114, 115, 129, 140-1, 144, 149, 151, 153, 156, 159, 160, 169, 170, 173, 174, 175, 177, 178, 179, 187, 217.

[24] See Brian Vickers, In Defence of Rhetoric (Oxford, 1988), ch. 6, ‘The Expressive Function of Rhetorical Figures’, pp. 294-339. Other theorists  listed additional feeling-states which could be represented by aposiopesis: see the index, p. 499.

[25] See Brian Vickers (ed.), English Renaissance Literary Criticism (Oxford, 1998), pp. 238-9, with indication of Puttenham’s sources. McDonald actually cites Puttenham’s account of the polysemous nature of this figure, giving examples from the late plays, but as if dissatisfied with Shakespeare’s local uses of it, he takes it as symbolic of the shifts of locale in the Romances: ‘“The figure of silence” represents the playful Shakespeare’s suppression of logical connectives, his asking the audience to follow the jerks and inventions of the fable’ (pp. 128-9). But many other plays have such shifts, and aposiopesis cannot be elevated to a genre-defining element.

[26] Shakespeare Quarterly, 19 (1968): 317-27.

[27] See also Bryan Garner, ‘Shakespeare’s Latin Neologisms’, Shakespeare Studies, 15 (1982): 149-70, repr. in Salmon and Burgess (note 9),

[28] ‘The grammar of jealousy: A note on the character of Leontes’, in A.J. Aitken, Angus MdIntosh, and Hermann Pálsson (eds.), Edinburgh Studies in English and Scots (London, 1971), pp. 55-65.

[29] J. Katz and P. Postal, An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Descriptions (Cambridge, MA, 1964), p. 91.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).