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Jean-Michel Déprats, Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin et Christophe Hausermann
p. i-ix
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Shakespeare’s Tongue

Enter Shakespeare, painted full of tongues…

1Shakespeare’s tongue is and is not « Shakespeare’s tongue » or what the French call « la langue de Shakespeare ». If Shakespeare has largely contributed to the evolution and enrichment of the English tongue, the language that is cultivated in his works seems in many ways to be as far from the English of his time as from the English spoken by our contemporaries. As a foreign language within the English language, both near and distant, dead and living, Shakespeare’s tongue is all the more fertile since it resists comprehension, pronunciation and translation, forbidding any stability of sound and meaning. The great number of Shakespearean dictionaries can in itself suggest that Shakespeare’s tongue is not one but multiple, a theatrical tongue, a living tongue par excellence, which has spoken to us and has been spoken for four centuries, on stages worldwide. It is “of an age” but also “for all time” and if, according to Jonson, the playwright had “small Latin and less Greek”, one can nevertheless say about Shakespeare that « he hath the tongues » (Much Ado About Nothing, v.i.163).

The Anatomy of the Tongue in Shakespeare’s World

2In his treatise Lingua (1525), echoing the story of Aesop’s tongues, Erasmus described the tongue as the best and the worst organ, calling it an “ambivalent organ”, an idea similar to the biblical proverb according to which “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18 : 21). Shakespeare’s plays draw our attention to the materiality of the tongue, which appears as the organ of taste and “gormandizing” (2Henry IV, 5.3.53) but also as an instrument of speech that allows us to “do things with words”, an organ that is “doubly portcullised” (Richard II, 1.3.161) with lips and teeth and whose barriers are often transgressed. To study Shakespeare’s tongue is to explore how Shakespeare represents the tongue in a corpus where the word “tongue” in all its forms appears more than 600 times, according to the Harvard Concordance. « There’s a double tongue ; there’s two tongues » (Much Ado About Nothing, 5.1.165-66) : whether it be caressing or wounding, poisonous or sweet, eloquent or rebellious, feminine or masculine, the tongue that appears in Shakespeare’s world is the subject of numerous comments that are embedded in the biblical and classical culture of the tongue but whose specificities are worthwhile exploring.

Shakespeare as a foreign language

3One of the purposes of this congress is to examine the particularities of the Shakespearean idiom and to assess the playwright’s and poet’s part in the shaping and the evolution of the English language. Contributors are invited to consider what makes Shakespeare’s language different from Marlowe’s or Jonson’s and to examine the reasons why “Shakespeare’s tongue” has come to stand for the English language as a whole. Further topics for study might include the evolution of Shakespeare’s language from one play to the other, from one period to the next, as well as the challenges that Shakespeare’s tongue presents for translators. The heteroglossia that emerges from Shakespeare’s “gallimaufry” of words will be another object of focus and the congress will welcome analyses of the presence of foreign languages (French, Latin, Italian, Spanish), of dialects (Irish, Scottish, Welsh), and idiolects such as « Pistolisms », or « Quicklyisms ».

Shakespeare as a living language

4A vehicle for poetic expression, the Shakespearean idiom is also a spectacular tongue, designed to be seen, embodied, tasted and voiced out. Both good and evil, amorous and injurious, sweet and bitter, Shakespeare’s words dramatize a war of tongues which achieves its full meaning in performance. Contributors are invited to examine the various features of this war of tongues as well as the good and evil tongues that inhabit Shakespeare’s world. The orality, pronunciation and articulation of Shakespeare’s language will be another area of study.

5Adapting the biblical aphorism (James 3:7-8), one could say that “Shakespeare’s tongue … can no man tame”.

6Jean-Michel Déprats and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin

« The serpent under’t »1

  • 1 I would like to thank Olivia Coulomb for her help in the publication of these papers.

7The aim of these papers is to understand the magic of Shakespeare’s language and to realize why the English tongue, in its subtle combination of words, in its use of idiomatic expressions, of various levels of language borrowed from all London’s livery companies, from all sorts of social backgrounds, could have adopted in Elizabethan times its most canonical form. The papers that are collected in this publication unveil the core of language in order to reveal all its riches and rhetorical power. The English tongue of the sixteenth century is not fixed, it moves and coils with a reptilian vigour. Lady Macbeth is aware of the authority that mere words can exert on the one who listens to them. Therefore, she asks her husband to resort to the ambivalence of language in order to hide his dark designs: “Your hand, your tongue; Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t.” (Macbeth, i.v.64-5). Indeed, the ambiguous nature of language will lead her husband to his fall, because this snake-like tongue breaks free from Macbeth’s grasp and eventually turns back against him.

8Macbeth’s mistake was to imagine that he could master language to ply it to its personal use. The curse he pronounces against language and against the witches who have so wittingly deformed it to conceal their prophecy within, sounds like an admission of helplessness regarding the multiplicity of meanings and the metaphorical power of language: “Accursèd be that tongue […] / And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d, / That palter with us in a double sense.” (v.x.17-20). The “serpent” hides behind each word, it symbolizes the polysemy of language.

9There is not only one Shakespeare’s tongue, but a multiplicity of tongues, intertwined in one another as many pieces of a puzzle that could be solved in different ways. The Elizabethan tongue was receptive to foreign languages and would favour and constantly renew linguistic and cultural exchanges. Mylène Lacroix offers us a gustative interpretation of the hybridisation of tongues in Elizabethan theatre. Through the image of the banquet, she invites us to consider the use of foreign words as exotic meals that would enhance the sensual pleasure of the spectators. Jacques Bonaffé makes us travel to Cyprus, which becomes a fantasy, exotic and polyglot city in his translation of Uri Caine’s opera “The Othello Syndrome”.

10It would be useless to reduce Shakespeare’s tongue to a simple norm. Laetitia Sansonetti proposes us to discover Tony Harrison’s poetical works and insists on the yoke imposed upon him by “Shakespeare’s tongue,” a formal version of English requiring a strict pronunciation (received pronunciation). She explains how he became alienated in his youth because of his strong Northern English accent. “Shakespeare’s tongue”, in its most restrictive meaning, appears artificial and normative and goes against the innovative impulse of this great creator.

11Language is a source of truth, but it is pliant and can thus be used for personal purposes through a rhetorical manipulation. Martin Okrin challenges the authority of proverbs in Shakespeare’s time and shows how their interpretation was questionable. The abusive use of proverbial allusions in Shakespeare’s plays can undermine their authority and induce a mistrust of language.

12Because of its malleability, language can both hurt and comfort, deter and convince. Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin explains how she has decided to publish a dictionary of Shakespeare’s insults. She underlines the instability of insults and considers them as “the other side of language”, as emblems whose meaning would always be elusive. Words can hurt, but they can also help people save their lives. Abishek Sarkar questions how, in King John, young Arthur can so easily convince his executioners not to blind him. His talent for eloquence, which reminds us of the figure of Hercules Gallicus, is the only weapon he can use to face the violence of adults.

13Some people fear the power of speech when it is used wisely, which explains why they don’t hesitate to take radical measures in order not to be subject to its thrall. Jennifer Flaherty shows how the mutilations of the tongue, which occur many times in Elizabethan plays, are not only a sign of wanton and spectacular violence, but a way to jeopardize language itself.

14Several articles lead us to the core of Shakespeare’s tongue, by proposing an in-depth linguistic analysis of the text. Patricia Parker compares nothing, noting, knots, musical notes and the implied sauciness of nought/naught/not(e) in Much Ado about Nothing and Cymbeline and shows how the linguistic network found in these plays does not only revolve around puns, but how it also enhances the power of the narration and the ambiguity of language. It could be compared to the act of counterfeiting and it allows lustful references to the female genitalia.

15Jonathan Hope et Michael Witmore analyse the quantitative data they have gathered with the Docuscope software package to establish chronological “periods” in Shakespeare’s career in order to evaluate their level of subjectivity. Ann Lecercle has found in Shakespeare’s poetic language a form of verbal plasticity which reproduces the unconscious of the poet, also set as a language. She offers a new perspective on the use of Shakespeare’s metricality and explains how it has been cut, pounded, and even “chewed” by the poet in order to distil its wealth.

16Whether it is recited in public or in private, Shakespeare’s tongue is imbued with poetry. Henri Suhamy invites us to consider Shakespeare’s tongue as a musical score and reminds us of the necessity of reading Shakespeare’s texts aloud. He shows us how poetic rhythm relies on an inner pulsation which comes to life when the actors pronounce their cues on the stage. Jean-Yves Ruf, director, Éric Ruf, set designer and actor and Loïc Corbery, actor in Troilus and Cressida, performed at the Comédie-Française in January 2013, share their experiences of Shakespeare’s tongue and insist on the inspiration of the actor, who passes the language of the playwright onto the spectators by revealing its inner rhythm and power, whereas Jacques Darras and Lachlan MacKinnon make us consider both the musicality and the “gravity centre” of Shakespeare’s language in the reading of his sonnets.

17These papers will undoubtedly allow the reader to discover Shakespeare’s tongue in a new light, to appreciate, centuries after its appearance, all the magic of his words and all the possibilities of interpretation that it still renders possible today.

18Christophe Hausermann

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1 I would like to thank Olivia Coulomb for her help in the publication of these papers.

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Jean-Michel Déprats, Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin et Christophe Hausermann, « Foreword », Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare, 31 | 2014, i-ix.

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Jean-Michel Déprats, Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin et Christophe Hausermann, « Foreword », Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare [En ligne], 31 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2014, consulté le 25 janvier 2020. URL :

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Jean-Michel Déprats

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