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A magnum opus from our finest interpreter of The Bard

The true biography of Shakespeare--and the only one we need to care about--is in his plays. Frank Kermode, Britain''s most distinguished scholar of sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century literature, has been thinking about Shakespeare''s plays all his life. This book is a distillation of that lifetime of thinking.The finest tragedies written in English were all composed in the first decade of the seventeenth century, and it is generally accepted that the best ones were Shakespeare''s. Their language is often difficult, and it must have been hard even for contemporaries to understand. How did this language develop? How did it happen that Shakespeare''s audience could appreciate Hamlet at the beginning of the decade and Coriolanus near the end of it?

In this long-awaited work, Kermode argues that something extraordinary started to happen to Shakespeare''s language at a date close to 1600, and he sets out to explore the nature and consequences of the dynamic transformation that followed. For it is in the magnificent, suggestive power of the poetic language itself that audiences have always found meaning and value. The originality of Kermode''s argument, the elegance and humor of his prose, and the intelligence of his discussion make this a landmark in Shakespearean studies.

Review

“. . .the honey of a lifetime''s visits to the Shakespearean garden . . . Kermode proves himself Coleridge''s worthy heir.” ―James Woods, The New Republic

“[T]he crowning action of [Kermode''s] splid career of criticism . . .” ―Richard Howard, The American Scholar

“[A] wonderful book, in which a master critic at the summit of his powers pays homage to a master playwright . . .” ―Kiernan Ryan, The Independant on Sunday

About the Author

Frank Kermode has written and edited many works, among them Forms of Attention and a memoir, Not Entitled. He lived in Cambridge, England, and frequently taught in the United States.

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4.5 out of 54.5 out of 5
73 global ratings

Top reviews from the United States

Russell Watkins
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Want to understand Shakespeare''s language? This is the book to get!
Reviewed in the United States on February 27, 2016
The glossary not only gives a definition of the word as used in Shakespeare''s time but also provides the exact line in which the the word is used. As useful as this is; even more interesting are the sections that explain the plots of the plays and even provide graphic... See more
The glossary not only gives a definition of the word as used in Shakespeare''s time but also provides the exact line in which the the word is used. As useful as this is; even more interesting are the sections that explain the plots of the plays and even provide graphic representations of the relationships between the charcters. Other sections provide information on Shakespeare himself and how his use of language developed throughout his career.
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Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A great mind with years of accumulated knowlege reveals hidden treasures ...
Reviewed in the United States on November 28, 2016
A great mind with years of accumulated knowlege reveals hidden treasures and techniques in the language used to create some of the Bard''s greatest works. A feast for any serious reader or writer.
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Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Sheakespeare''s music
Reviewed in the United States on August 18, 2000
Frank Kermode''s book is inspiring. It is rich and gives very interesting details. But it keeps the basic axiom of Elizabethan studies : Shakespeare''s language is poetry and it is centered on words. The remarks in this book are totally essential to know, if we want to... See more
Frank Kermode''s book is inspiring. It is rich and gives very interesting details. But it keeps the basic axiom of Elizabethan studies : Shakespeare''s language is poetry and it is centered on words. The remarks in this book are totally essential to know, if we want to understand that the axiom is too short. Shakespeare''s language is music.

Shakespeare was bred and fed in the century long musical movement that produced the English madrigal, at exactly the same time as Monteverdi did it in Italy. This madrigal is founded on a binary music with a ternary variation. Shakespeare works on that element and extends it to all the levels of language : semantics (words), syntax, figures of speech, sounds, alliterations, rhythm, etc. And he adapts his linguistis music to each play.

The second element to be taken into account is Shakespeare''s extreme awareness of numerals and their symbolical value. Richard III is based on the number 9, the cacodaemon, and on both specular or mirror symmetry and translative symmetry. That''s one example. If we study Shakespeare''s language and plays along that line we find that the number 2 and its multiples are positive and the number 3 is always a variation that introduces some imbalance.

7 is the acme of disruption in "As You Like It" and the art is to avoid the seventh step, the seventh age of man, the seventh level of lying. 8 in the same play is perfection.

In this book, since I''m working on Antony and Cleopatra, Kermode gives us the key to the strange style of the play, particularly of Cleopatra''s language and some essential scenes, but he does not know. The key is given by the 17 « become » (and other forms) and the 44 « fortune ». 17 = 11 + 6 (6 = 2x3) and 44 = 11 x 4. This appearance of the number 11, unique to my knowledge in Shakespeare''s plays, is a direct reference to the Last Supper after Judas has left (the number of disciples left). Hence it is the number of treason, hence of the snakes. Since my study is due, you bet I am going to work on that element.

Conclusion : Shakespeare''s language is music and it is numerically mapped.

Dr Jacques COULATREDEAU
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Rory Coker
4.0 out of 5 stars
Old fashioned and always interesting
Reviewed in the United States on December 26, 2012
Kermode has thought deeply about Shakespeare''s language, and is well-versed in "traditional" scholarship. Germain Greer rightly says that Shakespeare was "the most eloquent Englishman who ever lived," and he was a master of almost every poetic style in existence in his... See more
Kermode has thought deeply about Shakespeare''s language, and is well-versed in "traditional" scholarship. Germain Greer rightly says that Shakespeare was "the most eloquent Englishman who ever lived," and he was a master of almost every poetic style in existence in his day. In his later plays, he almost seems to be running through a catalog of verse styles, and in the more-and-more fragmented and self-interrupted speech of his characters, he is coming very close to a kind of "stream of consciousness" technique. Another hallmark is the continual reappearance of the same, single word, like a distant bell tolling the theme of the play. And of course there is one of his favorite devices, a "clear and present" doubling.

One of the features of Shakespeare''s last few plays is assertions by the characters that are extraordinary difficult to understand. Actors at the Globe and Blackfriars would have had no difficulty with such lines, because Shakespeare himself was onstage as actor and de facto director, to explain the meaning. What the audiences of the day made of them is quite unknown. And modern actors can only choose to deliver the lines as if they knew what they were saying, even when they don''t. One of Kermode''s examples discussed at great length is the use of the word "prone" by one character to describe his sister, a nun, in MEASURE FOR MEASURE. At the end of the discussion, which occupies several pages, one is still baffled.

I enjoyed the book throughout and found it a very attractive mixture of an informal style with deep scholarship. The scholarship is not "trendy," but to me that''s a good feature of the book, not a defect.
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Joost Daalder
5.0 out of 5 stars
A book needed especially now
Reviewed in the United States on February 28, 2001
Kermode''s book demonstrates an approach deeply unfashionable among many of today''s academics, though it is part of a backlash against work which made a strong impact in the eighties and early nineties. As a result readers are likely to diverge widely in their reactions to... See more
Kermode''s book demonstrates an approach deeply unfashionable among many of today''s academics, though it is part of a backlash against work which made a strong impact in the eighties and early nineties. As a result readers are likely to diverge widely in their reactions to it. Kermode provides an antidote to work on Shakespeare which shows little interest in the actual meaning of his text, leave alone in the artistry of his language. Yet, of all Shakespeare''s outstanding qualities, it is surely especially his use of language - employed in a strikingly arresting, rich, subtle, suggestive yet revealing way - which sets him apart from other authors.
"Shakespeare''s Language", as a title, may lead some to expect discussions of his syntax, semantics, prosody, etc., and there is certainly an urgent need for more work on such matters. But Kermode is - properly, I feel - concerned to explain what is ARTISTIC in Shakespeare''s language: what, notably, makes it individualistic, well-crafted and imaginative rather than just representatively Elizabethan. Kermode''s approach is the more essential at a time when there is a marked, and completely inaccurate, tendency to treat Shakespeare as though he was not, after all, anything special - but rather "just a product of his times". This kind of "egalitarianism" will not ultimately succeed in dwarfing this extraordinary author.
This, then, is one of several recent books (written by e.g. Brian Vickers, Graham Bradshaw, Harold Bloom) which share an urgent concern with Shakespeare''s individual quality and see the need to protect that against those who for the most part treat him as having produced nothing other than "documents" (as when critics refer to "the Shakespearean text" in references to his plays). By contrast, Kermode to an extent succeeds in giving one an idea of how one''s mind gets enriched and expanded by contact with what he rightly sees as the ditinctive creativity of Shakespeare''s language. - Joost Daalder, Professor of English, Flinders University (see "More about me")
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P. Stern
3.0 out of 5 stars
Stimulating, but limited
Reviewed in the United States on September 21, 2016
There''s a great deal of learning here and Kermode''s style is accessible. I have to say, though, that I don''t think the book really hangs together all that well. It''s presented as an examination of Shakespeare''s language as it shifted and matured over time, but this means... See more
There''s a great deal of learning here and Kermode''s style is accessible. I have to say, though, that I don''t think the book really hangs together all that well. It''s presented as an examination of Shakespeare''s language as it shifted and matured over time, but this means that there is no overarching theme (or themes) to tie the book together. Thus we are left with a sort of high-class grab bag, consisting of sequential and essentially unrelated observations on individual plays. The overall effect is to provide stimulation, but not a sense of completeness.

I suggest using this work as a reference volume when you read or watch specific plays.
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Michael J. Connor
1.0 out of 5 stars
VERY DISAPPOINTING
Reviewed in the United States on July 27, 2000
A Very Disappointing Book I am disappointed by Kermode''s book entitled Shakespeare''s Language because of how little of the book is about Shakespeare''s Language. Kermode''s stated purpose is to describe the "revolution" in Shakespeare''s language from 1599... See more
A Very Disappointing Book I am disappointed by Kermode''s book entitled Shakespeare''s Language because of how little of the book is about Shakespeare''s Language.
Kermode''s stated purpose is to describe the "revolution" in Shakespeare''s language from 1599 onwards. Kermode spends a great deal of the book discussing matters which do not explain this contention. Most of the book is given over to chapters which discuss for the most part individual plays. In these chapters far too much space is given over to plot summaries and not to questions of language. And when Kermode gets around to writing about language, it is almost always in one of two ways: lexical matters, and whether or not the passage is in verse or prose. There is much more to Shakespeare''s language than these two. In his introduction Kermode states "I shall discuss "Coriolanus" in due course--its extraordinarily forced expressions, its obscurity of syntax and vocabulary, its contrasts of prose and harsh verse, its interweavings of the domestic and the military. (Page 14) His discussion of "Coriolanus" on pages 243-254 does have something to say about force expressions, and contrasts of prose and verse, but it has almost nothing to say about Shakespeare''s syntax. In the chapter dealing with "Othello" Kermode treats the deletion of oaths in the folio text. Kermode writes about the soldiers swearing, found in the quarto printing of the play, but not the folio. Kermode says that the elimination of the profanities "makes a considerable difference to the tone of the play, especially to the characterization of Iago." (p. 166) Really? Is the Iago of folio any less dangerous than the Iago of the quarto? What was also curious was that Kermode almost never quotes scholars who have made considerable contributions to our understanding of Shakespeare''s language. Scholars like Gorlach, Barber and A. C. Partridge are not mentioned once. The standard grammar of Shakespeare''s English in English is E. A. Abbott''s "Shakespearian Grammar" is referred to once, and then only in a footnote. And then there is the most curious omission is Wilhelm Franz''s "Die Sprache Shakespeares in Vers und Prosa." This book is the standard Grammar of Early Modern English Period. If you want to know about Shakespeare''s language you should go to books by these men.
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Chris McKinstry
5.0 out of 5 stars
Maping the Mapmaker
Reviewed in the United States on June 24, 2000
Shakespeare mapped and maybe invented most of the human mind''s conceptual network; he showed all of us what it is to be a conscious human being. Of all the critics, Kermode best understands this. His book is a wonderful guide the plays, but more importantly, to the mind... See more
Shakespeare mapped and maybe invented most of the human mind''s conceptual network; he showed all of us what it is to be a conscious human being. Of all the critics, Kermode best understands this. His book is a wonderful guide the plays, but more importantly, to the mind that made mind.
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Top reviews from other countries

Staffan Lindström
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Interesting
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 24, 2018
One of the most interesting and re-readable books on Shakspeare, written from a slightly unusual angle in that it just as the title says concentrates solely on the Bard''s use of the English language in different contexts. Other aspects are subordinated to this. Kermode...See more
One of the most interesting and re-readable books on Shakspeare, written from a slightly unusual angle in that it just as the title says concentrates solely on the Bard''s use of the English language in different contexts. Other aspects are subordinated to this. Kermode brings his well-known analytical powers to bear on the development of the style with illuminating results. The only thing which may jar on the reader is his dismissal of late Shakespeare as too obscure. There I had hoped for more.
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andrew
1.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
its not very good
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 16, 2021
if you want good writing on Shakespeare then dont go here... go to Jonathan Bate or Peter Ackroyd (although the last sentence of most of his paragraphs seems to have been written by one less clever than Peter himself) and go too to Ted Hughes for good writing on Shakespeare...See more
if you want good writing on Shakespeare then dont go here... go to Jonathan Bate or Peter Ackroyd (although the last sentence of most of his paragraphs seems to have been written by one less clever than Peter himself) and go too to Ted Hughes for good writing on Shakespeare but if you want to see the writing of someone who also wants to be Jonathan Bate Peter Ackroyd and Ted Hughes then you will find that in this book.
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James Smith
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A sound introduction to Shakespeare’s use of language
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 2, 2020
This collection of pithy essays provides an excellent introduction to the plays written in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Kermode’s style is accessible and his criticism, although largely formalist, is edifying. This would be a good book for readers who have read...See more
This collection of pithy essays provides an excellent introduction to the plays written in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Kermode’s style is accessible and his criticism, although largely formalist, is edifying. This would be a good book for readers who have read a clutch of Shakespeare''s plays and wish to supplement their understanding of the language used by the playwright.
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Peter Spencer
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A must-read for Shakespeare lovers everywhere
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 10, 2013
Frank Kermode''s writing is clear, concise, and accessible. Refreshingly devoid of arid, annoying, obfuscatory jargon. His approach to Shakespeare is deliciously dispassionate. Eulogistic where he judges it appropriate, and definitely not where he doesn''t! And his insights...See more
Frank Kermode''s writing is clear, concise, and accessible. Refreshingly devoid of arid, annoying, obfuscatory jargon. His approach to Shakespeare is deliciously dispassionate. Eulogistic where he judges it appropriate, and definitely not where he doesn''t! And his insights into the Bard''s language are a kaleidoscope of serendipitous delights. Time and again he plays the fool and says wisely what wise men do foolishly. Buy it? Foolish not to !
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Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Lots of Latin
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 14, 2019
A good glossary of Latin and Greek urgently needed. Otherwise, clearly a work of scholarship.
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lowest Shakespeare's 2021 high quality Language sale

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