Friday, 3 October 2008

good one Bill

One of the great things about holidays is that you get a lot of reading done. I've just finished a book called quite simply 'Shakespeare' by Bill Bryson. He questions every 'fact' that we have about Shakespeare and in the process we learn a lot about Elizabethan England. For example spelling was pretty wild. One word could often be written in half a dozen ways and often was on one page. The spelling of Shakespeare for example is not clear. The version we use today wasn't one of those used in Shakspeare's (Shakeshaft's / Shappere's / Shakspere's / Shakespear's - apparently there are up to 80 versions) time. Shakespeare's own signature appears in at least six different forms.

Understandably the printing press back in Shaker's day was not what it is today. Editors took liberties with grammar, spelling and wording. When multiple copies of a book were pressed, it was a big job that could be sent to several different printeries. Each one would have proof-readers/editors pawing over the books. They'd all make different decisions about what went where and what was intended. Lines sometimes got cut because they didn't fit neatly onto a page or because there'd been a transcription error. The original documents were often dodgy. Most of the plays for example had several working versions. Sometimes they were what the actors recalled and were written retrospectively. Sometimes people would sit in the audience and transcribe while listening. These versions became mixed with more original versions. Later no-one was sure which version or which parts of which versions were authentic. One version of Hamlet's soliliquy came out as

To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all.:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned

Hmmm. That doesn't quite have the same ring to it. All that we have left today are the print versions that editors came up with a few years after Shakespeare's death.

Words Shakers contributed to the language incluce zany, abstemious, critical, frugal, dwindle, excellent and eventful. He was big on 'un' prefixes and created unmask, unhand, unlock and untie. Some of his words didn't stick though - undeaf and insultment being among them. Phrases include vanish into thin air, budge an inch, flesh and blood and blinking idiot.

Little is known about Shakespeare's personal life though much clearly incorrect information has been written and repeated through the years.

I loved reading about what Queen Lizzy The First was up to at the time, the politics, the bizarre laws (at various earnings you were permitted to wear silk of various colours. As you stepped up you were allowed to wear velvet) and the lives of ordinary people. If only the Shakespeare course I did at uni in my youth had been as interesting as Bryson's book.

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