Sunday, 8 July 2007

Shakespeare knew grammar

I have been reading—or rather leafing through, for it has 850 pages and I am already behind with the week’s newspapers—a book by Clive James called Cultural Amnesia. It is a lament for the loss of learning and reason in the form of over a hundred essays arranged around celebrities, intellectuals, tyrants and writers. I had never heard of about two-thirds of these, which shows that even if I had actually read the book I would be quite unqualified to review it.

I used to enjoy James’s TV reviews but nowadays find him unlikeable, too clever by half and faux modest about his undeniable erudition (it seems he can no longer read Russian fairly fluently or get through a simple article in Japanese: lamentable!). While setting out to write something which the blurb asserts is ‘poetic in its language, magisterial in its scope and courageous in its defence of the human spirit’ he indulgently allows himself lengthy diversions on subjects that amuse him; there is a long piece about Richard Burton’s haircut in Where Eagles Dare, a page about how Joan Crawford replied to fan letters and why Greta Garbo never did. and a lot of stuff about Coco Chanel. In all these ramblings he clearly intends to make serious sociological points but that could have been done less obscurely without the gossip. No wonder the book took him nearly forty years to write.

And his literary judgement is often at fault; he believes that Evelyn Waugh was funnier than P. G. Wodehouse, an aberrant view surprising in a competent humorist such as James used to be.

Nevertheless there are nuggets to be relished. Here James kills the myth that ‘genius operates beyond donkey work’—that Einstein was no better at arithmetic than we are, that Mozart didn’t bother with the rules of composition, that Shakespeare didn’t care about grammar and that just because Picasso sailed through art school doesn’t mean that anybody can sail past it. On the contrary, he points out, Einstein could add up, Mozart would not have been able to break the rules in an interesting way unless he was able to keep them if required, and:

..Shakespeare, far from being careless about grammar, could depart from it in any direction only because he had first mastered it as a structure. Moreover, unless we ourselves know quite a lot about how grammar works, there will be severe limits on our ability to understand what he wrote, especially when he seems to be at his most untrammelled. Take a single line from Henry V:
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
Here is a whole story in eleven syllables, but unless we grasp how an extremely compressed sentence can be put together, we won’t get the story out; and if Shakespeare had not grasped it, he would not have been able to put the story in. Though they might look like it at first glance, “ill” and “white” are not a pair of adjectives. “Ill” is an adverb, modifying the verb “become”. If this is not realised, the meaning is reversed. If Shakespeare hadn’t realised the fundamental difference between an adjective and an adverb, he couldn’t have written the sentence. A good actor will help him make the point, by emphasizing “ill” so that its effect carries over to “become”. But it is quite easy to imagine a bad actor missing the point, and conveying the impression that ill white hairs make a fool and jester look good, or, even worse—two errors for one—allowing it to be thought that ill white hairs have turned into a fool and jester. This latter kind of misapprehension has become especially likely in recent times. There are now a whole generation who have never become required to understand the verb “become” in any other sense than the one for which I employed it in the preceding sentence: in a previous generation they might have heard a fragment of popular song (“Moonlight Becomes You”) and realised that there is another sense.

All that is a bit wordy but the observation is a salutary one. James hangs it on a peg provided by a quotation from the philologist and essayist Pedro Henriquez Ureña: Great art begins where grammar ends.

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