Michael Macrone

(The Sydney Morning Herald, 1990)

By Alan Peterson

WHATEVER you think of Shakespeare, and even if you do not think of him at all, you cannot escape him. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” may not often occur in your conversation, but plenty of his other words do.

Sydney Morning Herald

Here are a few: A sorry sight, a foregone conclusion, one fell swoop, tower of strength, spotless reputation, wild goose chase, a ministering angel, a blinking idiot, too much of a good thing, method in his madness, a pound of flesh, the primrose path, something rotten in the state of Denmark, it smells to heaven, and hoist with his own petard.

All are household words, and that is Shakespeare’s phrase, too. “Then shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words” occurs in Henry V.

So well known are Shakespeare’s phrases that you look a bit of a clown if you misquote them or use them out of context. It would be handy if somebody collected and annotated them in a book.

Somebody has. Michael Macrone, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, specialising in Elizabethan drama and Shakespeare, has named his book Brush Up Your Shakespeare after the Cole Porter song. The publishers here are Collins/Angus & Robertson.

If I said “the world’s my oyster” you would take it to mean that the world’s riches and pleasures were there for me to pick out of the shell. That is not what Shakespeare meant. Refused a loan by Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the braggart Pistol responded with a boastful threat of force:

Why, then the world’s mine oyster
Which 1 with sword will open.

Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” is not a lament over hard times. In fact things were looking up for Richard’s family. His brother Edward IV, another son of the Duke of York, has beaten the Lancastrian Henry VI and seized the throne. The next line makes it clear: the “winter of our discontent” is “made glorious summer by this son of York.”

Macrone sets out famous passages and shows their context and significance. Hamlet says: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” By putting on a play about the murder of a king, he aims to provoke a visible guilty reaction from the real king, who murdered Hamlet’s father.

We know that, but Macrone says that about 10 years after the production of Hamlet the playwright Thomas Heywood told a startling story. He wrote about a tragedy in which a man was murdered by driving a nail through his head. During a performance, he said, a woman in the audience got up and “oft sighed these words: Oh my husband, my husband!” Later, said Heywood, the woman confessed to murder and was burnt for it.

Speaking of Hamlet, what about that bare bodkin? It is an unlikely weapon for a suicide. The fact is that bodkin was also used then for a dagger.

Macrone credits Shakespeare with having coined enough words to fill nine pages of his book. At least Shakespeare was the first user of these words whom the Oxford Dictionary could trace. Among the words were wittolly (contentedly a cuckold), slugabed, puh (an interjection), skimble-skamble (senseless), nonregardance, inhearse (load into a hearse) and kickie-wickie (derogatory term for a wife). Many common words are also in the list, including bedazzle, courtship, dewdrop, foppish, puppy-dog, silk stocking, pious, sanctimonious and zany (a clown’s offsider or a mocking mimic). Macrone sets the record straight on some phrases wrongly attributed to Shakespeare. Among them are “all that glisters is not gold,” “the dog will have his day” and, appropriately, “the truth will out.”

Sydney Morning Herald story

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