That’s how we speak: Jerusalem and Shakespeare. Language in drama and other musings.

Caution: Explicit text!

By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her
very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her
great P’s.

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?

I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be
buried in thy eyes.

and I have not even begun to explore the nurse… (ooh matron!)

All of the above are pleasingly filthy yet most students pass them with hardly a second glance. Depending on age we may discuss the double entendres, but the impression is that this is Shakespeare indulging in literary games for his own pleasure and to allow school children 400 years on to write essays about metaphor and Elisabethan puns. This misses the point, surely. For these jokes to work they must be recognisable to the audience and for any play to “work” the dialogue must needs reflect the common speech patterns of the audience to enable easy assimilation.

What we have here is filth, but recognisable filth from everyday parlance. Malvolio gives Shakespeare’s version of the coy “see you next Tuesday” gloss on the biggest taboo word in our language (though Chaucer of course knew no such taboo when he allowed Alisoun to be grabbed by the “queynt” -fashions change.); Hamlet repeats the same joke in his “country matters” and then employs the common reference to Nothing as representing the vagina – no “thing” -ha ha ha – which leads neatly to Much Ado About Vagina or Nothing and the common use of the verb to die to mean orgasm. Benedick’s offer to “die in Beatrice’s lap is not really the romantic gesture that it sounds.

One could go on and on and on. Shakespeare is writing in the language of the day for people of the day and it is this which i want to consider in terms of Jerusalem, which I am teaching in the Lower 6th this term.

At the recent English Association conference I heard David Hahn and Gordon McMullen speaking variously on “Language and Literature -a perfect match” and “Shakespeare today”. Both were engaging and thought provoking and this discussion was prompted by the talks. It is not an attempt to precis their presentations in any way, but rather is a riff on the ideas I heard as applied to my current teaching.

First then, to the aspect of language that many may find off-putting when bringing Jerusalem into the classroom. The first pages contain several “bollocks”, ‘fucks’, ‘fuckings’ and even a “cunt”, alongside the minor oaths – “bloody” and so on. The action depicts a feral outsider taking drugs and trying to humiliate authority figures in the shape of Parsons and Fawcett. But when the other day I suggested to my class that this was Shakespearian, they were surprised. I would argue that we don’t recognise Shakespeare’s oath strewn vernacular for what it is – everyday speech. All those “by’r’lady” or “God’s Wounds” no longer carry any cultural capital designed to shock.. and Falstaff is seen as a loveable old sot who, despite his appalling debauchery, is looked on with pleasure by theatre goers today. My point is this: if you record an evening in any pub across the land, the language is that of Rooster. If you record any group of schoolboys relaxing and engaging in “banter”, the language is that of Rooster. There is nothing intrinsically offensive in any word in the language other than society makes it so – and fashions change. Chaucer can write “queynt” quite happily, it seems, and Shakespeare can scatter sexual slang and blasphemy in the mouths of his characters. Interestingly, the sexual slang is now considered too graphic for many classrooms but the blasphemy has lost its potency. Drama must reflect the language of the day. Perhaps a good example would by to imagine Alan Bleasdale’s Boys’ from the Blackstuff with the language of the Liverpool streets removed: Indeed, I suppose that a post on Yosser and Byron as characters might be interesting to write…

Everyone swears in the play. But the language is needed if we are to believe in the authenticity of the characters. What I love is the inventiveness of the swearing and Rooster’s way with alliteration and use of animal imagery. There is genuine flair in his language once we move beyond the initial hurdle of allowing our students to say “rude words” in the classroom.

One of Dahn’s comments reflecting the work of Lakoff and Johnson explored briefly the idea that metaphor is a vital thought process in life and considered how common metaphor is in our life-journey (see?). Again there are links between the idea and the writers here – metaphors of travel – often sea travel- fill Shakespeare alongside metaphors of health, food and animals – hardly surprising that this should be so, given the society of the time and the main concerns of life in Tudor England. The point is that they are not somehow the magical choices of a unique writer, but rather the common ideas of the street, interpreted and raised by one writer amongst many writing for the stage in London at this time. They are the cultural currency of everyday speech – albeit recoined often as little sparkling gems. So, can we find the same thing in the Butterworth?

Certainly there is much to enjoy in the animal imagery abounding in the play – I want students to find their own, so no lists, but so much is made of cats, dogs, rats and so on in relation to young people that it is not hard to find. What Butterworth can do, when necessary is convey the “something special” about Johnny by his use of metaphor which deepens thought. In act 2, in his glorious challenge to society, he calls on his “beserkers” to rise “snout by jowl”. Given the common use of “cheek by jowl” and Rooster’s avoidance of the idiom in favour of the altogether more interesting and somehow darker use of “snout”, immediately implying hunting dogs or even pigs, we can begin to feel the extra depth and mystery which the character is required to convey. This is set in contrast to his acolyte Ginger, whose entire speech patterns seem to be based on what other people say – usually by referencing film and TV or the patter of those DJs so much more capable than he. This disparity of imagination in their individual narrative voices is an immediate indicator of their respective powers and depths – just as it is in poor Lee, whose narrative seems to consist of rare moments of lucidity amongst an utter inability to communicate at all.

The final idea to present here comes from a discussion that McMullan presented relating to Shakespeare’s “woods”. He covered ecocriticism and the need to see Shakespeare as part of a whole, when considering Elisabethan and Jacobean England. Again I shifted on to Butterworth and began to formulate ideas about woods and about the play being seen as part of a tradition starting with Chaucer and moving through Shakespeare and Bleasdale (and others) onto Butterworth and our world today. This is realism and is not therefore the stylised language world of Brecht or Absurdists, for example, and because of that we must recognise and value it for what is presented. Since Jerusalem seems to hark back to a “time before” throughout, both in content and in Johnny’s speech patterns, we must see the wood in this light. For Shakespeare the Wood was frightening even when being used as a Pastoral retreat, and this echoes the ideas from legend such as Robin Hood, where the hero creates his pastoral idyll in the very place which all fear because of highway murder and robbery- by Robin Hood… England has never had the fear of woodland of our North European neighbours, possibly because of the deciduous nature of our trees – much better at producing fertility figures and green Man than wolves and lonely grannies being devoured by predators… But here, the wood is frightening – not to Johnny and his nymphs and satyrs, but to the villagers 450 yards away across the stream (such liminal boundaries being common in all good stories of this kind). All those visiting Johnny have, therefore chosen to cross a boundary between society and the wood – they have entered an older and much darker place by doing so. For Shakespeare, wood was a prime building material and would later save the nation by being made into ships for Nelson’s navy- thus there was an intrinsic value to the woods which is recognised in plays like As You Like It, where Arden is such a positive place. For 21st Century readers, we wonder “what the fuck an English forest is for” – they provide little in the way of raw materials and are no longer the pleasure parks of Royalty that Chaucer would have known. For urban dwellers they are sanitised places of “nature” without danger and children being allowed to “Go Ape”. No wonder that modern society has few qualms about removing Rooster’s Wood to build houses – it adds nothing in our materialistic view of society. For Johnny, and his heritage through Falstaff or oberon all the way back to Pan and Dionysus, it is vital and integral to the world at large – a place of danger and safety, or life and death. A place in which Nature is presented in all its glory -red in tooth and claw. Closer to Ted Hughes than Wordsworth, perhaps… but that’s another post for another day.