Friday, August 21, 2009

Discuss the imagery in Shakespeare's....zzzzzzzzz...

It's essay questions like that that make people hate literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular. I used his last name, because I'm talking about the "institution," not the writer. Will's plays are full of wonderful imagery--but forcing kids to write about the language without getting them excited about it first is pedagogical malpractice. For better or worse, the best Shakespeare teachers are failed or frustrated actors. You have to read this stuff out loud, with enthusiasm and a sensual appreciation for the yummy feel of these exotic words in your mouth...

Some examples of especially delectable imagery:

Othello--imagery of eating and digesting:

"...she'd come again, and with a greedy ear, devour up my discourse..."

"...her delicate tenderness will find itself abused, begin to heave the gorge, disrelish and abhor the Moor."

"They are all but stomachs, and we all but food. They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, they belch us."

Macbeth--imagery of time and excessive speed (Macbeth can't wait to be king):

"Thou art so far before, that the swiftest wing of recompense is slow to overtake thee."

"Thy letters have transported me beyond the ignorant present, and I feel now the future in the instant."

"Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived in a blessed time..."

King Lear--imagery of corrupted femininity:

"Proper deformity shows not in the fiend/So horrid as in woman."

"Hear, Nature, hear!...Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility! Dry up her organs of increase...."

"If thou shouldst not be glad, I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb, sepulchring an adultress."

"...his dog-hearted daughters..."

"Down from the waist they are all Centaurs/Though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit."

Hamlet--imagery of rot and decay:

"Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear, blasting his wholesome brother."

"For if the sun breed maggots in the dead dog, being a good kissing carrion--have you a daughter?"

"It will but skin and film the ulcerous place
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen."

"'Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed;
Things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely."

Hamlet "How long will a man lie i'th' earth ere he rot?"
Clown "I'faith, if a be not rotten before a die--as we have many pocky corpses nowadays, that will scarce hold the laying in--a will last you some eight or nine year."

The Merchant of Venice--imagery of commerce (debt, investment, interest, expense):

"Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia;
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth..."

"Men that hazard all/Do it in hope of fair advantages."

"...for you/I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich,
That only to stand high in your account
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account."

The imagery in Taming is primarily of inversion--things turned upside-down, inside out, or cart-before-the horse. Will used this kind of imagery a lot--it figures prominently in King Lear, where children infantilize and brutalize their parents--but he was especially fond of its comic potential. There's even a word for it: preposterous. To us, this word has lost its original meaning--we think of it as a synonym for "outrageous," but really it means "ass-backwards"--putting the last thing ("post") first ("pre"). So when, in Act 3, Lucentio calls his rival a "preposterous ass," he's being a little redundant--a preposterous person always arrives ass first! Luce berates Hortensio for thinking music should come before philosophy--Renaissance scholars saw philosophy as the "first"--i.e., most important--of all studies. It was the foundation from which all the others derived. So by insisting that he teach Bianca music before Luce teaches her philosophy, Hortensio puts the cart before the horse, or leads with his ass.


  1. Excellent examples! I'm teaching Othello right now and adore the imagery in that play (that "then they belch us" Emilia line is my personal favorite). What a cool blog you have here!

  2. Thanks, Traci. Feel free to chime in with comments, corrections, questions...I guess my hope in writing it was that it would help teachers, so that makes me happy!