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Speaking like Shakespeare

SRT’s Arts Management Resident, Vanessa Teo, contributes her thoughts on how Mr Will S. was the  English teacher she never knew she had.

Bernard Levin’s ‘Quoting Shakespeare’ poster sat — and perhaps still sits — on the left wall near the back of the small Literature classroom where my classmates and I learnt to distil themes, to pick apart symbols, to decipher images and more in advance of the ‘A’ Levels. We did not read Shakespeare for the class, poring over John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre instead. My eye probably wandered now and then to Levin’s witty text, so much so that of everything else in that little room, I remember this poster the most.

For anyone who is unfamiliar, the poster in question weaves many of the phrases and idioms that we regard as everyday phrases into Levin’s argument about how we don’t realise the regularity we quote Shakespeare — see some of his lines here:

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare: it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you claimed to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare. … if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise, why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are as good luck would have it, quoting Shakespeare.

Each time I look up Levin’s poster (the online version) I am tickled by his playful tone and the clever way he has helped us along to the realisation. So much of the playwright's language has slipped into our vernacular with many lines in the soliloquies turned into iconic, stand-alone quotes. Long before any of us read or hear Hamlet speak “To be or not to be” in the context of the play, if we ever do at all, we first see and hear it elsewhere in myriad other forms (including extending the pun to 2B pencils and printing it on some secondary school class t-shirts). 

This Shakespeare Day, we celebrate how much Shakespeare is alive in our everyday lingo.  The next time you read Shakespeare's plays, or watch a staging of his work, listen closely. You might have been speaking Shakespeare without realising it.

SRT will be screening three productions by Royal Shakespeare Company at the KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT 12 – 14 June 2019. Click here to find out more.

Published on: 23-04-2019


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