‘Not know my voice?’: Shakespeare corrected; english perfected - theories of language from the middle ages to modernity

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Our cultural understandings of Shakespeare, and especially his language, are fraught with paradoxes and contradictions. In this chapter, I consider our view of Shakespeare in relation to the Middle Ages, and modernity, to argue that these relations are more complex than often seems the case when we base our generalizations on Shakespeare alone. I argue that understanding the basis for our attitude to Shakespeare's language, and our concepts of language in general, is the key to understanding the relationship between the Middle Ages, Shakespeare (for which we read the Renaissance), and the ‘present’ (whenever that has been, is, or will be). To demonstrate what I mean by the dangers of our presuppositions, I begin with a piece of Shakespeare criticism, which I take to be broadly typical of assumptions about Shakespeare, his position relative to the modern world, and the Middle Ages. I shall show that the assumptions of the piece, although conventional, are deeply flawed, resting on an anachronistic reading of the status of language in Shakespeare, and Renaissance culture. I then consider two instances of ‘modernizing’ Shakespeare: by Dryden, and by modern editors, and examine the implications for English, and Shakespeare, of these processes. I end by attempting to trace the cultural-linguistic shift that separates us from Shakespeare (and the Middle Ages). I shall argue that it has been repeatedly misplaced between the Middle Ages and Shakespeare, with the effect that we treat Shakespeare as modern.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMedieval Shakespeare
Subtitle of host publicationPasts and Presents
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781139060905
ISBN (Print)9781107016279
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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