William Shakespeare, April 1564 – April 23rd 1616



Thank you, Will.

You created some of the most unforgettable characters ever to grace a stage.

You taught us that the English language could sing to rival any other, and you invented more than 1700 words that we’re still using today (‘bloodstained’, ‘premeditated’, ‘impartial’, ‘tranquil’, and – would you believe, anyone? – ‘puking’, to name just a few).

You held up a mirror and you showed us ourselves, in all our shame and in all our glory.

You died four hundred years ago today, and we will never forget you.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

– Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1


If you want to find out more about Shakespeare, the best thing to do is to go see one of his plays. Summer Shakespeare festivals are coming up; ours in Edmonton is the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. This year they’re doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and festival passes are on sale now.

There are many excellent editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Complete Works‘. I actually own two – a very old edition with just the text, and a big monster with excellent supplementary notes. I enjoy them both, for different reasons.

If you want an entertaining biography, my favourite is the one by Bill Bryson, ‘The World as Stage‘.

Here’s my favourite Shakespeare quote, from Portia’s speech to Shylock in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Time for a rant

On Monday Marci and I were watching one of the new episodes of ‘Lewis‘, one of our favourite British murder mystery shows. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Lewis used to be Morse’s bagman; Morse was the very well-read and erudite Detective Chief Inspector (and a real pain in the arse as well), while Lewis was his more simple and straightforward Detective Sergeant. Well, now Lewis is the DI, and he’s gotten more cynical in his old age (losing his wife to a hit and run had a lot to do with it). For his pains, his bagman is James Hathaway, a DS who is a former theology student and who has obviously read every major book written by western authors in the past thousand years – and can quote from them at will. The interaction between the two of them is one of the most interesting and enjoyable parts of the show.

Anyway, in this episode it was revealed to us that Hathaway has a thing about apostrophes – misplaced ones, that it. They make him cringe. And the problem is that they’re all over the place. It seems that no one knows how to use apostrophes properly any more. And Hathaway’s annoyance is beginning to infect Lewis. He’s an old guy, of course, so he, also, was brought up in the days when children at school were taught how to use apostrophes properly. Now even their teachers don’t know how to do that – witness all the misplaced apostrophes in the letters they send home to parents (my observation not Lewis’). At one point Lewis says to Hathaway, “I never noticed apostrophes before you started on about them – now I can’t stop seeing them everywhere!”

I agree. I find this one totally mystifying. What is so difficult about being able to tell the difference between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’? Or between ‘they’re’ and ‘their’.

Yes, English is a complex language. This is because it is descended from several different languages, and because some of the practices we follow today were developed when some of our words and phrases took a different form than they do now (for an example of this, see below). But surely a brain that is smart enough to develop the iPhone can learn the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, can’t it?

Apparently not.

So here is ‘Tim’s Guide to the Apostrophe’, part 1.

An apostrophe almost always marks a contraction. A word has been shortened, and the apostrophe marks the missing letter. ‘It’s’ is a contraction for ‘It is’. Ergo, ‘It’s a warm night tonight’ is correct (short for ‘It is a warm night tonight’). ‘Canada has lost it’s nerve’ is not correct (because you don’t say, ‘Canada has lost it is nerve’).

Some will say, ‘But surely sometimes an apostrophe indicates possession; we talk about ‘John’s book’ or ‘Paul’s car’.

No, the apostrophe there still indicates a contraction. This usage is descended from an older form of English, in which, instead of saying, ‘John’s book’, we would have said ‘John his book’.

Misunderstanding of this point is behind much misuse of the apostrophe. People think an apostrophe indicates possession, so they think we should write things like ‘The earth is losing it’s forests’. Wrong. No one, at any time in the history of the English language, has ever said ‘The earth is losing it his forests’, so an apostrophe is not needed. The correct spelling is, ‘The earth is losing its forests’.

Now I realise that, on a scale of 1-10, this particular disaster is not exactly life-threatening. The human race will survive the loss of its apostrophes (note proper spelling!); it will not, however, survive the loss of its forests.

However, I am an old curmudgeon, and this is a rant. I enjoy reading good English; I find sloppy English irritating. And this is my blog!

Stay tuned for the next gripping episode: ‘Their’ and ‘they’re!