Think On My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language - David Crystal I didn't enjoy this book as well as I had hoped to as much of it is a rather dry analysis of Shakespeare's use of syntax, meter and other grammar. However, as with several recent books, the last chapter lifted it from the 2-2.5 region to a 3-star rating.

(As an aside, the author has elected to represent quotes in their orignal Elizabethan spelling and orthography. Thus, one must struggle through By vs perform'd before. Most dearly welcome, / And your faire Princesse oh: alas, / I los a couple, that 'twixt Heauen and Earth / might thus haue stood..., and so on. I understand Crystal's purpose -- he's trying to show that the original language is not that far from modern English -- but it is hard to read for the unpracticed eye and it unnecessarily (I think) slows the reader down.

In terms of "translating" Shakespeare into English, I'm more sympathetic to John McWhorter's view (cf., [book:The Power of Babel] that we shouldn't be afraid to modernize at least those problematic passages that only an EngLit scholar could interpret. As he points out, when Shakespeare is translated into French or Japanese, the translator doesn't use the Parisian dialect of the Sun King's Court or the Japanese of the Tokugawa Shogunate, they use the modern form.)

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the first chapters, where Crystal discusses Shakespeare's influence on English and the textual history of the plays. In regards to influence, Shakespeare is not the "inventor" of modern English, though he's often the first citation in the OED for a lot of coinages. The Bard's genius lay in how he used the language both stylistically and to expose the human "soul."

The textual tradition is also fascinating. The "definitive" First Folio was only published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. Before then, quartos of various quality were published from 1594-1622. Ultimately, it's impossible to know exactly what was said on the Globe's stage. In illustration, Crystal reprints three versions of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy:

First Folio:
To be, or not to be, that is the Question: / Whether 'tis Nobler in the minde to suffer / The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune, / Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe / No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end / The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes / That Flesh is heyre too? / 'Tis a consummation

"Good" quarto version (1604):
To be, or not to be, that is the question, / Whether tis nobler in the minde to suffer / The slings and arrowes of outragious fortune, / Or to take Armes against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing, end them, to die to sleepe / No more, and by a sleepe, to say we end / The hart-ake, and the thousand naturall shocks / That flesh is heire to; tis a consummation

"Bad" quarto version (1603):
To be, or not to be, I there's the point, / To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all: / No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes, / For in that dreame of death, when wee awake, / And borne before an euerlasting Iudge, / From whence no passenger euer retur'nd, / The vndiscouered country, at whose sight / The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd. (pp. 24-5)

The rest of the book, as I wrote above, is taken up with a rather dry dissection of the plays but Crystal's concluding paragraph perfectly spells out why Shakespeare continues as the nearly undisputed masterof the English language and its use: In his (Shakespeare's) best writing, we see how to make a language work to that it conveys the effects we want it to. Above all, Shakespeare shows us how to dare to do things with language. Dare we invent words to express the inexpressible? We dare.... Dare we manipulate parts-of-speech as if they were pieces of plasticine? We dare.... Dare we take the norms of (meter) or word-order and make them do our bidding? We dare.... In a Shakespearean master-class, we would receive an object-lesson in the effective bending and breaking of rules. (p. 233)