Know your Onions and Crystals

Shakespeare's Words
November 29, 2002

Prior to the publication of this splendid book, anyone interested in the study of Shakespeare's language really had to know their Onions, because Charles Talbot Onions's A Shakespeare Glossary , first published in 1911 and still in print in the revised edition of 1986, was the only sound guide of its kind around. Those with a penchant for the saucy side of the Bard could, of course, thumb through Eric Partridge's trailblazing conspectus Shakespeare's Bawdy (1947) or consult the dictionaries of indecencies that superseded it, such as Gordon Williams's A Glossary of Shakespeare's Sexual Language (1998).

Specialised studies of the plays' debts to the discourses of law, medicine, economics and so on could be tracked down readily enough, too, scattered through miscellaneous monographs and journals. But as a handy, one-stop glossary spanning the spectrum of Shakespeare's vocabulary, Onions's concise compilation remained unrivalled in the 20th century.

Whether Shakespeare's Words is destined to remain unrivalled for the rest of this century is hard to predict, but it is a pretty safe bet that it will be the trusted companion of students, teachers and editors of Shakespeare for decades to come, and the foundation on which all future Shakespeare dictionaries will be obliged to build. Thanks to the heroic labours of David and Ben Crystal, we now have a comprehensive, up-to-date glossary of nigh on 14,000 words, culled from the entire corpus of works regarded by most scholars as wholly or partly attributable to Shakespeare, including King Edward III and The Two Noble Kinsmen , neither of which was enshrined in the canon in Onions's day.

The explication of these "headwords", as the Crystals call them, entails over 21,000 entries, which offer succinct glosses for words and phrases that can have anything from a single simple significance to 22 distinct meanings. Every one of the 21,000 entries is illustrated by a quotation that is as sharply contextualised as spatial constraints permit. Thus, the entry for "glanders", a noun which crops up in The Taming of the Shrew , reads: "Horse disease affecting the nostrils and jaws TS III.ii.50 [Biondello to Tranio as Lucentio, of Petruchio's horse] possessed with the glanders ".

Not content with constructing a richly detailed A to Z of Shakespeare's vast lexicon, Crystal père and Crystal fils have enhanced the value of Shakespeare's Words by incorporating a number of special features and resources. The dictionary proper is prefaced by a mini-glossary of 100 "Frequently encountered words", such as "gentle" (well-born, honourable), "sad" (serious, grave) and "wot" (learn, know), that will prove a boon to the absolute beginner. Sixteen appendices at the end of the book list, locate and gloss all the proper names of persons, beings, places, days and dates that appear in the texts, as well as every substantive use of languages and dialects other than English (French and Latin lead the field, followed by Italian, Spanish, Irish, Scottish and Welsh). A chronology of Shakespeare's works is also provided, along with a nifty list of the names of all his characters, which supplies not only the title of the play each belongs to, but (where necessary) their assumed names, nicknames, titles and professions.

The two most fascinating features, however, are the "Glossary panels" embedded in the A to Z and the "Shakespearean circles" devised by the authors. The panels afford space to expand on an aspect of Shakespeare's language that merits fuller analysis and illustration, such as archaisms, exclamations, plurals and swearing. I was particularly intrigued by the panel unpromisingly headed "Functional shift", which highlights one of the hallmarks of Shakespeare's linguistic creativity - his compulsion to convert one part of speech into another, twisting nouns into verbs, as in Lear's line "he childed as I fathered", or adverbs into nouns, as in France's line to Cordelia: "Thou losest here, a better where to find".

The "Shakespearean circles" provide for each play a dynamic diagram of the social spheres within which characters move and the relationships between them both inside and across these spheres. Backed up by a plot synopsis and list of dramatis personae on the facing page, the diagrams work perfectly for a play such as The Merchant of Venice , enabling one to grasp at a glance the constituent communities of Venice and Belmont, and the points at which they interact. Their virtue is less apparent when it comes to a history play such as Henry VI Part I , whose crowded canvas and tangled family trees produce a diagram too dense and intricate to be serviceable.

The Crystals are at pains to stress that Shakespeare's Words is first and foremost a glossary, and not to be confused with a grammar or a concordance or a guide to pronunciation, even if it does usurp the function of such handbooks at times in pursuit of its own objectives. They are acutely aware, too, of the limits of their enterprise, and especially of the fact that "a dictionary is not a substitute for editorial notes, which focus on extracting the full meaning of a word in its individual context, and examining its resonance for the passage or text as a whole". Nor are they afraid to throw in the towel when the meaning of a phrase, such as Hamlet's "miching mallecho" or Jaques's "ducdame, ducdame" in As You Like It , appears as opaque to them as it did to their predecessors.

But nothing that the authors' modesty and circumspection leads them to say can detract from the scale and importance of their achievement. The arrival of this cornucopian companion to Shakespeare's language, moreover, could hardly be more timely. A sea change in Shakespeare studies is now under way, as the dead hand of historicism begins to lift from them at last. Shakespeare's Words will have a vital part to play in returning our attention to the texts as dramatic poetry, as startling masterpieces of form and phrasing that defy attempts to reduce them to prisoners of the past.

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion. First edition

Author - David and Ben Crystal
ISBN - 0 14 100737 0
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 650

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