Would Life Be Better If We All Spoke Shakespeare?

Shakespeare died almost 400 years ago, but if blogger Joe Muldoon had it his way, we would all still speak like the Bard. Muldoon talks about his op-ed, "We Can't All Be Shakespeare — But We Could Try to Be," which appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Now gentlemen of Verona, ladies of Padua, lend me your ears. This past Monday is celebrated as Shakespeare's birthday and the day of his death, and while he found his way to dusty death at the tender age of 52, he penned a staggering 38 plays and 154 sonnets. He's been gone for almost 400 years, but of course his verse lives on. And if Joe Muldoon has his way, henceforth we'll all speak like the bard.

In an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Muldoon argues we should pepper our everyday conversation with Shakespearean lines, and he explains how to do it. If you're looking for a biting insult, thou art a villain; or an expression of devotion, shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. The bard is your go-to guy. But since brevity is the soul of wit, let's get to it.

What sayest thou? How has Shakespeare influenced your life? What's your favorite Shakespearean quotation, and do you use it in conversation? Give us a call. The number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can also comment on our blog and read the sonnet we came up with today. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Joe Muldoon joins us now from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Welcome.

Mr. JOE MULDOON (Author, "We Can't All Be Shakespeare - But We Could Try to Be"): Hi.

ROBERTS: So where did you get this idea to incorporate Shakespeare into your daily discourse?

Mr. MULDOON: Well, I have always been a great believer in interjecting references from the bard into the daily discourse whenever apt, or even possibly remotely apt. I keep my screensaver set for the time is out of joint oh cursed spite that ever I was born to set as right, and, you know, I kind of don the mantle of nobility there. And hardly (unintelligible) red morning passes without me grabbing somebody by the lapel and, you know, saying but look, the morning russet mantle clad (unintelligible) of yon high eastern hill. I just think that's the way…

ROBERTS: And what do they think of that when you grab them by the lapel and start…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULDOON: Well, I think some people find some amusement in it. Some people find it a little disconcerting, and that can work to your benefit sometimes at, say, corporate meetings. You can just throw people off a little bit, and also maybe inject a little humor.

ROBERTS: Well, to help us all speak a little bit more like Shakespeare we're calling in an expert. We've got Gail Paster here. She's the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library and editor of Shakespeare Quarterly. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome.

Ms. GAIL PASTER (Director, Folger Shakespeare Library): Hi, Rebecca.

Mr. MULDOON: Hi, Gail.

Ms. PASTER: Hi, Joe.

ROBERTS: So how often do you hear a Shakespearean phrase or analogy or allusion in just regular discourse?

Ms. PASTER: I think we speak Shakespeare all the time. In fact, it's not at all uncommon to say aye, there's the rub, you know, if there's a problem. I mean, Joe has already been quoting "Hamlet," so I think we might as well continue to do that, and it's just everyday discourse. It really is. And some of the things that Shakespeare - phrases Shakespeare coined like the truth will out, which in fact I think we would probably say, assuming we were speaking proverbially, but it's Shakespeare.

ROBERTS: And you know, good night, sweet price, sweet for the sweet (unintelligible) as long as we're in "Hamlet." My salad days. It's amazing…

Ms. PASTER: That's Cleopatra, actually, but yes…

ROBERTS: Okay, Cleopatra, salad days. The other two are "Hamlet." But it's remarkable how often you suddenly realize phrases that you didn't realize Shakespeare coined.

Ms. PASTER: Absolutely.

Mr. MULDOON: You mentioned henceforth. I think you said that when we started off. And at all these meetings you hear moving forward, going forward, and I hope that tomorrow morning at NPR and MPR you abjure that usage and get to henceforth and heretofore.

ROBERTS: Well, let's see what we can do about that. Listen, I've put iambic pentameter in the billboard for this hour. I think that might be as far as we can go on NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULDOON: Good lassie. You've got my vote, sister.

ROBERTS: We have e-mail from Christine in Kettering, Ohio, who says one of my favorite quotes is from "Macbeth": Out damn spot, out I say. The reason I like is that it slips into regular conversation by all kinds of people, many of whom I imagine do not know the origins of the famous exclamation. I just heard it from a cashier this weekend while I was out shopping. The bard lives.

Gail Paster, do you ever have people come to you for advice on adding Shakespeare to their conversation or speeches or rhetoric in some way?

Ms. PASTER: Actually, I don't. But it does seem to me that people looking for -I mean, one of the things that we do at the library, of course, is to encourage children to use and get familiar with Shakespeare's language, and we do that. It sounds like Joe's doing it also. We ask them to think up Shakespeare insults. And so we give them the tools for that by saying okay, here are the following adjectives that Shakespeare loves to use: lily-livered, white-livered, other kinds of things, and then we give them the nouns. And we just tell them, you know, use these lists and make it up, and so rabbit-sucker and weasel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PASTER: And they of course - they don't need much encouragement to use that kind of language with each other, so it's great.

ROBERTS: Lily-livered weasel. I've got to work that into conversation somehow. This is Kathy in Boon, North Carolina. Kathy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KATHY (Caller): Hey.

ROBERTS: Hi.

KATHY: Okay, I did my undergrad in English, so I was - and this was the '60s, so I was going to save the world by introducing the little children to Shakespeare. It didn't quite work out that way, but anyway, my usual Shakespearean thing is to say we'll take care of it in one fell swoop.

Ms. PASTER: Absolutely.

KATHY: Well, the kicker is that my father was kind of notorious for spoonerisms, you know, when you flip the letters around doing word play. For instance, when I was reading doing British poets, he turned Byron, Sheets and Kelley into Bryan - or Byron, Keats and Shelley - I can't even say it right -into Bryan, Sheats and Kelly. But so one - for me one fell swoop as often as not turns into on swell foop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Thanks, Kathy. And I'd really like to know what a foop is. Joe Muldoon, what is it about Shakespeare that speaks to you? Why Shakespeare as opposed to someone else?

Mr. MULDOON: You know, when I think of the short phrases of Shakespeare, they are apt and they help, but it's Shakespeare's rhythm and the sonorous tones, you know, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day. I actually like to, if I'm using Shakespeare, step out of the daily rhythms and crank it up a little bit. You don't make many friends that way, but I really enjoy it.

ROBERTS: Well, we should also say this is not just your conversation, that you bring it to life in your music, sort of beatnik style. Let's listen.

Mr. MULDOON: Okay, thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MULDOON: (Singing) To be or not to be, yeah that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against the sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Joe Muldoon, do you find that Shakespeare's, you know, the iambic pentameter, whatever it is, sort of lends itself to that style of music or poetry?

Mr. MULDOON: I really do. I was thinking of other poets that I like a lot, a lot of Minnesota poets, but I don't go rapping them out like that. And Shakespeare just does have - is it always iambic pentameter, by the way?

Ms. PASTER: Not when it's prose. But when it's verse, it's iambic pentameter.

Mr. MULDOON: Yeah, and he just has the feel. He hits the tones right. He is very musical, and his depth of vision is just astounding.

ROBERTS: Gail Paster, what is your favorite Shakespearean quote? Is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?

Ms. PASTER: Oh, actually, I suspect that my favorite speech comes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" when Titania is talking about her votary, and talks about she should grow wanton with the big-belled wind and sail across the - now of course I can't get it right, but it's just so gorgeous.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Ed in Portland, Oregon. Ed, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ED (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi, you're on the air.

ED: Hi. So I suppose you're wondering what my favorite quote is.

ROBERTS: I am.

ED: So it's, may fair thoughts and happy hours attend on thee.

ROBERTS: And do you manage to sneak that into regular conversation?

ED: You know, I kind of force conversation that way sometimes, a couple times a week to say goodbye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: So you manage to steer the conversation around just so you can throw that out.

ED: Yeah, it's kind of a little dorky thing to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Thanks, Ed. We have e-mail from Giles(ph) in Cincinnati, who says: As a person with a long, grey beard, I long to turn to someone clean-shaven and say, be hence thou cream-faced loon. Where goest though that goose look? Which he says is from "Macbeth."

We also have e-mail from Penelope in San Francisco, who says: I used to get get thee to a nunnery as way to say, to the moon, Alice, until I read in the footnotes that nunnery meant a house of ill repute in Shakespeare's time. Is that true, Gail Paster?

Ms. PASTER: It doesn't make any sense at all that Shakespeare should be telling Ophelia - that Hamlet should be telling Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery. He really - when he means a brothel. No, he's telling her to get to a nunnery.

ROBERTS: And actual convent.

Ms. PASTER: Yeah, he really is.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Clarissa in San Francisco. Clarissa, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CLARISSA (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi.

CLARISSA: Hello?

ROBERTS: Yeah, you're on the air.

CLARISSA: Thank you. I grew up in Toronto, and nearby in Stratford, Ontario, every year they do a very significant Shakespeare festival. I grew up as the daughter of two English majors, and when I was 10 years old, my parents took me to Stratford to see my first play by Shakespeare, which was "Twelfth Night." To ensure that I had some understanding of it, for the week before we went to see it, every night before I went to bed my father would read the play to me and answer all my questions and help me work through the language.

One of the lines from that play remains one of my all-time favorites to this day, and it's Sir Toby Belch saying, some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

ROBERTS: Clarissa, thanks for that. Is she quoting accurately, Gail Paster?

Ms. PASTER: She's quoting the line - but Clarissa, you'll remember that's Malvolio, who's reacting to - actually, that's the letter that Olivia - the forged letter that he thinks is from the Lady Olivia that Sir Toby Belch and Mariah have penned, and he's being invited…

ROBERTS: That's one of the quotations that ends up in political speeches a fair amount.

Ms. PASTER: Absolutely. It ends up in political speeches all the time.

ROBERTS: Does that bother you? Do you think that it's Shakespeare being used for the wrong means sometimes?

Ms. PASTER: Shakespeare is quoted out of context so often. If you go past the National Archives in Washington, D.C., you will see a line from "The Tempest" incised on the National Archives, what is past is prologue, which is spoken in fact in "The Tempest" by one of the villains.

ROBERTS: Do politicians ever ask you for advice on incorporating Shakespeare into their speeches?

Ms. PASTER: I think they're pretty good at it because they've got the tools. You've got a reference, "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations," or whatever. I mean there's just so many ways to get at that language.

ROBERTS: Gail Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library and editor of Shakespeare Quarterly. She joined us today in Studio 3A. Thanks so much.

Ms. PASTER: You're welcome.

ROBERTS: And Joe Muldoon writes for the blog GodBlessTheBiker.com. His op-ed, "We Can't All Be Shakespeare - But We Could Try to Be," ran in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He joined us today from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Thank you.

Mr. MULDOON: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Parting of course such sweet sorrow. Ira Flatow will be here tomorrow. Neal Conan is back on Monday.

Fair thee well, gentle rogues. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.