Linguistic Analysis of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Thud!
The language an author uses to tell their tale, can make or break a work. The linguistic choices used by a writer can help to solidify a setting, a character arch, or plot point. The wrong choice can make a piece seem odd, disjointed and hard to read. The best authors have the ability to use language in order to elevate their works to the highest planes of literature. For this linguistic journey I have chosen to profile two very different authors who are both artists in linguistic craft. I will be looking at The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare and Thud! by Terry Pratchett.
I am excited to get into these two very different books to really analyze and pull examples of the works. I think they will have more in common than I expect on paper, but still have plenty of difference. I actively chose to use two authors who are from the same country, because the differences between American and British English are at times drastic. I also chose these two authors because they are two of my favorites. I am hoping I can effectively reveal to others the beauty of these two authors, and their wonderful grasp on language.
The first piece I have chosen to focus on is The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. I chose this play because it is set in England, and it is known for pithy wordplay and low humor. “The play is built like a farce. It relies heavily on physical gags and several linguistic jokes (although this is not uncommon with Shakespeare), which gives life to the comical theme of the play.” (Erika) The plot revolves around Falstaff, a man attempting to deceive two ladies, and then getting the tables turned on him. A separate plot revolves around the suitors of the daughter of Master Page, and the fight for her affection.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is something of an anomaly as it is a Shakespearean comedy set in England. This makes it a truly Elizabethan play, a play set in the England of Queen Elizabeth the First; the play is even rumored to have been requisitioned by the queen. The play is written in Elizabethan English, which is a more formal version of English. More than that it was written in “colloquial” (Wells 511) English, which means it was the version of the language being spoken by the general population at the time.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare was endeavoring to write a play to appeal to all the people of England. To this end this play, unlike any of his others, feels more familiar and less lofty than his other works. Even when the play addresses class, and social status, it is in a less formal way. Let’s look at a passage spoken by the character Sir Hugh Evans who is described as a Welsh parson.
Shall I tell you a lie? I do despise a liar as I do
despise one that is false, or as I despise one that
is not true. The knight, Sir John, is there; and, I
beseech you, be ruled by your well-willers. I will
peat the door for Master Page.
What, hoa! Got pless your house here! (Shakespeare Act1:Scene1:59-65)
There is so much to unlock in just this one paragraph. The use of synonyms for liar and
lying in this instance seem to be the speaker protesting too much. Shakespeare also uses semantic deviance when Evans proclaims “Got pless your house here!”. This character is Welsh, and what Shakespeare has done is written the line in such a way that implies the character’s accent, and forces the accent when the words are spoken aloud. He could have written this as God bless your house here with the stage direction that it should be said with a Welsh accent. Instead Shakespeare has guaranteed that the accent he wanted will happen, by writing the line in a way that forces it.
This is a common occurrence in this particular play. Another character, Dr. Caius is written with an obvious French accent. “Vat is you sing? I do not like des toys. Pray you,
go and vetch me in my closet un boitier vert, a box, a green-a box: do intend vat I speak? a green-a box.” (Act1: Scene 4: 449-451) For this character Shakespeare mixes in bits of French with the highly accented English. He is also an almost painful stereotype, which would have played well to the lower-class audience for whom this play was intended. The Doctor is given a small amount of honorific in the course of the play, due to his profession, but is also often derided due to his country of origin. This is reflective of the attitudes of the time towards those who were foreign and of the built-in xenophobia of Shakespearean England.
Shakespeare in general, but especially in Merry Wives, is the master of phonological writing. He uses and utilizes the sounds of words to create complex rhymes and interesting verse. This becomes even more obvious in this play when it is read out loud. The language, though at times coarse, can almost be sung it is so lovely and flowy. It is worth finding a recorded version of the play or watch a staged play, because the action merged with the language accentuates the sounds Shakespeare achieves.
This play is also unusual because it is written mostly in Prose rather than in verse. This play does not observe the Iambic Pentameter Shakespeare often adopted in his work. It is possible that this is another sign of Shakespeare writing a play that is geared toward the more common people of England. The characters, too, seem to be not the incredibly high-born characters common is his work, but are instead just regular people. There is a knight, Sir John Falstaff, who is the only person of rank in the play, and he is something of a confidence trickster. Falstaff had also been a character in The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare made a smart decision to present this play in a more straightforward way. If he had written the play in his usual style, which was very affected and written in verse, it would have made the play seem heavy handed and possibly like he was mocking the people he was seeking to reach with this play. Critics of The Merry Wives of Windsor talk about it being common, and lacking the finesse of other plays. In many ways, though, that is what makes it fun to watch and to read. These characters could be your neighbors, or the person who sells you vegetables, and that makes them very relatable.
To bring The Merry Wives of Windsor into a more modern language, such as that used by Pratchett, would not prove overly difficult. There are some words that would require modernization: a lot of thee, thine, hath…all of which would need to be replaced with their modern counterparts. Some of the themes are common in modern times as well. Falstaff attempts to work a sweetheart scheme on Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. To modernize this instead of him sending them letters you might make it an email, or a message on social media.
The other story, which is the wooing of Ann Page, could also translate easily into a modern world. The young Miss Page is of marrying age and there are three men seeking to win her hand in marriage; one is a Lawyer, one is a doctor, and one is just a nice and very good looking young man. The three vying for the young woman’s hand leads to much humor and hijinks, and reads very much like a modern romantic comedy.
There are certainly sayings and turns of phrase which would require modernization, but those would prove easy to replace with a more modern version of them, or with replacement with a saying that would convey a similar meaning. Shakespeare’s decision to write this play in prose makes it somewhat easier to translate than the plays written in verse.
Shakespeare effectively conveyed his story through language. This play is a comedy, and did not require anything but to convey the humor of the piece. There are many places in this work where you will laugh to yourself at the ridiculousness of the situation, and of the language used. Although this is not the most popular of his plays, I feel like this one had to be one of the most fun for Shakespeare to write.
The second work that I have chosen to profile is Thud! by Terry Pratchett. This book of Pratchett’s features the Night Watch (Police Force) of Ankh Morpork a major city in the Discworld. Pratchett wrote many novels in the Discworld series, and each one has a unique feeling to it. This book discusses racism and integration in the most humorous and fantastical way. In this book, the Trolls and Dwarves are having tensions, the watch is hiring their first vampire, but Commander Vimes can handle it all. The book is a comedy with a core of truth and seriousness.
Thud! is set in the city of Ankh-Morpork on the mythical Discworld, which is a flat disc balanced on top of four elephants who stand on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin. As this book is set in a fantasy world, most of the language used by Pratchett is some form of modern British English. Some of the characters speak using a more country dialect, and others a more formal. A couple of the characters speak using other European and UK accents such as: German, Scottish, French, etc. All of these dialects, however, reflect a more modern mode of speaking set in a fantastical setting.
In the time of the Disc the people are just beginning the Industrial Revolution, however their language in the books does not reflect the language style of England during the same time period. As an American reading Thud! the language may seem a little odd, and not quite modern, but it is the language of the streets in England. The biggest difference between Pratchett’s writing, and the everyday modern language is that he chooses not to use a lot of coarse language, but every day on the street English people do. In that way, I suppose Pratchett’s Discworld is a little odd because the language they use is a less profane version of modern English.
Pratchett made the choice not to include profanity, I believe, so that the book would be accessible to all readers. There are both adult and young adult books within the Discworld sagas, and they are all written in the same voice. It makes the books enjoyable to read at any age, and makes all the books suitable for all readers. It also allows for the books to be used in an educational sense without censoring.
Pratchett plays with both phonological and morphological language. He is the master of puns and plays on words. This is another book that is worth reading out loud or listening to the audiobook. The language spans the theatre of English accents and speaking styles. Pratchett makes wonderful use of language in this book, switching up between races, characters and the social strata. The fact that the title of the book is an example of onomatopoeia just shows his grasp on both of the language styles.
In Thud! by Terry Pratchett the author uses languages to create a world, and also to draw lines between the classes and races of characters. In the Discworld there are humans, dwarves, trolls, gnomes, vampires, werewolves and more. Within these divisions there are witches, wizards, police/watchmen, royalty, tyrants, and so on. Pratchett uses language and dialect to differentiate between all these different people to a very successful degree. He uses mostly British English dialects, because he was from England, though he also sprinkles in Germanic, Scottish, Irish and French dialects.
The Dwarves in Thud! live primarily underground, so to them you are trying to work your way to the bottom of the ladder rather than the top. Pratchett turns well known turns of phrase on their head. A dwarf might accuse another of having seen the light, meaning that he has been corrupted by the surface world. These linguistic twists make the communications with the Dwarves even more interesting to read. Pratchett uses antonyms to enormous effect, showing us how the Dwarves think, and how they think of humans in this world.
The upper crust in his books usually speak an exaggerated proper English. In an exchange between a member of the watch, Sergeant Fred Colon, and the curator of the Museum of Ankh-Morpork,
“Years. I rather think that’s hwhy it was a burglareah, you see?” said the man. He had the attitude of a preoccupied chicken, but Fred Colon was impressed. You could barely understand the man, he was that posh. It was not so much speech as modulated yawning. “I’m Sir Reynold Stitched, the curator of Fine Art, and I was hwalking through the Long Gallereah and…oh dear, they took the Rascal.” (Pratchett 38)
The author has given a great deal of information in this passage. One, we know that Sir
Reynold is of a higher class than Sergeant Colon. Two, we know that Colon has noticed and is not only aware of the stature of the person based on the way they speak, but is also impressed by this. Pratchett has, like Shakespeare, written in an accent. The first time I “read” Thud! I actually listened to it as a book on CD, and when read aloud these words sound a very specific way. Modulated yawning is a fairly accurate description of this particular dialect.
Later in the book Pratchett uses language again to bring us the thoughts of the very low-class Troll, Brick. “Brick became aware that he was being attacked. He stopped what he was doing and, with sparks going Fwizzle! in his brain, looked down at his right knee.” (Pratchett 217) Brick is a Street Troll, and Pratchett has almost written him with a Cockney accent, to show that he is very low class. He also used onomatopoeic language to convey the disorientation that Brick is feeling at this moment using the word fwizzle to describe the feeling of being very drunk.
Both of these authors use language and dialects to great effect in the writing of their works. By writing words purposefully incorrectly to infer the desired pronunciation, adding a smattering of a real foreign language, and using unique vocabulary the writers can easily convey the dialects and meanings that they were looking to put forth to the reader or actor. They both use language to project the class, and profession of the speaker to great effect.
There are few who would deny the linguistic stylings of Shakespeare are formidable. Shakespeare could turn a phrase so well that scholars are still finding new meanings behind his work. If not as well known, certainly it is known by his adoring readers that Sir Terry Pratchett is also a master of word play. He is able through clever linguistics and creative vocabulary to satirize, humanize and characterize the chaos of the world around us. These two writers wield words as weapons, and as bandages, seeking to act as a mirror to the world.
I feel that I have learned a lot from the process of analyzing the two works I chose. The play by Shakespeare I had read before, but have never analyzed it for the linguistic qualities. Doing so made it so much more obvious that this play does not follow Shakespeare’s typical writing style. This play has none of the sweeping language and rhyming that the Bard is typically known for, and while I knew that and had read it before it became more obvious when analyzing the play for its language. Much of the play is written in a language that is not so very far from modern English, and this is because the language has changed, but the foundations are close to being Renaissance English.
From Terry Pratchett I learned many things, like the subtlety of language. Sometimes the simplest of words can carry the heaviest of implications. I also learned for my own future writing how to write dialogue in such a way that you read it in the accent that you are looking to achieve. Telling someone to read something as though in a cockney accent is not nearly as effective as actually writing the dialogue so that it is read in the accent. Thud! also showed me that a book can be written effectively for audiences of all ages without talking down to the audience, or being so intellectual that it is no longer enjoyable to read.
From both of these works I learned that a good or enjoyable story can be written simply, using the language of the time, and still be intellectually stimulating. My language has certainly benefitted from reading the works of both author’s and not just these two works. I learned how to play with language and to seek out the best words for your meaning. These men were more than effective communicators, they are able to convey so much in the simplest of terms, or the grandest and there is a definite skill to that.
I feel like I greatly learned from the Ted Talks we watched for this class. From the knowledge that there is no such thing as a real word, to the fact that language is such an important part of who we are, and where we come from. During the run of the class I was listening to a podcast discussing the major dictionaries and how they started, and the Ted Talk we watched for class drove home that our language is shaped by us, and that dictionaries are compiled by people, not machines or gods, so there is no such thing as a good or bad word, or a word that is not real. As long as the word is being spoken, it is a real word.
My language is shaped every day by the people around me, the books I read, the movies/ television shows I watch and the music/podcasts I listen to. From my podcasts I have gotten words like murderino and boomtraculous, sayings like Kittens McTavish (used as an expletive), I like your jib (meaning your cool) and Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered and beautiful ways of telling stories. From bloggers I follow I learn sometimes beautiful ways of speaking and beautiful language, and sometimes I learn exactly what not to do. My language is shaped by my family, friends, co-workers, my city and my hometown. All of these influences come together to make the amalgamation that is my language; one where slang and expletives are just as likely to be used as a S.A.T. word, and I am perfectly happy with that.
Denham, Kristin E., and Anne C. Lobeck. Linguistics for Everyone: an Introduction. Second ed., Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013.
Erika. “Bard on the Blogs: Guest Post – Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Erika of Rickus Bookshelf.” Books Take You Places. Alyssa, 22 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 July 2017.
Pratchett, Terry. Thud!: A Novel of Discworld. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Merry Wives of Windsor (complete Text) :|: Open Source Shakespeare. Open Source Shakespeare, 2003. Web. 30 July 2017.