December: The Winter's Tale and Global English

We first hear of The Winter’s Tale playing at the Globe in May 1611. It went on to be staged in 1612 at the celebrations of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth of England to Frederick V, the Elector Palatine. By dynastic chance, they were to be made King and Queen of Bohemia, and Elizabeth would come to be called the Winter Queen. A King of Bohemia figures greatly in The Winter’s Tale; however, Shakespeare could not have known how apt his subject matter would be when his play was chosen for court performance in 1612. Nor could James, King of England and of Scotland, know what unhappy Bohemian fate was in store for his daughter as they watched Mr Shakespeare’s play. The Winter’s Tale is one of William Shakespeare’s last plays, those wonderful, strange comedies, often close to tragedies. None more so than The Winter’s Tale. It is a play that has its wintry aspects though for Shakespeare a winter’s tale was a tale to wile away a winter’s night, a tale not necessarily about winter, rather a tale for winter.

The Winter’s Tale is a courtly play, and it opens with dialogues between courtiers and kings. Polixenes, King of Bohemia, has been the guest of Leontes, King of Sicily, and courtiers tell one another how the two kings have loved each other since boyhood. The kings themselves engage in a battle of civility. Leontes begs Polixenes to stay longer; Polixenes begs his need to return home. Hermione, Queen of Sicily, adds her words of persuasion to those of her husband. Polixenes agrees to stay. And as he stays, he shows himself both grateful to and fascinated by Leontes’ queen. Hermione for her part is pregnant and near her term.

In a trice, Leontes’ love of his old friend turns to hatred and Leontes’ trust in his faithful queen turns to jealousy. Polixenes must go. Hermione must be imprisoned. When born, her child must die. The clue to Leontes’ rage is given in the first lines that Polixenes utters as he explains why he must return to Bohemia:

         Nine changes of the watery star hath been
         The shepherd's note since we have left our throne
         Without a burden

               (The Winter’s Tale Act 1, Scene 2)

The watery star is the moon. Polixenes has been away from Bohemia nine months. It is long enough for a king to leave his country untended, but it is also long enough for him to have fathered Hermione’s unborn child if he seduced her on the night of his arrival.

Shakespeare uses the eccentricity of folktale to launch The Winter’s Tale on a deadly trajectory, and then he uses the strangeness of folktale to bring about a happy ending. A fantastical ruse saves king, queen and child from destruction. Saying that the queen has died of heartbreak, a good woman hides Hermione away for fifteen years. The same good woman ensures that Hermione’s baby is secretly taken to Bohemia. There the child is found by shepherds, grows up, falls in love with a prince, and returns to Sicily. The child’s name is Perdita, the lost one.

Polixenes, the father of the prince, believing his son to be eloping with a shepherdess, chases the couple and arrives once again at Court of King Leontes.  The scene is set for recognitions, reconciliations and redemptions. The climax comes with Leontes being brought to view a statue of Hermione. He is taken with its life-like beauty, begs forgiveness for his unforgiveable jealousy, and discovers that the statue is no statue but his living, loving queen. Hermione forgives Leontes. Hermione and Leontes embrace Perdita. Perdita, child of Leontes and Hermione, marries Florizel, child of Polixenes.

Ludicrous in summary, The Winter’s Tale works on stage because Shakespeare harnesses the directness of folk story to accelerate the action through the cycle of life from birth to death, through the cycle of life from generation to generation, and through the cycle of life from season to season. The winter of The Winter’s is the winter of Leontes’ anger. That blights his marriage, his court and his country.

‘Welcome hither,’ says King Leontes to the travellers from Bohemia, ‘As is the spring to th’earth!’ With those words, a winter’s tale of tragedy becomes a spring’s tale of comedy. Shakespeare is not a religious writer, but, through the magical and the mysterious, he invokes the imminent and the imminent evokes the numinous. He remains on the brink of religion, but Shakespeare does not take a step of faith. Instead, he directs the flood of European story through the translations and transformations of The Winter’s Tale. In the play, the sun, the moon, the womb, the bed and the grave dance to the rhythm of Sweeny’s Trinity: ‘birth, death and copulation’.

At the end of the nineteenth century, English anthropologists were looking for a universal myth behind the world’s million myths. James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion provided a cultural synthesis culled from classical literature and imperial report. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian formalists were looking for the elements fundamental to the world’s million stories. Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Tale provided a structural analysis purporting to demonstrate ineluctable stages from a once-upon-a-time dislocation to a happy-ever-after marriage.

Frazer and Propp were looking for the universal language that would display universal truths. Today, Fraser’s work is of historical interest only, and Propp’s work is on French-theoretical life-support. Nonetheless, ‘universal language’, a term common to anthropologists and linguists a century ago, addresses something that sorts well with The Winter’s Tale.  It is a play that bridges opposites – Winter/Spring, Moon/Sun, Male/Female, Tomb/ Womb – as it aligns cycles – menstrual, annual, biological, astrological.

Frazer and Propp were in the search of the Something that would explain Everything. They wanted a unifying theory, a final synthesis. In the twenty-first century, the search for the Something has passed to fundamental physicists, and it is not entirely fanciful to see their work as continuing a search for explanation that The Winter’s Tale sought four hundred years ago. The play moves towards but does not find a final synthesis. Shakespeare could not generate the universal language that would speak the universal truth. Neither, so far, have the fundamental physicists. However, the notion of a universal language, at least in a narrowed sense, has become appreciably closer with the global development of Shakespeare’s language.

A language that was a tongue of scattered tribes fifteen hundred years ago is today the language of two billion people. Today, English has three times more non-native speakers than native speakers. It is that fact that has made English the universal language, used by the Russians to talk to the Nigerians, by the Germans to talk to the Spanish, by the Chinese to talk to the Brazilians.

English comes in a huge variety forms across time from Old English through Middle English to Modern English and through space from Australia through India to Zimbabwe. It exists in a thousand dialects, slangs and street forms. With the role of being a universal language comes the need for a large vocabulary, and the vocabulary of English is huge. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 600,000 headwords, and it is adding 2000 new words every year.

English has become the universal language by happenstance, and it is a pity, says the Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, that English is not a particularly good choice for the job: ‘With Old Norse and Norman French mixed into what was originally a West Germanic language, the grammar is messy, the vocabulary daunting, and the spelling cockeyed. And, for many non-native speakers, English pronunciation is a nightmare.’ But there it is: today, the language of Shakespeare is the universal language not the language of Li Po.

The nineteenth century was the British century, and the twentieth century was the American century. The twenty-first century will, in all probability, be the Chinese century. In Easternisation, Gideon Rachman quotes Colonel Liu Mingfu, once of the Chinese People's Liberation Army and now the author of The China Dream. Liu says: 'As an ordinary military man, I argue loudly that China should try to be the number one, should race to be the champion country.’  If China does become the champion country, it would be only right. It was extraordinary historical circumstances that enabled Britain to become the champion country two hundred years ago.

All things being equal, it was not right that in 1845 a country of fourteen million people should dominate a world of one billion people. However, all things were not equal, and Britain had the advantage of the Industrial Revolution. In the twentieth century, it was not right that a country with a population of 140 million should dominate a world of two billion people. But in 1945, the United States had the advantages of an accelerated industry and the greatest distance from every battlefield. The United States stood tall when other combatants were laid low. In 2045, industrialised China will have a population over a billion people. It could well be the champion country.

If China does become the champion, what will be the linguistic consequences? Is English or Mandarin to be the language of the future? That is a question that Jennifer Pak, a BBC reporter, put to Lee Han Shih, a Singapore businessman, in 2012. Lee told Pak that he expected Mandarin to overtake English when the renminbi overtook the dollar.

Many things are possible, but what is probable? ‘Some predict’, says Minae Mizumura, ‘that Mandarin Chinese will become the most powerful language of the twenty-first century because it has the largest number of native speakers. Indeed, learning Mandarin has become a worldwide fad. Such a prediction, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. What makes a language “universal” has nothing to do with how many native speakers there are, and everything to do with how many people use it as their second language. It is high time we stop confusing the two figures.’ Since English has three times as many foreign speakers as native speakers, it is clearly in a class altogether beyond Mandarin.

The fact that English has become the universal language is not altogether a good thing, either for the English language or for the world. English is spreading like Japanese knotweed, rooting everywhere and killing as it goes. In the 1960s, there were 9000 languages in the world. Today, there are 7000.  A one-language world would be a terrible place, but, even with the steady loss of tribal languages, a one-language world is not a future that we need to fear. Arabic, Bengali, French, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish hold English at bay even if, like English, they are killing other languages as they go.

The English language began an imperialist trajectory in the last years of Shakespeare’s life. By 1616, English had moved out of the British Isles to set up bridgeheads in Africa, Asia and America. The bridgeheads became colonies and the colonies became nations. The expansion was so great that it was clear that English was leaving England behind. In the nineteenth century, the Americans established their own dictionary, and since 1828 American English has developed independently of British English. In the twentieth century, the same process began to take place in India. English, says Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands, is today as much an Indian language as Urdu, a language long ago spoken by invaders but now naturalised and become Indian.     

‘There is no flag behind the English language’, say the Indians, and the global dispersion of English has neutralised its imperial past. ‘What seems to me to be happening,’ says Rushdie, ‘is that those people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it—assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.’

A global language is one thing, and English is certainly a global language, but is it a universal language? Mizumura calls it universal.  Does that mean that English will give expression to the universal truths that Fraser and Propp were looking for a hundred years ago? No, it does not mean that. English can be relied upon to do a great number of things, but it cannot be relied upon to tell the truth. The universal truths, if they are ever discovered, will no doubt be spoken in English, but that may well be by way of translation from any other of the world’s 6000 languages. Meanwhile, reading and re-reading The Winter’s Tale will bring us as close to the truths as the English language has so far been able to carry us.


The Winter’s Tale and Global English completes the English Project’s year-long celebration of the quatercentenary of the death William Shakespeare and the languages that shaped his language and the languages that have responded to his language.

In June of this year, we explored the impact of Shakespeare on Indian languages. His plays appear in many Indian languages. In 1964, the Indian National Library in Kolkata counted 670 translations with 128 into Bengali followed by ninety-seven into Marathi. That phenomenon leads to the English Project’s theme for next year.

2017 will be a significant year in the history of the English language because it will be seventy years since the end of the British Raj. Today there are 333,000,000 speakers of English in the three countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that were once under British rule. The story of English in the Indian subcontinent will occupy the English Project in 2017.



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