WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: A French Poet?

A Parisian Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of His Death

An English Project Lecture

25 May 2016

 

La Mairie du Septième Arrondissement

116 Rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris

 

Christopher Mulvey

Emeritus Professor of English
 The University of Winchester, Winchester, England
 Trustee, The English Project

 

This lecture will identify what is French in the language of William Shakespeare by focusing on two of his plays: Romeo and Juliet and Henry the Fifth.

Romeo and Juliet is the most romantic of his tragedies. It is the most beloved of young people because of its union of love and death. Its verse flows as freely as kisses. Its lyricism is charged equally by sexual expression and sexual repression. The language of Romeo and Juliet has the energies of Shakespeare’s erotic narrative poems and the intensities of his courtly sonnets. 

The Life of Henry the Fifth is a play that rejoices in its hero king, Henry, warrior and wooer. Henry V not only defeated the French; he went on to win the hand of Katherine, the daughter of the King of France. Henry is powerful and kingly in battle. He is playful and winning in courtship. He invades Katharine as he invades France.

The language of Shakespeare - what is the language of Shakespeare? First, it is Shakespeare’s own expression, his poetry, his prose, his magnificent rhetoric, his blistering vocabulary. Second, Shakespeare’s language is the English language. Third, Shakespeare’s language is the French language.

Shakespeare uses a surprising amount of French in his plays, especially in Henry the Fifth. But that plain use of French is not the only way in which French is part of Shakespeare’s language. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s vocabulary comes from French. More profoundly, much of the grammar and the syntax of Shakespeare’s language comes from French.

French began to be an influence on the English language with the arrival of the French-speaking Norman kings in 1066. In the next five hundred years, English was massively refashioned by French so that by the time Shakespeare was born, English had become a fusion language, a mixture of the Germanic and the Italic. It would be to go too far to call Shakespeare a French poet, but without the French language Shakespeare’s poetry would be a very different poetry.

 

Biography

Christopher Mulvey is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Winchester. He is a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford. He received his PhD from Columbia University and taught in the United States from 1963 to 1978. He is the recipient of awards from the Arts and Humanities Council, the British Academy, and the University of Virginia. He was President of the Collegium for African American Research from 2003 to 2007, and he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts in 2008. His articles are numerous, and his books include Anglo-American Landscapes (1983), Transatlantic Manners (1990), New York: City as Text (1990), Black Liberation in the Americas (2001), Dominic St John Mulvey: London Irishman (2005), William Wells Brown’s Clotel (2006), and A History of the English Language in 100 Places (2013). He is Managing Editor of the Winchester University Press, and he is a trustee of the English Project, a registered charity that aims to open a permanent English Language Museum in Winchester.