Knock, knock! Who's there?
July 27, 2023
Every few years, I make the trek to Stratford (the Ontario town that is, not the arguably more famous Stratford-upon-Avon in England) to see a play by the late, great William Shakespeare.
Most recently, it was King Lear, starring Paul Gross in the title role. Amazing! The theatre was packed. As they are anywhere and everywhere Shakespeare “plays.”
There are hundreds of Shakespeare festivals all over the world, including in Hong Kong and Buenos Aires, which is, apparently, the only Shakespeare festival offered up in Spanish. Canada alone has 15 or so annual festivals. Pretty darn good for a dead white guy, I'd say!
Despite having studied Shakespeare—way back in the dark ages when I did my undergraduate English degree—when I see a play live, it always takes a while before my ears become accustomed to the Elizabethan language. To be sure, you have to work at it, but the reward is great.
One of the particular joys of experiencing Shakespeare live is recognizing well-known phrases. Even though I know Shakespeare was a great inventor, somehow, this recognition always takes me by surprise, prompting me to exclaim (silently to myself, of course), “Wait a minute…. Shakespeare wrote that?!”
Take the title of this issue: Knock, knock! Who’s there? I bet you didn’t know that comes from the tragedy Macbeth, first performed around 1606. Macbeth has just butchered King Duncan to take the Scottish crown, and Lady Macbeth has helped him cover it up—as you do if you’re a dutiful wife with high ambitions of your own. Needless to say, the pair are feeling a bit edgy.
While it’s not the murderous Macbeth duo who utter the “knock, knock” line, but rather the Porter, the knocking at the door adds to the play’s tension and the suspense. In a way those subsequent “knock, knock” jokes never do. Still, without old Will, what would kids and Dads everywhere do for groan-inducing linguistic fun?
“Knock, knock” is just one example of the many, many words and phrases we can thank Shakespeare for. And while etymologists and literary scholars point out that Shakespeare likely didn’t coin all of them on his own, he is believed to be the first to actually put them into writing. That’s something—a bit like the legal maxim “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
Here are a few of my other favourites.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare gave us salad days, meaning a time of youth and inexperience. Thinking back on her early infatuation with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra characterizes that time as, “My salad days, when I was green in judgment.”
Staying with the green vegetable theme, Shakespeare is also credited as being the first to use the idiom in a pickle. In The Tempest, Will used it to mean drunk (“pickled”), but over time, the phrase has taken on a broader meaning. It is regularly used to mean “to be in a tough spot,” or, as the English often say, “in a spot of bother.”
If you find yourself constantly bailing out a friend from pickle after pickle after pickle, you might want to say good riddance (Troilus & Cressida) to him and send him packing (Henry IV).
On the other hand, if you are the kind and compassionate sort, you might just lie low (Much Ado About Nothing) and decide to overlook your friend’s travails. To be even more honourable, you’ll refrain from speaking of said travails to anyone else. In that case, mum’s the word Henry VI, Part II).
If your friend is not a “friend”, but rather a new love interest, you are likely not to see his/her faults at all. At least not at first. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that for the freshly infatuated, love is blind (The Merchant of Venice). Until it’s not. Sadly, at some stage of every relationship, jealousy, that green-eyed monster (Othello), rears its ugly head.
Alas, in love as in war, often what’s done is done, as Lady Macbeth once famously said.
And with that, I’d say we’ve come full circle (King Lear) on issue #53 of The Clarity Chronicles.
Remember this: William Shakespeare may have died over 400 years ago, but he sure was a master of the English language. Long may he reign.