There are many benefits to knowing more than one language. For example, it has been shown that aging adults who speak more than one language have less likelihood of developing dementia.
Additionally, the bilingual brain becomes better at filtering out distractions, and learning multiple languages improves creativity. Evidence also shows that learning subsequent languages is easier than learning the first foreign language.
Why is foreign language study important at the university level?
As an applied linguist, I study how learning multiple languages can have cognitive and emotional benefits. One of these benefits that’s not obvious is that language learning improves tolerance.
This happens in two important ways.
The first is that it opens people’s eyes to a way of doing things in a way that’s different from their own, which is called “cultural competence.”
The second is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with unfamiliar situations, or “tolerance of ambiguity.”
Gaining cross-cultural understanding
Cultural competence is key to thriving in our increasingly globalized world. How specifically does language learning improve cultural competence? The answer can be illuminated by examining different types of intelligence.
Psychologist Robert Sternberg’sresearch on intelligence describes different types of intelligence and how they are related to adult language learning. What he refers to as “practical intelligence” is similar to social intelligence in that it helps individuals learn nonexplicit information from their environments, including meaningful gestures or other social cues.
Language learning inevitably involves learning about different cultures. Students pick up clues about the culture both in language classes and through meaningful immersion experiences.
Researchers Hanh Thi Nguyen and Guy Kellogg have shown that when students learn another language, they develop new ways of understanding culture through analyzing cultural stereotypes. They explain that “learning a second language involves the acquisition not only of linguistic forms but also ways of thinking and behaving.”
With the help of an instructor, students can critically think about stereotypes of different cultures related to food, appearance and conversation styles.
Dealing with the unknown
The second way that adult language learning increases tolerance is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with “tolerance of ambiguity.”
Someone with a high tolerance of ambiguity finds unfamiliar situations exciting, rather than frightening. My research on motivation, anxiety and beliefs indicates that language learning improves people’s tolerance of ambiguity, especially when more than one foreign language is involved.
It’s not difficult to see why this may be so. Conversations in a foreign language will inevitably involve unknown words. It wouldn’t be a successful conversation if one of the speakers constantly stopped to say, “Hang on – I don’t know that word. Let me look it up in the dictionary.” Those with a high tolerance of ambiguity would feel comfortable maintaining the conversation despite the unfamiliar words involved.
Applied linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei also study tolerance of ambiguity and have indicated that those with experience learning more than one foreign language in an instructed setting have more tolerance of ambiguity.
Individuals with higher levels of tolerance of ambiguity have also been found to be more entrepreneurial (i.e., are more optimistic, innovative and don’t mind taking risks).
In the current climate, universities are frequently being judged by the salaries of their graduates. Taking it one step further, based on the relationship of tolerance of ambiguity and entrepreneurial intention, increased tolerance of ambiguity could lead to higher salaries for graduates, which in turn, I believe, could help increase funding for those universities that require foreign language study.
Those who have devoted their lives to theorizing about and the teaching of languages would say, “It’s not about the money.” But perhaps it is.
Language learning in higher ed
Most American universities have a minimal language requirement that often varies depending on the student’s major. However, students can typically opt out of the requirement by taking a placement test or providing some other proof of competency.
In contrast to this trend, Princeton recently announced that all students, regardless of their competency when entering the university, would be required to study an additional language.
I’d argue that more universities should follow Princeton’s lead, as language study at the university level could lead to an increased tolerance of the different cultural norms represented in American society, which is desperately needed in the current political climate with the wave of hate crimes sweeping university campuses nationwide.
Knowledge of different languages is crucial to becoming global citizens. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted,
“Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that by speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.”
Considering the evidence that studying languages as adults increases tolerance in two important ways, the question shouldn’t be “Why should universities require foreign language study?” but rather “Why in the world wouldn’t they?”
Language is pervasive throughout the criminal justice system. A textual chain follows a person from the moment they are arrested until their day in court, and it is all underpinned by meticulously drafted legislation. At every step, there are challenges faced by laypeople who find themselves in the linguistic webs of the justice system.
Anyone who reads a UK act of parliament, for example, is met with myriad linguistic complexities. Archaic formulae, complex prepositions, lengthy and embedded clauses abound in the pages of the law. Such language can render legal texts inaccessible to the everyday reader. Some argue (see Vijay Bhatia’s chapter) that this is a deliberate ploy by the legal establishment to keep the non-expert at an arm’s length.
But closer to the truth is the fact that legal language, like all language in all contexts, is the way it is because of its function and purpose. Those drafting laws must ensure enough precision and unambiguity so that the law can be applied, while also being flexible and inclusive enough to account for the unpredictability of human behaviour.
The cost of this linguistic balancing act, however, is increased complexity and the exclusion of the uninitiated. Legal language has long been in the crosshairs of The Plain English Campaign which argues for its simplification, claiming that “if we can’t understand our rights, we have no rights”.
It is not only written legal language that presents difficulties for the layperson. Once someone is arrested they go through a chain of communicative events, each one coloured by institutional language, and each one with implications for the next. It begins with the arresting officer reading the suspect their rights. In England and Wales, the police caution reads:
You do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.
This may seem very familiar to many readers (perhaps due to their penchant for police dramas), but this short set of statements is linguistically complex. The strength of the verb “may”; what exactly constitutes “mentioning” or “relying”, and what “questioning” is and when it will take place, are just some of the ambiguities that may be overlooked at first glance.
What the research says
Indeed, research has found that, although people claim to fully comprehend the caution, they are often incapable of demonstrating any understanding of it at all. Frances Rock has also written extensively on the language of cautioning and found that when police officers explain the caution to detainees in custody, there is substantial variation in the explanations offered. Some explanations add clarity, while others introduce even more puzzles.
The difficulties in understanding legal language are typically overcome by the hiring of legal representation. Peter Tiersma, in his seminal 1999 book Legal Language, noted that “the hope that every man can be his own lawyer, which has existed for centuries, is probably no more realistic than having people be their own doctor”.
However, in the UK at least, cuts in legal aid mean that more people are representing themselves, removing the protection of a legal-language expert. Work by Tatiana Tkacukova has revealed the communicative struggles of these so-called “litigants in person” as they step into the courtroom arena of seasoned legal professionals.
Trained lawyers have developed finely-tuned cross-examination techniques, and all witnesses who take the stand, including the alleged victim or plaintiff, are likely to be subjected to gruelling cross-examination, characterised by coercive and controlling questioning. At best, witnesses might emerge from the courtroom feeling frustrated, and at worst victims may leave feeling victimised once again.
The work of forensic linguists has led to progress in some areas. For instance, it is long established that the cross-examination of alleged rape victims is often underpinned by societal preconceptions and prejudices which, when combined with rigorous questioning, are found to traumatise victims further. Recent reforms in England and Wales provide rape victims with the option to avoid “live” courtroom cross-examination and may go some way towards addressing this issue.
Further afield, an international group of linguists, psychologists, lawyers and interpreters have produced a set of guidelines for communicating rights to non-native speakers of English in Australia, England and Wales, and the US. These guidelines include recommendations for the wording and communication of cautions and rights to detainees, which aim to protect those already vulnerable from further problems of misunderstanding in the justice system.
Language will forever remain integral to our criminal justice system, and it will continue to disadvantage many who find themselves in the process. However, as the pool and remit of forensic linguists grows, there are greater opportunities to rebalance the linguistic inequalities of the legal system in favour of the layperson.
Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.
Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6
Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.
How do the tests currently work?
The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.
While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.
For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.
The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.
For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.
There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:
Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?
There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.
Recognising diversity of experiences
There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:
1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.
2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.
3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.
Equating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.
It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned.
The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.
Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.
Why younger may not always be better
Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.
The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.
The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.
Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.
In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.
Language immersion environment best for young children
Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.
Learning in classroom best for early teens
Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.
To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.
For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.
Self-guided learning best for adults
There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.
To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.
How we can apply this to education
What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.
If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.
However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.
Every December, lexicographers around the world choose their “words of the year”, and this year, perhaps more than ever, the stories these tell provide a fascinating insight into how we’ve experienced the drama and trauma of the last 12 months.
There was much potential in 2016. It was 500 years ago that Thomas More wrote his Utopia, and January saw the launch of a year’s celebrations under the slogan “A Year of Imagination and Possibility” – but as 2017 looms, this slogan rings hollow. Instead of utopian dreams, we’ve had a year of “post-truth” and “paranoia”, of “refugee” crises, “xenophobia” and a close shave with “fascism”.
Earlier in the year, a campaign was launched to have “Essex Girl” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Those behind the campaign were upset at the derogatory definition – a young woman “characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” – so wanted it to be expunged from the official record of the language.
The OED turned down the request, a spokeswoman explaining that since the OED is a historical dictionary, nothing is ever removed; its purpose, she said, is to describe the language as people use it, and to stand as a catalogue of the trends and preoccupations of the time.
The words of the year tradition began with the German Wort des Jahres in the 1970s. It has since spread to other languages, and become increasingly popular the world over. Those in charge of the choices are getting more innovative: in 2015, for the first time, Oxford Dictionaries chose a pictograph as their “word”: the emoji for “Face with Tears of Joy”.
In 2016, however, the verbal was very much back in fashion. The results speak volumes.
In English, there are a range of competing words, with all the major dictionaries making their own choices. Having heralded a post-language era last year, Oxford Dictionaries decided on “post-truth” this time, defining it as the situation when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In a year of evidence-light Brexit promises and Donald Trump’s persistent lies and obfuscations, this has a definite resonance. In the same dystopian vein, the Cambridge Dictionary chose “paranoid”, while Dictionary.com went for “xenophobia”.
Merriam-Webster valiantly tried to turn back the tide of pessimism. When “fascism” looked set to win its online poll, it tweeted its readers imploring them to get behind something – anything – else. The plea apparently worked, and in the end “surreal” won the day. Apt enough for a year in which events time and again almost defied belief.
Collins, meanwhile, chose “Brexit”, a term which its spokesperson suggested has become as flexible and influential in political discourse as “Watergate”.
Just as the latter spawned hundreds of portmanteau words whenever a political scandal broke, so Brexit begat “Bremain”, “Bremorse” and “Brexperts” – and will likely be adapted for other upcoming political rifts for many years to come. It nearly won out in Australia in fact, where “Ausexit” (severing ties with the British monarchy or the United Nations) was on the shortlist. Instead, the Australian National Dictionary went for “democracy sausage” – the tradition of eating a barbecued sausage on election day.
Switzerland’s Deaf Association, meanwhile, chose a Sign of the Year for the first time. Its choice was “Trump”, consisting of a gesture made by placing an open palm on the top of the head, mimicking the president-elect’s extravagant hairstyle.
Trump’s hair also featured in Japan’s choice for this year. Rather than a word, Japan chooses a kanji (Chinese character); 2016’s choice is “金” (gold). This represented a number of different topical issues: Japan’s haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, fluctuating interest rates, the gold shirt worn by singer and YouTube sensation Piko Taro, and, inevitably, the colour of Trump’s hair.
And then there’s Austria, whose word is 51 letters long: “Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung”. It means “the repeated postponement of the runoff vote for Federal President”. Referring to the seven months of votes, legal challenges and delays over the country’s presidential election, this again references an event that flirted with extreme nationalism and exposed the convoluted nature of democracy. As a new coinage, it also illustrates language’s endless ability to creatively grapple with unfolding events.
Which brings us, finally, to “unpresidented”, a neologism Donald Trump inadvertently created when trying to spell “unprecedented” in a tweet attacking the Chinese. At the moment, it’s a word in search of a meaning, but the possibilities it suggests seem to speak perfectly to the history of the present moment. And depending on what competitors 2017 throws up, it could well emerge as a future candidate.
Do you remember being taught you should never start your sentences with “And” or “But”?
What if I told you that your teachers were wrong and there are lots of other so-called grammar rules that we’ve probably been getting wrong in our English classrooms for years?
How did grammar rules come about?
To understand why we’ve been getting it wrong, we need to know a little about the history of grammar teaching.
Grammar is how we organise our sentences in order to communicate meaning to others.
Those who say there is one correct way to organise a sentence are called prescriptivists. Prescriptivist grammarians prescribe how sentences must be structured.
Prescriptivists had their day in the sun in the 18th century. As books became more accessible to the everyday person, prescriptivists wrote the first grammar books to tell everyone how they must write.
These self-appointed guardians of the language just made up grammar rules for English, and put them in books that they sold. It was a way of ensuring that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.
They took their newly concocted rules from Latin. This was, presumably, to keep literate English out of reach of anyone who wasn’t rich or posh enough to attend a grammar school, which was a school where you were taught Latin.
And yes, that is the origin of today’s grammar schools.
The other camp of grammarians are the descriptivists. They write grammar guides that describe how English is used by different people, and for different purposes. They recognise that language isn’t static, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all.
1. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction
Let’s start with the grammatical sin I have already committed in this article. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
Obviously you can, because I did. And I expect I will do it again before the end of this article. There, I knew I would!
Those who say it is always incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and” or “but”, sit in the prescriptivist camp.
However, according to the descriptivists, at this point in our linguistic history,
it is fine to start a sentence with a conjunction in an op-ed article like this, or in a novel or a poem.
It is less acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction in an academic journal article, or in an essay for my son’s high school economics teacher, as it turns out. But times are changing.
2. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition
Well, in Latin you can’t. In English you can, and we do all the time.
Admittedly a lot of the younger generation don’t even know what a preposition is, so this rule is already obsolete. But let’s have a look at it anyway, for old time’s sake.
According to this rule, it is wrong to say “Who did you go to the movies with?”
Instead, the prescriptivists would have me say “With whom did you go to the movies?”
I’m saving that structure for when I’m making polite chat with the Queen on my next visit to the palace.
That’s not a sarcastic comment, just a fanciful one. I’m glad I know how to structure my sentences for different audiences. It is a powerful tool. It means I usually feel comfortable in whatever social circumstances I find myself in, and I can change my writing style according to purpose and audience.
That is why we should teach grammar in schools. We need to give our children a full repertoire of language so that they can make grammatical choices that will allow them to speak and write for a wide range of audiences.
3. Put a comma when you need to take a breath
It’s a novel idea, synchronising your writing with your breathing, but the two have nothing to do with one another and if this is the instruction we give our children, it is little wonder commas are so poorly used.
Commas provide demarcation between like grammatical structures. When adjectives, nouns, phrases or clauses are butting up against each other in a sentence, we separate them with a comma. That’s why I put commas between the three nouns and the two clauses in that last sentence.
Commas also provide demarcation for words, phrases or clauses that are embedded in a sentence for effect. The sentence would still be a sentence even if we took those words away. See, for example, the use of commas in this sentence.
4. To make your writing more descriptive, use more adjectives
William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, 400 years ago, in the small Warwickshire town of his birth. He was 52 years of age: still young (or youngish, at least) by modern reckonings, though his death mightn’t have seemed to his contemporaries like an early departure from the world.
Most of the population who survived childhood in England at this time were apt to die before the age of 60, and old age was a state one entered at what today might be thought a surprisingly youthful age.
Many of Shakespeare’s fellow-writers had died, or were soon to do so, at a younger age than he: Christopher Marlowe, in a violent brawl, at 29; Francis Beaumont, following a stroke, at 31 (also in 1616: just 48 days, as it happened, before Shakespeare’s own death); Robert Greene, penitent and impoverished, of a fever, in the garret of a shoemaker’s house, at 34; Thomas Kyd, after “bitter times and privy broken passions”, at 35; George Herbert, of consumption, at 39; John Fletcher, from the plague, at 46; Edmund Spenser, “for lack of bread” (so it was rumoured), at 47; and Thomas Middleton, also at 47, from causes unknown.
The cause or causes of Shakespeare’s death are similarly unknown, though in recent years they have become a topic of persistent speculation. Syphilis contracted by visits to the brothels of Turnbull Street, mercury or arsenic poisoning following treatment for this infection, alcoholism, obesity, cardiac failure, a sudden stroke brought on by the alarming news of a family disgrace – that Shakespeare’s son-in-law, Thomas Quiney, husband of his younger daughter, Judith, had been responsible for the pregnancy and death of a young local woman named Margaret Wheeler – have all been advanced as possible factors leading to Shakespeare’s death.
Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand, believes that cannabis was the ultimate cause of Shakespeare’s death, and has been hoping – in defiance of the famous ban on Shakespeare’s tomb (“Curst be he that moves my bones”, etc.) to inspect the poet’s teeth in order to confirm this theory. (“Teeth are not bones”, Dr Thackeray somewhat controversially insists.) No convincing evidence, alas, has yet been produced to support any of these theories.
More intriguing than the actual pathology of Shakespeare’s death, however, may be another set of problems that have largely evaded the eye of biographers, though they seem at times – in a wider, more general sense – to have held the poet’s own sometimes playful attention. They turn on the question of fame: how it is constituted; how slowly and indirectly it’s often achieved, how easily it may be delayed, diverted, or lost altogether from view.
No memorial gathering
On 25 April 1616, two days after his death, Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church at Stratford, having earned this modest place of honour as much (it would seem) through his local reputation as a respected citizen as from any deep sense of his wider professional achievements.
No memorial gatherings were held in the nation’s capital, where he had made his career, or, it would seem, elsewhere in the country. The company of players that he had led for so long did not pause (so far as we know) to acknowledge his passing, nor did his patron and protector, King James, whom he had loyally served.
Only one writer, a minor Oxfordshire poet named William Basse, felt moved to offer, at some unknown date following his death, a few lines to the memory of Shakespeare, with whom he may not have been personally acquainted. Hoping that Shakespeare might be interred at Westminster but foreseeing problems of crowding at the Abbey, Basse began by urging other distinguished English poets to roll over in their tombs, in order to make room for the new arrival.
Renownèd Spenser, lie a thought more nigh.
To learned Chaucer; and rare Beaumont, lie
A little nearer Spenser, to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb.
None of these poets responded to Basse’s injunctions, however, and Shakespeare was not to win his place in the Abbey for more than a hundred years, when Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, commissioned William Kent to design and Peter Scheemakers to sculpt this life-size white marble statue of the poet – standing cross-legged, leaning thoughtfully on a pile of books – to adorn Poets’ Corner.
On the wall behind this statue, erected in the Abbey in January 1741, is a tablet with a Latin inscription (perhaps contributed by the poet Alexander Pope) conceding the belated arrival of the memorial: “William Shakespeare,/124 years after his death/ erected by public love”.
Basse’s verses were in early circulation, but not published until 1633. No other poem to Shakespeare’s memory is known to have been written before the appearance of the First Folio in 1623. No effort appears to have been made in the months and years following the poet’s death to assemble a tributary volume, honouring the man and his works. None of Shakespeare’s other contemporaries noted the immediate fact of his passing in any surviving letter, journal, or record. No dispatches, private or diplomatic, carried the news of his death beyond Britain to the wider world.
Why did the death of Shakespeare cause so little public grief, so little public excitement, in and beyond the country of his birth? Why wasn’t his passing an occasion for widespread mourning, and widespread celebration of his prodigious achievements? What does this curious silence tell us about Shakespeare’s reputation in 1616; about the status of his profession and the state of letters more generally in Britain at this time?
A very quiet death
Shakespeare’s death occurred upon St George’s Day. That day was famous for the annual rites of prayer, procession, and feasting at Windsor by members of the Order of the Garter, England’s leading chivalric institution, founded in 1348 by Edward III. Marking as it did the anniversary of the supposed martyrdom in AD 303 of St George of Cappadocia, St George’s Day was celebrated in numerous countries in and beyond Europe, as it is today, but had emerged somewhat bizarrely in late mediaeval times as a day of national significance in England.
On St George’s Day 1616, as Shakespeare lay dying in far-off Warwickshire, King James – seemingly untroubled by prior knowledge of this event – was entertained in London by a poet of a rather different order named William Fennor.
Fennor was something of a royal favourite, famed for his facetious contests in verse, often in the King’s presence, with the Thames bargeman, John Taylor, the so-called Water Poet: a man whom James – as Ben Jonson despairingly reported to William Drummond – reckoned to be the finest poet in the kingdom.
In the days and weeks that followed, as the news of the poet’s death (one must assume) filtered gradually through to the capital, there is no recorded mention in private correspondence or official documents of Shakespeare’s name. Other more pressing matters were now absorbing the nation. Shakespeare had made a remarkably modest exit from the theatre of the world: largely un-applauded, largely unobserved. It was a very quiet death.
An age of public mourning
The silence that followed the death of Shakespeare is the more remarkable coming as it did in an age that had developed such elaborate rituals of public mourning, panegyric, and commemoration, most lavishly displayed at the death of a monarch or peer of the realm, but also occasionally set in train by the death of an exceptional commoner.
Consider the tributes paid to another great writer of the period, William Camden, antiquarian scholar and Clarenceux herald of arms, who died in London in late November 1623; a couple of weeks, as chance would have it, after the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
Portrait of William Camden by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1609). Wikimedia commons
Camden was a man of quite humble social origins – like Shakespeare himself, whose father was a maker of gloves and leather goods in Stratford. Camden’s father was a painter-stainer, whose job it was to decorate coats of arms and other heraldic devices. By the time of his death Camden was widely recognized, in Britain and abroad, as one of the country’s outstanding scholars.
Eulogies were delivered at Oxford and published along with other tributes in a memorial volume soon after his death. At Westminster his body was escorted to the Abbey on 19 November by a large retinue of mourners, led by 26 poor men wearing gowns, followed by soberly attired gentlemen, esquires, knights, and members of the College of Arms, the hearse being flanked by earls, barons, and other peers of the realm, together with the Lord Keeper, Bishop John Williams, and other divines. Camden’s imposing funeral mirrored on a smaller scale the huge procession of 1,600 mourners which in 1603 had accompanied the body of Elizabeth I to its final resting place in the Abbey.
There were particular reasons, then, why Camden should have been accorded a rather grand funeral of his own. But mightn’t there have been good reasons for Shakespeare, likewise – whom we see today as the outstanding writer of his age – to have been honoured at his death in a suitably ceremonious fashion? It’s curious to realize, however, that Shakespeare at the time of his death wasn’t yet universally seen as the outstanding writer of his age.
At this quite extraordinary moment in the history of English letters and intellectual exchange there was more than one contender for that title. William Camden himself – an admired poet in addition to his other talents, and friend and mentor of other poets of the day – had included Shakespeare’s name in a list, published in 1614, of “the most pregnant wits of these our times, whom succeeding ages may justly admire”, placing him, without differentiation, alongside Edmund Spenser, John Owen, Thomas Campion, Michael Drayton, George Chapman, John Marston, Hugh Holland and Ben Jonson, the last two of whom he had taught at Westminster School.
But it was another poet, Sir Philip Sidney, whom Camden had befriended during his student days at Oxford, that he most passionately admired, and continued to regard – following Sidney’s early death at the age of 32 in 1586 – as the country’s supreme writer. “Our Britain is the glory of earth and its precious jewel,/ But Sidney was the precious jewel of Britain”, Camden had written in a memorial poem in Latin mourning his friend’s death.
No commoner poet in England had ever been escorted to his grave with such pomp as was furnished for Sidney’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 16 February 1587.
The 700-man procession was headed by 32 poor men, representing the number of years that Sidney had lived, with fifes and drums “playing softly” beside them. They were followed by trumpeters and gentlemen and yeomen servants, physicians, surgeons, chaplains, knights and esquires, heralds bearing aloft Sidney’s spurs and gauntlet, his helm and crest, his sword and targe, his coat of arms. Then came the hearse containing Sidney’s body. Behind them walked the chief mourner, Philip’s young brother, Robert, accompanied by the Earls of Leicester, Pembroke, Huntingdon, and Essex, followed by representatives from the states of Holland and Zealand. Next came the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, with 120 members of the Company of Grocers, and, at the rear of the procession, “citizens of London practised in arms, about 300, who marched three by three”.
Sidney’s funeral was a moving salute to a man who was widely admired not just for his military, civic and diplomatic virtues, but as the outstanding writer of his day. He fulfilled in exemplary fashion, as Shakespeare curiously did not, the Renaissance ideal of what a poet should strive to be.
In an extraordinary act of homage not before seen in England, but soon to be commonly followed at the death of distinguished writers, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge produced three volumes of Latin verse lauding Sidney’s achievements, while a fourth volume of similar tributes was published by the University of Leiden. The collection from Cambridge, presented contributions from 63 Cambridge men, together with a sonnet in English by King James VI of Scotland, the future King James I of Britain.
Earlier English poets had been mourned at their passing, if not in these terms and not on this scale, then with more enthusiasm than was evident at the death of Shakespeare. Edmund Spenser at his death in 1599 was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Chaucer, “this hearse being attended by poets, and mournful elegies and poems with the pens that wrote them thrown into his tomb”. The deaths of Thomas Wyatt and Michael Drayton were similarly lamented.
When, 21 years after Shakespeare’s death, his former friend and colleague Ben Jonson came at last to die, the crowd that gathered at his house in Westminster to accompany his body to his grave in the Abbey included “all or the greatest part of the nobility and gentry then in the town”. Within months of his death a volume of 33 poems was in preparation and a dozen additional elegies had appeared in print. Jonson was hailed at his death as “king of English poetry”, as England’s “rare arch-poet”. With his death, as more than one memorialist declared, English poetry itself now seemed also to have died. No one had spoken in these terms at the death of Shakespeare.
To take one last example: at the death in 1643 of the dramatist William Cartwright whose works and whose very name are barely known to most people today – Charles I elected to wear black, remarking that
since the muses had so much mourned for the loss of such a son, it would be a shame for him not to appear in mourning for the loss of such a subject.
At the death of Shakespeare in 1616 James had shown no such minimal courtesy.
Why should Shakespeare at his death have been so neglected? One simple answer is that King James, unlike his son, Charles, had no great passion for the theatre, and no very evident regard for Shakespeare’s genius. Early in his reign, so Dudley Carleton reported,
The first holy days we had every night a public play in the great hall, at which the King was ever present, and liked or disliked as he saw cause: but it seems he takes no extraordinary pleasure in them.
But Shakespeare and his company were not merely royal servants, bound to provide a steady supply of dramatic entertainment at court; they also catered for the London public who flocked to see their plays at Blackfriars and the Globe, and who had their own ways of expressing their pleasure, their frustrations, and – at the death of a player – their grief.
When Richard Burbage, the principal actor for the King’s Men, died on 9 March 1619, just seven days after the death of Queen Anne, the London public were altogether more upset by that event than they had been over the death of the Queen, as one contemporary writer – quoting, ironically, the opening lines of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI – tartly observed.
So it’s necessary, I think, to pose a further question. Why should the death of Burbage have affected the London public more profoundly than the death not merely of the Queen but of the dramatist whose work he so skilfully interpreted?
I believe the answer lies, partly at least, in the status of the profession to which Shakespeare belonged, a profession which didn’t yet have a regular name: the very words playwright and dramatist not entering the language until half a century after Shakespeare’s death.
Prominent actors at this time were far better known to the public than the writers who provided their livelihood. The writers were on the whole invisible people, who worked as backroom boys, often anonymously and in small teams; playgoers had no easy way of discovering their identity. Theatre programmes didn’t yet exist. Playbills often announced the names of leading actors, but not until the very last decade of the 17th century did they include the names of authors.
Only a fraction of the large number of plays performed in this period moreover found their way into print, and those that were published didn’t always disclose the names of their authors.
At the time of Shakespeare’s death half of his plays weren’t yet available in print, and there were no known plans to produce a collected edition of his works. The total size and shape of the canon were therefore still imperfectly known. Shakespeare was not yet fully visible.
In 1616 the world didn’t yet realise what they had got, or who it was that they’d lost. Hence, I believe, the otherwise inexplicable silence at his passing.
To the Memory of My Beloved
At the time of Shakespeare’s death another English writer was arguably better known to the general public than Shakespeare himself, and more highly esteemed by the brokers of power at King James’s court. That writer was Shakespeare’s friend and colleague Ben Jonson, who early in 1616 had been awarded a pension of one hundred marks to serve as King James’s laureate poet.
A first folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays was finally published in London with Jonson’s assistance and oversight in 1623. This monumental volume at last gave readers in England some sense of the wider reach of Shakespeare’s theatrical achievement, and laid the essential foundations of his modern reputation.
At the head of this volume stand two poems by Ben Jonson: the second, To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us assesses the achievement of this extraordinary writer. Shakespeare had been praised during his lifetime as a “sweet”, “mellifluous”, “honey-tongued”, “honey-flowing”, “pleasing” writer. No one until this moment had presented him in the astounding terms that Jonson here proposes: as the pre-eminent figure, the “soul” and the “star” of his age; and as something even more than that: as one who could be confidently ranked with the greatest writers of antiquity and of the modern era.
Triumph, my Britain, thou has one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe,
He was not of an age, but for all time!
Today, 400 years on, that last line sounds like a truism, for Shakespeare’s fame has indeed endured. He is without doubt the most famous writer the world has ever seen. But in 1623 this was a bold and startling prediction. No one before that date had described Shakespeare’s achievement in such terms as these.
This is an edited version of a public lecture given at the University of Melbourne.
On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne is establishing the Shakespeare 400 Trust to raise funds to support the teaching of Shakespeare at the University into the future. For more information, or if you would like to support the Shakespeare 400 Trust, please contact Julie du Plessis at firstname.lastname@example.org