Stanley Wells

The appearance of a comprehensive and up-to-date glossary of Shakespeare will be greeted with rejoicing by Shakespeare students and scholars all over the world. Throughout the twentieth century anyone concerned with Shakespeare's language has had to rely essentially on out-of-date works deriving from the nineteenth century. A standard work of reference has been Alexander Schmidt's two-volume Shakespeare-Lexicon and Quotations Dictionary dating from as far back as 1874, reprinted as recently as 1987 and still in print. A product of German philological scholarship, it contains over 50,000 quotations illustrating verbal usages, and is still of value, especially to editors. But Schmidt's work, rooted in the scholarship of its day, was completed without the benefit of the great Oxford English Dictionary, conceived in 1857 but which began to appear only in 1884, by which time the editors had got as far as 'ant'. The dictionary crawled to completion only in 1928, since when there have been a number of supplementary volumes. One of the compilers of the OED was Charles Talbot Onions (1873-1965), but his handy Shakespeare Glossary appeared in 1911, well before the parent work was completed. His glossary, too, to which the Crystals pay tribute, is still in print, in the not very comprehensive revision by Robert D. Eagleson of 1986. In the long period since the origination of Schmidt's and Onions's works, attitudes to Shakespeare's text and to his language have changed, his readership has broadened, and the needs of readers have evolved alongside changes in the English language itself. At the same time great strides have been made in the study of Shakespeare's language. Freudian-influenced criticism has revealed layers of wordplay unsuspected by the Victorians. Specialized areas of Shakespeare's vocabulary, such as his use of sea terms, of legal, military and theatrical terminology, of proverbs, oaths, and the Bible, have been subjected to close scrutiny. Eric Partridge's pioneering Shakespeare's Bawdy, first printed in a limited edition in 1947 and also still in print, has been followed by other studies of what one critic called 'the less decent language of Shakespeare's time' which had been largely neglected by the compilers of OED, most recently and most valuably by Gordon Williams's three-volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature (1997) and its offshoot A Glossary of Shakespeare's Sexual Language (1998).  

During this period too, generations of scholarly editors and critics have diligently investigated the connotations and registers of particular words and groups of words, and the Shakespeare canon itself has enlarged with the addition of the collaborative play The Two Noble Kinsmen and of Edward III, parts at least of which are now generally allowed to have been written by Shakespeare. The preparation of an easily accessible and comprehensive reference work which would subsume these studies has long been devoutly to be wished, and the heroic task undertaken by David and Ben Crystal - the one an eminent linguist and lexicographer, the other an actor as well as a scholar, bringing with him a theatrical perspective - fills a yawning gap in Shakespeare reference shelves. And it is no mere clone of earlier works of the kind. Its innovative features bear witness to the freshness of thought that has gone into it. The list of one hundred Frequently Encountered Words provides an excellent basic foundation for the beginner. The glossary panels devoted to areas of the text such as Stage directions, Greetings, Money, and Archaisms form quick-reference guides to specific topics; some of them, such as those on Verb forms and Comparison, Functional shifts, and Plurals even extend to grammatical usage, though the authors disclaim any overall attempt to explicate Shakespearian grammar. Most original of all are the 'Shakespearian Circles' which go well beyond the authors' basic remit in providing diagrammatic representations of the circles in which various groups of characters in the plays move. Acting as supplements to the conventional character lists, these, with their accompanying plot synopses, offer help with the interlocking worlds of each play. It is fascinating to see how complex are the circles of some plays, such as Henry VI Parts 1 and 2, and how relatively simple are others, such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night.

Every so often it is suggested that the time has come for Shakespeare to be translated into modern English. Though it is true that those who read the plays in foreign translation have the advantage over modern readers in that part of the work of comprehension has been done for them by the translator, the ambitious scope of the present study should not cause readers to suppose that Shakespeare is a closed book to all but readers who have undertaken laborious study of the language in which he wrote and of his particular use of it. As David and Ben Crystal acknowledge, 'it is perfectly possible to go to a Shakespeare play, with little or no awareness of Early Modern English vocabulary, and have a great time.'

In the theatre, difficulties experienced on the page can melt away in the mediating solvent of the actors' understanding. For all that, the experience of seeing the plays, and of reading them and the poems, can be profoundly enhanced through an awareness of the endless fecundity of Shakespeare's linguistic resourcefulness such as this book can stimulate.