“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…”

It’s phrases-in-the-blender day, folks. “Off the bat” becomes “from the bat” for some reason. An image from cricket or baseball, “right off the bat” means “immediately, without delay,” and comes as a metaphor from such observations as “right off the bat the ball was headed out of the park.” My student was writing about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now, Shakespeare referred to just about every feature of life, large and small, grand and ordinary, formal and casual, clean and unclean, in his plays, and he wasn’t averse to experimentation with imagery in his sonnets (or to mocking other poets’ dependence on formulaic image traditions such as coral lips and sun-like eyes). I don’t recall any bat-and-ball metaphors, though; and when I think about Shakespeare as a writer I generally don’t do so in sports imagery. My student evidently does, although she doesn’t get the phrasing exactly right. Well, be that as it may: right off the bat, Shakespeare is getting busy with that poem. He doesn’t waste any time.

But the formulaic phrase that follows Shakespeare-as-Babe Ruth is from another sphere of life entirely: “Shakespeare is using his words.” I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard this phrase except in connection with admonitions to temperamental children: “Henry, stop hitting Kaitlin with that bat; use your words!” So now I recast Shakespeare the Slugger as Shakespeare the Well-behaved Child.

Why is Shakespeare using his words? To share, of course. Here’s the whole statement:

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words to share how much love he has for the person he is talking about.”

The “share” keeps us in that mommy (or support-group?) vernacular. Probably after “using his words” the “share” just insisted on following. He’s going to share how much love he has. Now, this does NOT mean that he’s going to share his actual love here, no, not with the reader; “share” doesn’t mean “give part of , divide and distribute, experience or enjoy with others”; in this usage it means, as all us modern speakers know, “tell, express, confide.” For some reason we don’t say “tell,” “express,” or “confide” anymore, I guess: “share” is so much warmer and less precise.

We know Shakespeare isn’t going to share any love with us because the writer is clear that the love is for the person he is talking about, not for the reader. My relief at seeing the word “talking” is huge because it’s a word I pretty much know, used in a way it’s traditionally used. Or not, of course: Shakespeare is writing, not talking. But in this instance, close enough.

He’s not going to actually express his love, evidently; he’s going to “share how much love he has.” An overabundance of synapses that may have come with age takes me all over the literary landscape with this one, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) to that pop song Petula Clark sang:

My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine
Softer than a sigh
My love is deeper than the deepest ocean
Wider than the sky….

Neither of these associations takes me deeper into Shakespeare, though; and his sonnet is like neither of them.

My apologies if the rest of your day is going to be played out against the background of that perky Petula number… Do take comfort in the fact that mine will be too.

I am relieved at the realization that Shakespeare is going to talk about his love for the person he’s talking about, at least. A sonnet is too brief a poem to clutter up with expressing love for someone other than the person he’s talking about, although I suppose he could “share” that he doesn’t love the person he’s talking about as much as he loves someone else. He wrote a sonnet sequence, after all, so the someone else could be talked about further in the other sonnets. In fact three characters do inhabit the sequence Shakespeare wrote: the young man, the “dark lady,” and the speaker. Sorting them out has kept graduate students and other scholars busy for about four hundred years. But my student isn’t concerned with this at all; she’s just commenting on a single sonnet she read.

A sonnet is also too brief to waste time at the beginning; it really does have to start right off (okay, from) the bat. A Journal entry is also a brief form, as I have assigned it. My student does not start right off the bat, though: she noodles around with bats and shares and other vagueness and wordiness rather than coming out and saying something.

The thing that makes me feel like an ogre is that she really, really likes this sonnet, as the rest of her Journal comment made clear. She likes Shakespeare. And I am beyond delighted that she does—I do, too. Because I don’t want to dampen or trivialize her appreciation, my comment on her Journal entry (which isn’t, after all, a “writing” assignment) won’t even mention her diction level, although I will underline the formulaic phrases and hope she stops in during office hours to find out why. (She didn’t.) But how someone could read Shakespeare’s specific, witty, allusive, cadenced writing and then respond with this sentence is beyond me. I imagine it’s that people who aren’t habitual or observant (or, perhaps, trained) readers don’t make these linguistic distinctions, don’t look for precision of meaning in trendy or commercial speech, don’t hear the competing voices and attitudes in their own verbal Smoothies. Hence the frequency of references to “Grendel’s mom” and “Hamlet’s dad” in student papers. I suppose.

Perhaps I should just give in. A living language is a language that changes. Perhaps there were people in Shakespeare’s audience who shook their lordly heads at his use of street slang and his coinages: “What is the Queen’s English coming to?”

Just the same. English is a huge and vigorous language (thanks partly to Himself). I wouldn’t send a boxer into the ring with both hands tied behind his back, or a violinist into the orchestra pit without a bow, and I hate to send students into the world with only the sketchiest notion of how to wield the mighty instrument that is available to them.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

14 responses to ““Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Ruth Anne, never doubt you are fighting the good fight.
    I gave up so long ago, I have almost forgotten how it feels to be a soldier,
    at least on that battlefield. In the theater, I have become an
    advocate for the audience, as in “Trust the audience,” “Don’t underestimate
    what an audience can pick up on.” And, finally, “If you commit fully to
    your character and the playwright’s vision, the audience will try to follow you. They will listen, if they believe that you and the playwright know what
    you’re doing.” I believe this is your approach as well, and that’s why you
    get such wonderful results.

    • RAB

      I do believe it’s the good fight, Mary Jane. But I definitely feel…outgunned! Maybe if I could teach my classes in a theater? Good to hear from you, my friend!

  • Susan P

    LAUGHING!!!! Sheeee’s baaaack and right on her game. Thanks. I hope this finds you well and healed.

    • RAB

      HealING, at least. I can type with two hands, and that seems to have something to do with finding my thinking rhythms as well, much to my surprise.Thanks for your good wishes!

  • A Voice

    The inattention people pay to the way in which they use language is incredibly frustrating. It seems to me that this comes from receiving most of one’s communication in the form of marketing, viz. feel-good and coercive communication that is vague enough to say a lot while simultaneously saying very little.

    • RAB

      Agreed! Do you think there’s any way to reclaim the attention?

      • A Voice

        Not unless the culture in this country shifts toward embracing education, no.

        As a poet I find this particularly troubling because the ability to not just understand but write poetry with various levels seems to be altogether gone. With the purported death of the author it’s all about interpretation and in a distinctly Post-Modern fashion. The reader co-opts the piece and interprets before attempting to understand, a quality that we see more and more in the successive generations.

        Students are turned off because their parents and teachers are largely turned off. Teachers find that they are forced to teach a class with a real disruptive and apathetic element, making them both feel and think that their time is being wasted and as such they are less likely to drift from the lesson plan or challenge their students. Combine that with administrators having little idea what it’s like to be in that position and enforcing poor policies and teachers often think, ‘well, if they’re going to ignore everything and treat this like it’s merely a job then it will be merely a job for me, too.’

        Students pick up on this and, since they are getting next to nothing at home in the way of support because their parents are more interested in personal and commercial interests, believe that there isn’t a point to much of anything. This reinforces the bullshit and often unspoken, but wholly understood, Post-Modern notion of the lack of meta-narratives. The students believe that school is a waste of time and because they believe it is a waste of time it IS a waste of time.

        Parents are all but constantly in their own world and when they are brought back to the realities of their child having issues in school they lash out, sometimes at the child, sometimes at the school, sometimes at both. The child is an extension of them and a thing, it as at once a version of them whose actions are somehow their actions and a trophy that no one dare kick dirt upon. Since they take so little time to actually parse out the goings on at school and in their children’s lives they react poorly and with wilful ignorance.

        The administrators react to this and the cycle repeats. And this because we have an anti-intellectual culture, a culture that doesn’t in any real way appreciate education but demands it as a commodity amongst other commodities because that and that alone is the interest: the product.

  • solberg73

    I’m enchanted by the way you dissect and playfully autopsy this assignment. Both an exhilarating style and a serious content here. (I can’t ignore the resemblance to my own entries: Q: do I love this post because of its pure charm, or because it tells me that I’m on the right track, so to speak?.
    Spending 95% of my life in Hebrew the last couple decades, I now have two(2) linguistic children with whom to share my remonstrations, ha. Keeps one busy, with a heavier work-load every day. I look forward to reading more here; you started with a zinger right off the bat and right on the mark,./ JS Tel Aviv

  • solberg73

    Well I’m quite willing, tickled in fact, to share perspectives with you. Your knowing and rigorous post mortem here was a joy to read.

  • yearstricken

    I wonder if some of the mangled language comes of not really listening. Everyone is multitasking, half hearing, while they are busy with tweets, updates, videos, and urgent messages. The student must have heard the phrase “right off the bat” but only remembered or heard half of the phrase, so when she needed to use it, she searched around for the nearest preposition and came up with “right from the bat.” As you point out, it’s the incongruence of using language so carelessly to write about someone who used it so carefully.

    • A Voice

      “I wonder if some of the mangled language comes of not really listening. Everyone is multitasking, half hearing, while they are busy with tweets, updates, videos, and urgent messages.”

      This is very relevant. Let’s remember that students are taught to multi-task more and more, to somehow excel while splitting themselves and giving less and less to each task. Unless a college is a technical college children are taught that they need to have a ‘broad portfolio’ to be an attractive candidate for a liberal arts college, that having a goal in life and solid grades isn’t enough.

  • RAB

    Pertinent to both your comment, YS, and yours, Voice, is this obituary for a man prematurely taken from us: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/07/business/clifford-nass-researcher-on-multitasking-dies-at-55.html?_r=0. His studies show the folly that is multi-tasking. And yes, I agree. So much is a matter of mindfulness—focusing, paying attention, listening, seeing, entering into an experience. I watched a student, assigned by a professor to come and see a play I had directed, sitting in her seat physically looking in the direction of the stage but every minute or two pulling out her phone and receiving or sending a text. I wondered where she thought she actually was: the seat she had paid $10 for, or at some club or dorm room with friends, watching tv with them, deciding which bar to meet at after, etc. At my request she managed to put the toy away for MOST of the second act, but five minutes before the end, pretty much at the CLIMAX of the play, out it came again for one more text.

    There’s also the notion that the kids are great just the way they are. This is particularly the attitude of parents at one of the places I teach, and our writing program isn’t really so much dispelling this assumption as trying to use it as a springboard into a higher (and more multifarious) concept of written communication. Alas, most of my first-years are far from adept at the foundational level of communication, and I don’t have a lot of faith that they can find their way via native brilliance to where they really need to get if they want to genuinely engage in ideas, analysis, appreciation, and creativity.

    And then the anti-intellectualism that has marked so much of American vox-pop discourse since its beginnings reinforces the bad habits, mocks the good, and also plays into the hands of politicians who distrust education and educators (and their unions) anyway.

    What a mess.

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. Where do we go from here?

  • In a few days will repost a sequence… | David Emeron: Sonnets

    […] “Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…” (youknewwhatimeant.wordpress.com) […]

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