Bill Long 8/8/06
Futher Thoughts on Two Gentlemen of Verona (TG)
I have been reading this lesser-known and early Shakespeare play because I will see a performance of it in Ashland, OR at the Shakespearean festival this weekend. When you first read TG, you are impressed by how many themes are here mentioned in inchoate or partially-developed form that will become staples of S's later work. For example, the notions of disguising oneself by dressing up as a member of the opposite sex, of passing and intercepting letters, of a noble person dishonored, of homoerotic themes barely broached, of the forest as the place of freedom and rearrangement of social hierarchies, all presented in TG, will be explored much more fully in later plays. But not only have scholars pointed out the rather "undeveloped" nature of TG, but they also stress the unsatisfying nature of the lightning-quick reconciliation and double-marriage which occurs in 5.4, the last scene of the play. With an awareness of these "weaknesses," we can understand why TG is probably one of the least performed and appreciated of S's works. I am discovering, however, that two or three readings of TG begin to beckon the alert reader to "turn in here" and listen more fully to the rhythms of language and the artistic vision which is already evident in this early work of S. Indeed, one of the ways that TG allures is by its language. I have already written four essays on the language of TG (beginning with "Beadsman" on this page), and I can't leave my 'preliminary' study of TG without a word about remorseful.
Everybody thinks s/he knows what remorse is. It is, simply, "a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs." This, indeed, is the only definition in most contemporary dictionaries. Thus, a person who is remorseful is one who is, as the OED says, "Affected with or characterized by remorse; impressed with a sense of, and penitent for, guilt." The Latin root of the term is especially helpful to know at this point. Derived from the verb remordere, meaning to vex or annoy, the literal meaning of the verb is "to bite again." Therefore, remorse is something that "bites you," or "gnaws" at you, eating away your sense of well-being and confidence. The linguistic field of the word seems to be pretty clear to us.
Until we read TG. In 4.2 Silvia, distraught at the exile of her lover Valentine, resolves to go find him, accompanied by the noble and honorable man Eglamour. She calls Eglamour to her and says:
"O Eglamour, thou art a gentleman--
Think not I flatter, for I swear I do not--
Valiant, wise, remorseful, well accomplsh'd,
Thou art not ignorant what dear good will
I bear unto the banish'd Valentine," (4.3.11-15).
OOps. Here is a usage of the word we aren't expecting. Someone who is remorseful is impressed with a sense of guilt. But that is exactly what Silvia is not saying here. Remorseful, in the context of 4.3 is a positive term.
So, S sends us scurrying back to our dictionaries to understand what it might mean. The OED lists two attestations of remorseful from the 1590s. One is expected: "I know his penitentiall words proceede/ From a remorcefull spirit." But then there is S's usage from TG. The OED says that this is usage means "compassionate" or "full of pity," and then tells us the word is obsolete. I suppose it is obsolete as long as we want to leave it in that category--i.e., there is nothing inherent in the meaning of remorseful as compassionate to suggest it must be obsolete. I suppose if S had come upon the word in his day and discovered it meant only "impressed with a sense of guilt," and had said, "Oh, my, it looks as if the meaning of remorseful is fixed--What's a dramatist to do?" we probably would have had a much lesser playwright to study.
But what S does is to realize that already at the end of the 16th century there were two definitions of remorse out there, and he just chose the one that was less well attested in order to build his new word--remorseful. That is, beginning with Chaucer in the 14th century (who used the phrase "remorse of conscience"), the word remorse primarily meant a feeling of compunction or deep regret and repentance for a wrong committed. From 1494: "From this monycion (i.e., monition or warning) he toke remorce in his conscience," or from 1526: "Undoubted theyr conscyence sholde have remorse."
The second, and lesser attested, use of remorse in S's time was as we have seen: to express sorrow, pity or compassion. From Henry Surreys 1547 partial translation of the Aeneid, we have: "This latter grace, Sister, I crave, have thou remorse of me." Or, from 1568: "Well, nature pricketh me some remorse on thee to have."
The sign of a creative writer is to recognize current usage of words only as a suggestion of what might properly be used to express ideas. So, in addition to mining the lexicons for words familiar and strange, let's reach for new expressions and new usages to capture our meaning. Language lives, and so shall I.
And, while we are at it, consider this phrase, that appears only a few times on the Internet (and those all copy one book), "remorse of equity." The OED defines it as: "a disposition to relax the strict application of a law." The postman may ring twice, but when equity bites twice, you relax the strictness of law...
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long