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Ben Jonson preferred stately, measured cadences. Between 1601 and 1607, Shakespeare’s verbal choices take on a restless, even frenetic quality. He knows how to unearth them and seems driven to mine deeper linguistic veins. By the time he wrote Coriolanus, around 1607, he had written over 30 plays. He pulls back some, trims his style — almost, but not quite, to a Jonsonian degree — and makes his source carry much of the load.

Caroline Spurgeon, one of his most insightful commentators, says that when Shakespeare wrote with his “imagination at white heat,” his dominating images often sprang uncoaxed from his unconscious. A subject triggered surprises, especially when he was riffing. Like well-trained Stratford grammar-schoolers, he begins a speech with a topic sentence; then he ad libs for several lines, sometimes with excessive verbiage — Jonson did have a point — but often with brilliance.

Although penned at less than “white hot” speed, Coriolanus has a touch that must have come from deep within. After the victory that gave him his name, Coriolanus asks a favor of the Consul Cominius. A wealthy old Volscian friend has been taken prisoner. North: “It would do me great pleasure if I could save him from this one danger, to keep him from being a slave.” When his comrades hear this sentiment — one of the few he displays — they praise Coriolanus all the more, and the man goes free.

Shakespeare makes two changes. The wealthy friend becomes a poor man. When Cominius assents to the request, he asks the man’s name, Coriolanus stops, responds: “By Jupiter! forgot!/I am weary; yea, my memory is tired./Have you no wine here?” And they stroll off-stage.

How he performed this alchemy, how he stored and tapped into his inner lexicon — and kept his inner editor muzzled — are what made him Shakespeare.

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Comments

Prosperina June 12, 2009 @ 5:45 p.m.

Jeff Smith is one of the most prolific and fabulous writers of OUR time -- each time he writes one of these articles, whether it's about Shakespeare, or a contemporary writer or actor, etc.-- it's like a history lesson, acting lesson and life lesson all rolled into one. Same goes for his reviews -- the guy amazes -- AND his other series about San Diego history is like a great travelogue through time - always written in a way that brings you right into the subject - as if you were in the room watching the event or a great interview with the person instead of reading about it -- he makes it all come alive!

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DocValentine June 13, 2009 @ 11:31 a.m.

A good writer, indeed. And the chicks dig him. Or so I'm told.

One more thing: he's got a decent golf game - although he's a bit delusional about it. I mean, I don't think he's ever hit a cut in his life, even though he professes to do just that on pretty much every shot. Even so, the chicks still appear to dig him. Or so I'm told...

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Jeff Smith June 16, 2009 @ 9:29 a.m.

Esteemed Dr. V. Regarding my alleged inability to hit a left-to-right "cut" shot: when you watch this year's British Open, and you will, pay particular attention to Turnberry's 10th, an invidious (albeit splendid) par four. Know ye that when I played the course, which is Pebble Beach without the trees, I drove a stately cut just inside the shore line left of 10 and laced a hard l-to-r 7 iron (a shot I call my "cold cut") to 15 feet and SUNK THE PUTT. Don't believe me? Ask Shanks Green. He was there. Okay, he was single-malted to the gills, but there... As to the "chicks" - there was one, actually, but your indelicate verbiage scared her off.

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HenrySloanIII June 21, 2009 @ 9:19 p.m.

The article is an enviable compound of erudition, concision, and lucidity.

It begins with a question, fixes the hook with an image of the Bard at work, lays on lessons in literary and Roman history, and then, with a few well-chosen examples, illuminates how WS worked his transformations. In the process the author practices a bit of alchemy of his own.

(He also takes a peg out from under the cranks who rattle on about how the “Man from Stratford could not have written the works of Shakespeare.)

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