The Shakespeare sentence that changed my writing – and can change yours

Although we do not know the exact day William Shakespeare was born, we celebrate his birthday on April 23, which brings us to the 450th anniversary of his birth. Since many of us will not be residents of this distracted globe when Will’s big 5-0-0 comes around, we should do our best to praise him now, and as often as we can for as long as we can. There is no one like him.

Those of us who have read my books or attended my classes know that I have a favorite Shakespeare sentence. It comes from “Macbeth” – or as those superstitious thespians refer to it, the “Scottish Play.” Lady Macbeth dies off stage, unable to wash the blood from her hands, no doubt. A messenger approaches Macbeth with the news.

“The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

Before I explain how this sentence forever changed my writing and my teaching, a bit of back story is in order. Several years ago, my daughter Alison Hastings performed in the Georgia Shakespeare production of “Macbeth” on a Halloween weekend. Alison played one of the three witches, named the Weird Sisters by Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s time, “weird” had a different meaning from the modern sense of super-crazy and unusual. Back then it meant “fate” or “destiny,” and it will be the prophecies of the Weird Sisters to Macbeth that help seal his fate.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest plays. When the Macbeths slaughter the king in their own castle, they have committed three of the gravest sins as imagined in the Elizabethan moral order: they kill a king (regicide), they kill a kinsman (patricide), and they violate the covenants of hospitality – that I am responsible for your safety while you reside within my walls. At the end, Macbeth gets what he deserves. He is killed in battle offstage, an opportunity for one final shock, as his conqueror walks onto the stage with Macbeth’s bloody head in his hand.

This is perfect Halloween stuff, and it was a joy to see Alison cavorting with her two very weird Weird Sisters, one played by a beefy gentleman. We watched two performances and I then returned home to re-read the play, and, somehow, I get hooked on the sentence: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

This obsession began with the realization that Shakespeare did not have to write the sentence that way. He had at least two, if not three other choices:

• The Queen is dead, my lord.
• My lord, the Queen is dead.
• And if the messenger had been Yoda of Star Wars fame, Macbeth may have had to deal with: “Dead the Queen is, my lord.”

As you examine those three alternatives, recognize that there is nothing “wrong” with them. All four versions stand up to the scrutiny of Standard English, even though Yoda’s version seems awkward and eccentric. In all four sentences, the six words are the same. They just roll out in a different order.

To honor Shakespeare, I profess that his version is the best. But such preferences cannot be just declared, they must be argued. Here, then, I make my case for “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

  • A momentous announcement, the death of a queen, is made public in six quick words.
  • The sentence has a clear beginning, middle, and ending – praise be to commas!
  • The subject of the sentence – “The Queen” – appears immediately. Any sentence with such a beginning carries important news.
  • The least significant element in the sentence “my lord” appears in the middle, the position of least emphasis.
  • The slight delay between subject and verb holds a nanosecond of suspense.
  • The most important phrase, “is dead,” appears at the end, the point of greatest emphasis.

This rhetorical strategy of placing the most emphatic word in a sentence at the end is more than 2,000 years old, but it felt new to me until Shakespeare slapped me good and hard. It has the feel of a theory of reading and writing, that any phrase that appears near the end of a sentence, or a paragraph, or a chapter, will receive special attention. What we call a period, the Brits call a “full stop,” a better name because it focuses our attention on the effects of an ended sentence. All humor and most oratory is generated by the repetition of this single strategy. Got something good, kid? Put it at the end.

The best thing you can do, my fellow writers, is to examine a draft and underline the language that turns up at the end of sentences and paragraphs. Those are the potential hot spots in your story. Make sure a great phrase is not hiding somewhere in the middle. If you find one, drag it out to the light where we all can see it.

It must be said that Macbeth’s response to the news turns out to be much more famous than the message. “She should have died hereafter,” he says. “There would have been a time for such a word.” There’s some ambiguity here. Some scholars think he means that she would have died eventually in the natural order of things. But then this:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

The poet has an advantage over the prose writer. Writers of prose can emphasize a word by placing it at the end of a sentence. The poet doubles down by placing a key word at the end of a line. These words end sentences: dusty death, brief candle, heard no more, signifying nothing. Now add the energy that comes with words at the end of lines: tomorrow, day, time, fools, candle, poor player, upon the stage, a tale, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Another great writer named William – Faulkner – recognized in “sound and fury” a perfect title for one of his most famous novels, in part a tale told by an “idiot.” Perhaps in my senescence I will teach a semester course on those 10 lines: one week devoted to one line.

There is so much to discover here:

  • All the words that define, mention, or measure time.
  • The repetition – even of simple words like “and” – that have a tick tock quality to them, signifying the passage of time.
  • The contrast between images of darkness and light.
  • The alliterations in petty/pace, dusty/death, tale/told, sound/signifying.
  • The words that refer to language and storytelling: such as syllable, recorded, tale.
  • The self-referential allusion to stagecraft.

In the end, what does it all signify? Nothing. Everything.

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