Irony

Monday Mystery – The Tyrant Speaks

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“But I have none: the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them, but abound
In the division of each several crime,
Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.”

Who is speaking here, and in what play? Also – what is the ironic twist about this speech?

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Wordy Wednesday – “Dead as a doornail”

Today let’s talk about the phrase “dead as a doornail.” Have you ever heard this expression before? My sources tell me that it’s a very old phrase; it was found in a piece of writing from the 14th century!

Shakespeare used the phrase in his play Henry VI Part II, from 1592. The full usage:

Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead
as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

How dead does this look?

Here the character Jack Cade, the leader of a rebellion against the king, is speaking. This is a simile: a comparison using “like” or “as.” In this example the character is comparing doornails and whoever he is speaking to. Doornails used to be hammered into doors in a way that would make them unusable for anything else. They were hammered in and then the other side was bent with the hammer so that they could not be taken out easily. Not only could you not use them in a new door, you probably couldn’t take them out of the original door either. I guess that makes them pretty dead, right?

Dickens also famously used this phrase in the beginning of A Christmas Carol. He goes on for a full page about whether or not a certain character is dead, and whether or not a doornail itself can even be called dead.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

He makes a good point about coffin-nails! And then, of course, this character in A Christmas Carol comes back as a ghost, so he’s not so dead after all. This is a good example of irony, which is saying or writing the opposite of what you mean or intend.

In Shakespeare’s play, Cade is threatening several other characters with death. Even though he’s had no meat for five days and must be close to death himself, he’s still threatening to kill the others and not only that, to make them as dead as doornails. Pretty extreme!

Wordy Wednesday – “A charmed life”

447 years young!

As you may or may not know, this week Shakespeare will celebrate his 447th birthday! (Whew – he doesn’t look a day over 439 to me.) (OK, bad jokes over now.)

We have some special birthday posts lined up to honour our favourite bard, so check back tomorrow and Saturday for more.

But for today, let’s turn our attention to a phrase that seems to describe Mr. Shakespeare, who is after all the world’s most famous playwright, even if some of his characters don’t have such good luck…

Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.

I wonder if Macbeth had one of these…

That’s Macbeth speaking in the 1605 play, Macbeth.The phrase originally meant someone who has a life filled with luck or good fortune, as in someone who is under a good luck spell or charm. That makes perfect sense in a play that starts off with a witch’s spell, right?

Of course, Macbeth is not known as a good guy or even a particularly lucky guy by the end of the play, so the phrase is kind of ironic. It seems more likely that the witches have put him under a bad luck charm when they tell him that he’s destined to be the king of Scotland, because once they tell him, he can’t rest until he actually does become king. And then he has some serious problems to deal with – not such great luck after all. Someone who is really under a good luck charm might just become king by accident!

In this scene, Macbeth is also boasting about his charmed life and good luck, which is generally not a great idea. Everyone knows that the second you admit to having good luck, it will mysteriously vanish and you’ll be visited by seven years of bad luck. (Right? Or does this just happen to me?)

Today people use this phrase all the time, but it’s lost the original sense of being under a spell or charm and instead just means that someone is really lucky (for whatever reason) or fortunate. For example, say you spill tomato sauce everywhere but avoid your new white shirt. “You lead a charmed life,” someone might say. Or what if everyone in your class got in trouble for being noisy, but you were in the bathroom at the time so you escape detention? “What a charmed life that guy (or girl) leads.”

We will see you tomorrow for a special pre-birthday post!