Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

Translation:
The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta

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Ancient History

|Book Club

Wit vs. Wits

My favorite quote (and guide) regarding wittiness is the oft-quoted Shakespeare-coined adage that “Brevity is the soul of wit.” [from Act II, Scene II of Hamlet]

But when it comes to wits (as in “keep your wits about you”), brevity would be a disadvantage.

I’m partway through the 2013 modern costume and set decoration, Joss Whedon-adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is a very interesting approach to this classic late 16th-century comedy. It’s intriguing to see how this play would unfold in present-day surroundings (apparently filmed in the director’s own house), simple luxuries and technologies, and illustrates how human nature is little changed in the intervening 400 years.

By removing all the medieval trappings that typically scare 21st-century people and leaving just the dense, florid Shakespearean language, it makes the play more accessible to modern man, while maintaining the purity of the script. The language of the script, for non-Shakespeare scholars, remains intimidating–especially in the first few minutes where it’s all whizzing by you as you’re also trying to grasp who is who and what’s going on. Eventually the rhythm of the words becomes easier to understand, and yet old turns of phrase and vocabulary can keep jamming on the brakes: “challeng’d Cupid at the flight” (challenged to Cupid to an archery contest), “burbolt” (a flat-headed arrow used for bird hunting), “trencherman” (eater), “squarer” (fighter), “parrot-teacher” (an insult, implying someone who says the same thing so often that they would make a good parrot trainer), “jade’s trick” (a jade is a broken-down, overworked horse, a nag, and according to various internet sites, the trick would be 1. giving up before the race is finished or 2. having a horse trader use dyes and spices to make the jade appear young and healthy for sale).

If I’m watching Shakespeare in public (it’s worth the day-long effort to wait in line for free “Shakespeare in the Park” tickets in Central Park), I just have to turn off that part of my brain that questions every new word and phrase I hear and let the words flow over me. I always walk away feeling like I understood all the main plot lines and themes and most of the details.

But when I’m at home, with dictionaries and computers nearby, I only make it through a scene or two before my brain is screaming to put the DVD on pause and look up all of the archaic words and phrases I don’t immediately get so that I’ll understand every detail. (This is why I don’t watch Shakespeare movies every week…or month.)

So pause I have. To my happiness, I found one bit of dialog that flowed right over me, has even more meaning that I can apply to other things:

BEATRICE
Alas! he gets nothing by that. In our last
conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and
now is the whole man governed with one: so that if
he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him
bear it for a difference between himself and his
horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left,
to be known a reasonable creature.

I didn’t need to know this to enjoy Lady Beatrice’s snark about Benedick not having all his wits, but apparently in the Middle Ages, there were thought to be five “inward” wits to go along with the five “outward wits” or senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight). The five wits were imagination, memory, estimation (instinct), fantasy (is this really different from imagination? this reference tries to differentiate it) and common wit (which is akin to Aristotle’s concept of what we now call “common sense”). Not sure where the humorous wit fits among these categories, though.

Therefore, it’s fun to know that instead of tossing out random numbers, Beatrice’s imagination specifically intends to insinuate that Benedick’s mind is deprived of all imagination, memory, instinct and fantasy, but she graciously grants him some common sense.

That’s being witty about wits.

 
UPDATE: No wonder I missed Beatrice’s jab at Benedick’s wit in the movie. In replaying the scene, I find Whedon has edited Shakespeare here and there, removing the quote I so love. Hmph.

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