I often read far into the night. Last evening—early morning really—I found myself thinking about the word “equivocation” which emerged in Shakespeare’s time and is an early modern neologism—to half speak, parallel speak, hedge speak. The word itself is a barometer of how literacy affected the public nerve. Once people could read they could engage in irony. To equivocate became a crime in some cases as Shakespeare knew. Talking at cross purposes was a newfangled thing. Oh people had always been liars. But equivocation was unique—a conspiracy within the self if you will. Shakespeare’s late plays are concerned with this. Dr. Faustus perfects the matter later. From “The Year of Lear” by James Shapiro:
“Shakespeare was clearly fascinated by the various ways that one could equivocate and had been employing this device in his plays and poems long before he or his culture had settled on a name for it. For better or worse, it was simply part of how people communicated (a view perfectly encapsulated in the deeply equivocal Sonnet 138, which begins: “When
my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her though I know she lies”). What else, after all, did actors do for a living other than convincingly recite words they didn’t actually mean while at the same time suppressing their own thoughts? And what else did playwrights do, in an age of theatrical censorship, but encourage actors to say one thing while slyly pointing at another? Though the scene in The Second Part of Henry the Sixth would be the first time Shakespeare so explicitly employs what would come to be called equivocation, it would be far from the only instance of this verbal trick to appear in his plays. One of the great pleasures afforded by his works is watching his many lovers, rivals, servants, avengers, and villains equivocate, sometimes playfully, sometimes in the most cunning and destructive ways imaginable. He would have understood efforts to reduce equivocation to the diabolical, to something that could somehow be rooted out and eliminated, as hopelessly if not dangerously naive.”
Meanwhile let me not equivocate. I’m short. You see? The truth is seldom promising. This is why short people join societies, become demotic, develop academic disciplines like “diminution studies” and argue that tallness is a conspiracy.
As I say: I’m just short.
Sometimes subjective bravery requires talking less.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger