La langue de Shakespeare or 10 ways Shakespeare is present in my life

In celebration of our upcoming ten year anniversary we are publishing a Top 10 list by a carte blanche editor once a month. This month’s list is brought to you by Nicola Danby.

As a translator, I get to work with a lot of Francophones and listen to them talk about English. One of my favourite expressions is “La langue de Shakespeare,” which is how many of my francophone colleagues refer to English (in la langue de Molière). There are countless ways Shakespeare has influenced our language, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that it doesn’t end there. In celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, here are the ways Shakespeare is present in my everyday life.

To quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Mr. Shakespeare, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

They number 10.

1. MacDuff
My son’s name is MacDuff. I get all kind of reactions to this, from “I love his name,” to (and this is one of my favourites), “Really?” Yes, really.

2. Henry (pick a number)
My other son’s name is Henry.

One of my favourite prezzies from my beau is a ring he bought me in 2007 at the Globe Theatre in London. It’s the ring I wore on my ring finger when I was pregnant with MacDuff and Henry, before I had a real live wedding ring. To quote the Globe website description, it’s a “Copy of a posy ring found in the archaeological excavation of the Rose Theatre. The inscription reads ‘think of me God willing’ in Old French.”

4. Becoming a MacDuff
My grandmother was in her school production of MacBeth. She was cast as MacDuff. Little did she know she’d go on to marry Robert MacDuff, a descendant of the actual MacDuff in the play. See point 1.

5. Shakespeare ain’t just in English
You can’t escape detailed dissections of Bible translation when you study translation theory. You also can’t escape the many translations of Shakespeare. And why would you, with this pedigree? Victor Hugo’s son Francois Victor Hugo translated the works of Shakespeare, published between 1859 and 1866.

6. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare
I love my kids, which is a deep, vast, and ridiculous understatement. But they’re humans, and as it turns out, so am I. We tend to quote Shakespeare on a daily basis, often without knowing it. In particular, I say things like: budge an inch, tower of strength, making a virtue of necessity, early days, a fool’s paradise, knitting my brows, my own flesh and blood, and my favourite, slept not one wink. Thank you, Will, for this fine vocabulary of motherhood, which includes not one expletive.

7. High school English
My beau is a high school English teacher, so he’s the most consistent reader of Shakespeare’s plays I know. He has a croaky old version of MacBeth on vinyl he plays for his classes. There is always a copy of a play hanging around my house, and it’s actually being read, not just propping up the track of MacDuff’s train set.

8. Shakespeare in the Park
When I was pregnant with MacDuff, we went to see “Shakespeare in the Park,” at Westmount Park. We filled out a survey after the performance. It was the first time I ticked the box “Family” without my mum, dad, or brother around. The ritual has taken hold. We go every summer, and at our house Shakespeare has become the metonymy for theatre. “More Shakespeare please, Mummy!”

9. Shakespeare in historical fiction
Historical fiction is one my guilty pleasures. I love the Henry VIII—Edward VI—Lady Jane Grey—Mary I—Elizabeth I string, and so I often come across Shakespeare popping up in historical fiction. One of my favourite appearances is in Margaret George’s I, Elizabeth, in which Shakespeare not only has an affair with the Queen’s cousin Lettice Knollys (could she be the Dark Lady?), but also attends Edmund Spenser’s funeral, along with other fine talents of the time. In the book, Will writes a poem in honour of the funeral, and then throws the work, along with his pen, into the grave at Westminster Abbey. Apparently this was a practice at the time, an especially meaningful one since pens were not as plentiful as they are today. Writers had few, and to throw one away was a real sacrifice. Historians have tried to verify this fact but failed to find any papers, or pens, in the grave.

10. Lead on, MacDuff!
It’s the summer. MacDuff is a roly-poly pup, 6 months old or so. I’m pushing him through a knitting store in his buggy. Man in store asks, kindly, what the fat baby’s name is. I tell him. He winds up. Starts to blow hot air. He knows all about MacDuff! Oh yes, he’s an expert. In fact, he’s the expert. Starts spouting. “Lead on, MacDuff!” Actually, I meekly utter, in my sleep-deprived state, it’s “Lay on, MacDuff.” He does not comprehend. Begins to lambaste me for misquoting Shakespeare, forgetting that it’s entirely possible that though I am a bloated mummy shopping for wool, I might actually have a brain, and that it’s possible, just possible, that I know the literary references to my own son—and my own lineage—better than he does. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to work in a wool store—but I’ve got this one covered. It’s “Lay on,” I promise you, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold! enough!’ MacBeth is asking MacDuff to start fighting, and fight till the end. Lay on is confrontation. Lead on is…well… not. This is the kind of situation I find myself in far too often. But, hey, it gives me an excuse to talk about Shakespeare, and that’s nothing to sniff at.


Read previous entries in our top ten series: Top Ten Audio Storytelling Sites and Top Ten Canadian Key Words and Phrases


The author with her son Henry wrapped in the MacDuff tartan.

The author with her son Henry wrapped in the MacDuff tartan.

Nicola Danby has a BA and an MA in translation from McGill and York Universities, respectively. Once a freelance translator, she now plies her trade at EY. She is the President of the Literary Translators Association of Canada; Translation Editor for carte blanche; a blogger; sometime storyteller, and mother of two.