Monday, September 15, 2008

To infinity and beyond

With Infinite Jest in the news these days, I was thinking about how its title comes from a Shakespeare quote:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio--a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
Then I remembered that back in April I blogged about two other memorable uses of the word "infinite" by Shakespeare:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite. (Juliet, R&J)
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. (Enobarbus, A&C)
So this prompted me to search all of Shakespeare's plays for the word "infinite": it seems he used it on 42 occasions. Not all of these lines are important or memorable, but my search did remind me that "infinite" appears in two additional all-time great Shakespeare quotes, both spoken by the title character of Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
So that's 5 memorable uses of the word "infinite" out of 42 total times--a very good batting average, I would say.

And then I thought that perhaps this is one reason we revere Shakespeare's writing: he grappled with the infinite. I very seldom use the word "infinite" in my own writing, for fear that it would come across as exaggeration or insincerity. If I ever, say, was tempted to describe a character as having "infinite variety," the skeptical voice in my head would immediately retort "Yeah right, that's impossible" and I'd have to find a different, less all-embracing adjective.

But Shakespeare writes boldly, without mincing words. He holds Polonius, that prince of word-mincers, in utter contempt; and even though Hamlet is a very confused young man, his confusion is a Painful Clash of Big Ideas rather than a low-level muddleheadedness. To Hamlet, man is both "infinite in faculty" and "the quintessence of dust": strong words, but memorable ones.

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