Twitter, Wit, and Elizabeth

July 13, 2009

To many, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Sidney seem as far removed from modern society as crème brûlée is from peanut butter and jelly.

A few conventions of modern society convince me to argue otherwise.

Like Twitter. Bear with me.

England in the late sixteenth century enjoyed “an impressive, widespread growth in literacy; an educational system that trained its students to be highly sensitive to rhetorical effects; a social and political taste for elaborate display…and a vibrant, restless intellectual culture” (Will in the World, Greenblatt).

What are the characteristics of the United States in the twenty-first century? More and more young adults attend college, creating if not a vibrant, then certainly a restless intellectual culture, particularly as more and more college graduates find themselves without a job that uses ingenuity or creativity.

One side effect, I think, is a re-awakening taste for wit in the social realm. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the newest social networking phenomenon is called tWITter.

The exchange of brief, one-sided dialogues has progressed from instant messenger to Facebook to texting and Twitter. Humor and wit are the name of the game. And it is a game. These media are ideally suited for banter: light, quick-witted one-upmanship.

One difference is the skill for which Elizabethan courtiers were known. “Courtiers were highly gifted at crafting and deciphering graceful words with double or triple meanings” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol.1) Their wordplay was born of cultural necessity. The upper classes were classically trained in rhetorical devices, and court intrigue demanded careful speech.

Perhaps the United States lacks both of those spurs to rhetorical training. Perhaps social networking is becoming more attention-seeking and self-serving. Perhaps, though, we are also returning to a simple enjoyment of language’s subtleties and possibilities.

And lest we fall too deeply in love with the PB&J to the exclusion of fine cuisine, I think we have to ask the question, are these phenomena unique to our society?

My answer? Not a bit.

Or should I say, not a whit.

Or a twhit.