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STILL-PEERING AIR

O
you
leaden

messengers,
That ride upon the violent speed of fire,
Fly with false aim; move the still-peering air
That sings with piercing.

(All's Well, iii, 2, 113) “Still-peering, adj. a doubtful word.” (Globe glossary) “Still-peering, that seems to be motionless? A doubtful word.

(Neilson, 1906) "Still-peering air; so Folio 1; Folio 2, ‘still-piercing'; probably an error for still-piecing; i.e. still-closing."

(Gollancz)

CONJECTURE on this famous difficulty began with Warburton and his contemporaries, but as none of the many suggestions have proved self-evident or plausible it is now considered a hopeless crux. During the past century Steevens' “still-piecing” has been most favored while still remaining a mere conjecture. That “still” means always or ever, according to Shakespeare's usage, is generally recognized; the perplexity is in regard to peering.

“Peering” as here used is a verb form of the noun peer, meaning an equal. In war (the present connection) a man's peer would be one whom he could not overcome. “Stillpeering air” means that the air, despite the

leaden missiles that pierce it, is ever unconquered, always unvanquished invulnerable.

If we have any familiarity with Shakespeare we must soon learn that he had certain poetic conceptions which his mind kept in stock, as it were, and which he made repeated use of. Ariel says to the shipwrecked noble

men:

Wound the loud winds or with bemocked-at stabs

Kill the still-closing waters.
In “Hamlet,” Marcellus says:

For it is, as the air, invulnerable,

And our vain blows malicious mockery. Again, in the same play:

his poisoned shot may miss our name And hit the woundless air.

In "Macbeth” we have:

As easy may'st thou the intrenchant air

With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed. In the “Tempest” this invulnerability of the air is given a humorous turn:

So full of valor that they smote the air. The above is sufficient to show us that the idea which my interpretation would observe is one - in fact it is the one which would be natural to Shakespeare's mind. But now remains the whole question: Is this what he means here? Would Shakespeare take the noun peer, look at it from the standpoint of war as being one who could not be vanquished,

and then use it in the verb form? To this we must reply that it is utterly Shakespearean.

In the beginning of “The Merchant of Venice” we have a description of Antonio's merchant fleets, which

Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood
Do overpeer the petty traffickers,

That curtsey to them, do them reverence. Note the connection in order to get the exact sense of “overpeer.” Signiors and rich burghers, which the ships are like, are superior citizens, they are like peers of the realm, in which sense they overpeer the inferior citizens who curtsey to them.

In “Cymbeline” the two princes are described. We learn that even though their position and birth were entirely laid aside, the greatest men

Could not outpeer these twain. In both these cases we have the noun peer used in verb form. And so, if a man who peers another equals him, and one who out-peers or overpeers another more than equals him, we may say that they are peering or outpeering or overpeering in the sense of exercising equality or superiority. And so “still-peering" air regards the atmosphere as always and ever the equal of these leaden missiles of war -- inconquerable, invulnerable.

We see therefore that the line expresses an idea that fits the general connection and from

a point of view which was native to Shakespeare's mind; and it does it in words which are according to his usage in other places. With this explanation the passage should be as open to sense as any the commonest and plainest English that Shakespeare ever wrote.

THE NATURE OF CAPITAL

Captain. Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.

(Hamlet, iv, 4, 20)

The usual explanation of this line is that the second "five” is a mere repetition for the sake of emphasis. Editors generally, past and present, punctuate according to this interpretation.

But this is not the meaning. Shakespeare is here striking deeper into the nature of things. It is the very nature of money to have other money owing to it; first, the original amount invested, and then something over. When you take five ducats and put it into some enterprise, your capital has the same amount owing to it plus a profit. Your five ducats stand in your accounts as a sum of money to which an equal amount is owing on its own behalf together with something over for yourself. Therefore to make an investment with no result but to pay five ducats five would be the reductio absurdum of investment; it would be simply to take pains without profit. This then is what the line means and the way it should be printed — to pay five ducats five.

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