“Shakespeare’s language has a quality difficult to define, of memorability that has caused many phrases to enter the common language.” ~ Stanley Wells
Four hundred years ago today, our greatest playwright, poet and actor passed away at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon at the age of fifty two.
It’s a miracle Shakespeare made it that far, in a time when the plague wiped out huge numbers of the Tudor population, especially in infancy and youth, and if that didn’t get you there was malnutrition, starvation, murder, or being executed for saying or writing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
He is long gone, but far from being forgotten…
I was surprised to learn that Shakespeare wasn’t as learned as I first assumed, especially not when compared with Ben Johnson, his friend and contemporary; an intellectual poet, playwright and dramatist who had been influenced by Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius. Although an ardent fan of Shakespeare, author Bill Bryson describes Johnson as a man ‘whose learning hangs like bunting on every word’.
There are errors in Shakespeare’s plays that seem inconsequential in the face of his fame; such as placing a sailmaker in Bergamo (a land locked city it Italy) in The Taming of the Shew, while having Prospero and Valentine set sail respectively from Milan and Verona in The Tempest and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He indicated no knowledge of Venice consisting of canals, and he introduced the clock to Caesar’s Rome fourteen hundred years before the first mechanical ticking was invented.
He was a master at manipulating the facts to suit his plots. One such example is in Part 1 of Henry VI, where Lord Talbot pre-deceases Joan of Arc instead of facing her in battle at Orleans.
Where Shakespeare did excel, to a large extent, was by taking existing plays, plots and poems and reworking them to be more engaging and memorable; imbuing them with his own brand of greatness.
It appears that he wasn’t scrupulous about what, where and how he sourced his ideas. This ‘borrowing’ of material was common practice to all Elizabethan playwrights, and it’s probably just as well for us that ‘intellectual property’ hadn’t yet been invented, and even the plays of the day often went without attribution.
It’s suspected that the first version of Hamlet that pre-dates Shakespeare was by Thomas Kyd, but it has been lost and no-one knows how similar or different the two versions are.
Other plays by Shakespeare that were based on earlier works include: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. So, even though he was, and still is, rightly considered England’s undisputed literary genius, he wasn’t without flaws.
There’s hope for the rest of us folks!
Master of language
Shakespeare assimilated the knowledge he needed and integrated it with the human condition, which he did have a vast knowledge of (vast being one of his words incidentally), so even though he didn’t necessarily have all the facts right, nobody could hold a candle to him when it came to emotions; to ambition, intrigue, love and suffering. Those universal conditions he portrayed with deft understanding and imagination.
He was an innovator who used the power of words and language to its maximum advantage. The English language was undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in the 16th century, when around 12,000 new words entered the language between 1500 and 1650, with approximately half of them still in use today. Many of the old words were also employed in a new contextual and linguistic framework.
A breath of fresh literary air…
We think of Shakespeare’s language as being old fashioned, but in his day he mostly opted for the more modern, newer word. He never used seeth, but preferred sees, and used spoke rather than spake, cleft to clave, and goes to goeth. However, he did have his idiosyncracies, and for the most part employed thou in preference to you.
Shakespeare inventively created expressions that had no usage in grammar beforehand, such as ‘breathing one’s last’ and ‘backing a horse’ and over the span of his career is credited with the first recorded use of 2,035 words.
Included in some of these words are: abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany and countless others (including countless)!
Shakespeare also pioneered use of the prefix un- to some 309 existing words to give them new meaning, such as: unmask, unhand, unlock, untie and unveil.
He was a wordsmith of unfaltering exuberance and fecundity, introducing a torrent of new words and phrases into common usage: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, to thine own self be true, flesh and blood, foul play, be cruel to be kind, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance – and many others, which have become so deliciously irresistible and a staple of our language diet.
There are even two in one line from Hamlet:
Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.
Using the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a guide, Shakespeare contributed around one-tenth of all the most quotable phrases ever uttered in the written English language. Quite a feat!
In an age when Latin was the prevailing scholarly and published language , (out of 6,000 books contained in the Bodleian Library in 1605, only 36 of these were in English), Shakespeare and his contemporaries can be credited with increasing the availability of English in its country of origin and eroding the Latin trend.
Stanley Wells stated, ‘It is telling that William Shakespeare’s birth is recorded in Latin but that he dies in English, as “William Shakespeare, gentleman”.’
Here is an interesting and humorous lecture given by the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells, on Sex and Love in Verona, Venice and Vienna:
The First Folios
The main reason Shakespeare continues to entertain us today is down to the publication of his plays in 1623, seven years after his death. These ‘first folios’ were given the title: Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies and had 630 pages. It is thought that around 750 editions were originally printed, but only 233 remain in existence today. However, recently a first folio was discovered on the Isle of Bute.
From The British Library:
He wrote around 37 plays, 36 of which are contained in the First Folio. Most of these plays were performed in the Globe, an open-air playhouse in London built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599. As none of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts survive (except, possibly, Sir Thomas More, which Shakespeare is believed to have revised a part of) we only know his work from printed editions.
Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 17 were printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime in various good and bad quarto editions, one was printed after his death and 18 had not yet been printed at all. It is this fact that makes the First Folio so important; without it, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, might never have survived.
The text was collated by two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. They divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, an editorial decision that has come to shape our idea of the Shakespearean canon.
In order to produce as authoritative a text as possible, Heminge and Condell compiled it from the good quartos and from manuscripts (now lost) such as prompt books, authorial fair copy, and foul papers (working drafts). The First Folio offered a corrective to what are now called bad quartos – spurious and corrupt pirate editions, likely based on memorial reconstruction.
The portrait of Shakespeare on the title page was engraved by Martin Droeshout and is one of only two portraits with any claim to authenticity. As Droeshout would have only been 15 when Shakespeare died it is unlikely that they actually met. Instead his picture was probably drawn from the memory of others, or from an earlier portrait. The writer Ben Jonson’s admiring introduction to the First Folio, seen in the title page image, declared in verse that the engraver had achieved a good likeness.
A wonderful talk from Dr. Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada, about the project of locating and cataloguing the First Folios, based on the locations discovered by Anthony James West over fifteen years:
When I visited Stratford in 2014 I purchased his revised edition of the RSC ‘s Complete Works that he co-edited with Jonathon Bate, complete with the yellow cover he jokes about!
Shakespeare’s plays were made up of about seventy percent Blank Verse, five percent rhymed verse and twenty five percent prose. His vocabulary ran to about 20,000 words (more like 30-50K if you include variants of words), and boy did he work magic with those words…
He illuminated the workings of the soul in a way that very few have been able to do before or since.
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3