#Shakespeare400 – William Shakespeare, Exalted Wordsmith Extraordinaire…🎭✒📖

“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.

Shakespeare's birthplace in Henley Street

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street

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’.

The Tempest by William Hogarth c. 1735

The Tempest by William Hogarth c. 1735

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.

Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence by karl Ludwig Friedrich Becker

Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence by karl Ludwig Friedrich Becker

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.

Play Scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise

Play Scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise

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's bust at the Birthplace House

Shakespeare’s bust at the Birthplace House

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.

Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona c. 1789

Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona c. 1789

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!

My treasured copy of the RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

My treasured copy of the RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

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.

Duke Orsino:

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

The Special and Noble Tradition of Being a Bard (Part 1)

“The appropriate business of Poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as permanent as pure science), her privilege and duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions.” ~ William Wordsworth

There will be plenty of bardolatry in these two posts, to quote the rather satirical term coined by George Bernard Shaw in his fervent appreciation of Shakespeare. When I think of ‘The Bard’, of course it is always Shakespeare that immediately springs to mind. With the 400th anniversary of his death approaching and his incredible legacy of literature, he is rightly referred to as ‘The Bard of Avon’.

William Shakespeare - The 'Chandos' portrait, artist unknown

William Shakespeare – The ‘Chandos’ portrait, artist unknown

Another more recent ‘Bard’ is Rabindranath Tagore, who was known by the sobriquet ‘The Bard of Bengal’.

But, strictly speaking, what is a ‘Bard’?

A ‘Bard’ has its roots in ancient Celtic, Welsh, Scottish and Irish culture, referring to one who had the innate skill of storytelling, composition of verse and poetry and or being a musician and singer, usually employed by a monarch or noble patron. Bards shaped our culture and ensured that our stories (and the wisdom contained within them), was passed on to future generations.

The Bard before the Royal Family by Anton Huxoll

The Bard before the Royal Family by Anton Huxoll

The meaning and influence of bardic tradition has evolved over the centuries to the more romantic understanding that is defined so perfectly in our modern world by the writings of William Shakespeare.

Interestingly, works of art work portraying bards tend to depict elderly men with windswept white hair playing a harp or grasping a tome, set against the backdrop of epic scenery.

The Bard by Benjamin West

The Bard by Benjamin West

It awakens quite a primordial longing to be at one with nature, be of service to the community and also kinship with fellow man. For me, there seems to be a very close connection with the wilderness, which, in ancient times would have been the case.

The Bard by John Martin c. 1817

The Bard by John Martin c. 1817

I’d like to start way back before Shakespeare though, with a poet I’d not heard of before, who hailed from Dark Ages Wales – Taliesin.

The Bard by Thomas Jones

The Bard by Thomas Jones

The Tale of Taliesin

Thanks to my good friend, fellow musician, writer and sound therapist, Laurelle Rond, I recently learned of the mythic Celtic folklore that surrounds the birth of Taliesin, a 6th century Welsh Bard.

He was a revered poet of the post-Roman period whose work seems to have survived in a Middle Welsh manuscript, known as the Book of Taliesin. Taliesin is believed to have sung at the courts of at least three Celtic British kings.

His name, spelt Taliessin in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and in some subsequent works, means ‘shining brow’ in Middle Welsh. In legend and medieval Welsh poetry, he is often referred to as Taliesin Ben Beirdd (‘Taliesin, Chief of Bards’ or chief of poets). According to legend Taliesin was adopted as a child by Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, and prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd from the Yellow Plague. In later stories he became a mythic hero, companion of Bran the Blessed and King Arthur.

Here is the mythological Tale of Taliesin, as told by Peter Freeman:

At its heart the Tale of Taliesin is a story of rebirth. It is layered with symbolism and meaning on many levels, but for me, the ultimate message of the myth is that spiritual struggle, suffering and cleansing can transform us, at which point we are reborn with inner vision, as Taliesin, the Bard.

Ceridwen, the queen and a Goddess herself, cannot bear to look upon her ugly son Morfran, who represents the shadow side of human nature; the dark side of ourselves that we don’t want to see and find hard to look at.

Gwion, Morda and Ceridwen attending to the cauldron - Taliesin

Gwion, Morda and Ceridwen attending to the cauldron – Taliesin

Gwion Bach, the young boy who is tasked with guarding the magic elixir, but who consumes the three drops of inspiration to avoid a burn when the potion is accidentally spilt on his hand, ignites her wrath and the shape-shifting chase begins. The chase is akin to the vicissitudes of everyday life, the ebb and flow of our fortunes, whereby we have to take different forms (personality traits and strengths), in order to run with our challenges.

Eventually we are empowered and born with the gift of intuition, poetry, music, wisdom and a willingness to be of service to others.

This tale has inspired composers, musicians, singers and songwriters alike, and I was delighted to find this evocative concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra by Martin Romberg, with Anja Bachmann as the soloist:

Song by Damh The Bard – Ceridwen and Taliesin:


It will soon be 400 years since William Shakespeare shuffled off his mortal coil on 23rd April 1616, and with iconic titles such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello and Macbeth to his quill it’s no wonder that his name will never be erased from the great canon of English literature. His works are  as relevant and loved today they were in Elizabethan times. Talk about staying power!

Trends and ‘celebrity’ status are transient, but true genius is enduring. No-one created characters like Shakespeare…

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare

Historically, poets had glorified God, but our William had other ideas.  His muse was free and he did not censor her. Imagination was the foundation for his art. He wrote plays about love, hate, jealousy, ambition, power, greed, potions, witches, kings, queens, noblemen and women, fairies and everyday people. He needed to entertain the people so that he could make a living and support his young family back in Stratford.

However, in 1593, in the wake of the dreaded plague the theatres were closed and so ‘The Bard’ turned to poetry. His first poem was Venus and Adonis.

In the midst of the religious turmoil of the Tudor period, Shakespeare’s own distant cousin, Robert Southwell, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He had sent his cousin W.S. a letter on the duty of poets, which was given to Queen Elizabeth I on the evening after his execution.

In 1594 under the patronage of Lord Hunston William formed a company of actors, mainly with his long-time friends, John Heminges, Henry Condell, William Sly, Augustine Phillips and Richard Burbage, who played many of his most memorable roles.

Shakespeare and his Contemporaries at The Mermaid Tavern by John Faed.

Shakespeare and his Contemporaries at The Mermaid Tavern by John Faed.

Sadly, William and Anne’s only son, Hamnet, died at the tender age of 11, so he was no stranger to heartache. It is thought that Sonnet 33 with its poignant verses could be describing Shakespeare’s grief, or potentially his despair at the rift in his relationship with the Earl of Southampton:

Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen

Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,

Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride

With ugly rack on his celestial face,

And from the forlorn world his visage hide,

Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine

With all triumphant splendour on my brow;

But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,

The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;

Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

In part 2 we’ll hear more from the ‘Bard of Bengal’ and the ‘Bard of Avon’, as well as some other much loved poets that have graced our lives since then.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore