8 – He provided more phrases to the English language than any other writer
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
As quotes go, the famous one from Romeo and Juliet that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – “not if you call them stench blossoms”, says every Simpsons fan reading this – is an apt one with which to begin a discussion of Shakespeare. As befitting a man who did not come from the English establishment of the time, Shakespeare was never bound by the idea of one English language, one accepted canon of words to be used or even one way of spelling.
Incidentally, William Shakespeare is simply the name that we’ve decided that Shakespeare was called, as he himself regularly spelled it differently, often to the point of abstraction at which it is unclear whether Shakespeare even was a name that he always used. Shakespeare is simply the most common way of spelling it. That little aside might give a small insight into the raggedy state of the English language in Tudor times. There was no common spelling of anything, most people couldn’t read at all and books were a thing that only the very, very wealthy could afford. The effect of his plays on the English language was profound: it is estimated that over 2,000 words entered the English language via Shakespeare, plenty of which remain to this day. If you’ve ever been green with envy, embarked on a wild goose chase, found yourself in a pickle, waited with baited breath, indulged in gossip, made the world your oyster, had a heart of gold or been bedazzled or sanctimonious, then you’ve been quoting Shakespeare. He really was the be-all and end-all of English language first use, and yes, “the be-all and end-all” is also from Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was perfectly placed to have this happen to him. During the period in which he was writing, the sale of books exploded and his folios were always among the bestsellers, while he had the ideal way of construing meaning to words, as by the very nature of plays, they were always accompanied by context and actions. Even if the audience didn’t know the word – which given that Shakespeare stole from other languages, turned nouns into verbs and flat out made stuff up, they might be excused for not knowing them – then they could still derive the meaning of it from other factors. And once the word had a known meaning, then people would use it, further perpetuating the word itself.
It must be said that the 2,000 words of Shakespearean origin might be a little generous: his work is the first usage source of an estimated 2,000, however that isn’t to say that they were coined by Shakespeare, just that he was the earliest person to use them in print. Given the paucity of printed books that remain from the Tudor period, they may well have been known before and in fact, that 2,000 was once above 3,200, only for older sources to be found.
His influence on the English language might well be best attributed to his popularity with the average person. More of his plays were published than almost anyone else’s, and more people were familiar with his works, so when the first dictionaries were written, Shakespeare’s words were the most used as examples. If anything, the enduring effect of Shakespeare on the English language might have been decided some 200 years after his death, when Samuel Johnson sat down to write the first dictionary, rather than at any point in his own lifetime. That said, Shakespeare’s total literary output runs to over 17,000 individual words, significantly more than anyone else and well more than other widely read books such as the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, one of the longest contemporary poems.
His society was almost completely illiterate – when the English Civil War broke out, 20 years after Shakespeare’s death, only 30% of the wealthy, educated men who were in the English Parliament could sign their own names, so imagine what that says about everyone else – but it was about to explode. More people learned to read in English in the two hundred years after his death than had ever read before, and the most popular writer of the age was Shakespeare. The printing press, the Protestant Reformation (which encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves) and the growth of merchant trade encouraged people to learn to read like never before.
Reading is one thing, of course, but it cannot be overstated how much Shakespeare’s English was written to be performed and not read. Which makes it so strange, then, that the vast majority of Shakespeare that we see today is performed incorrectly…