What is all the fuss about Shakespeare? Why do pupils have to endure the drudgery of toilsome lessons on the Bard? Surely more recent writers would perhaps have an endearing charm that resonates with students and teachers? These are questions that are often asked. My aim here is to offer some answers to these perennial questions to not only illustrate the importance of Shakespeare, but more importantly, why.
The influence of Shakespeare is one that has surpassed all other literary figures – in any country. It is an influence that extends far beyond the British Isles; and has done so over a period that has lasted for more than four hundred years. This influence, moreover, far exceeds the influence of any other single person – literary or otherwise – including politicians and philosophers of the era.
Why is this the case? Gundry (1946) in his booklet entitled Was Shakespeare Educated? offers some light in this regard:
‘Although this outstanding genius is England’s son, he is now looked upon as belonging not only to one country but to all mankind. The Shakespeare plays are translated into every important language and each succeeding year sees an increase in the number of editions.
The literature inspired by Shakespeare’s dramatic works is enormous, ranging from the critical writings of Coleridge, Hazlitt, Schegel, Lessing, Goethe, Gervinus, Ulrici, Heine, Guizot, Victor Hugo, to hundreds of less known writers.
Whole galleries of paintings by eminent artists, such as Holman, Hunt, Millais, Maclise, Landseer, Corot, Delacroix, Fuseli and Retsch reflect his art.
His influence on music has been quite as striking. To Romeo and Juliet we owe Tchaikovsky’s concert overture of that name. To Macbeth we owe the music of Bantock and Mathew Locke and the tone-poem by Strauss, and also Greig’s Watchman’s Song, which was inspired by witnessing a performance of that play. ‘Gundry, W.C.C (1946). Was Shakespeare Educated? . Lapworth & Co Ltd.
The vocabulary used by Shakespeare in his plays and poems is estimated to be more than 20,000 words. Consider this against the background that the next writer with the largest vocabulary is John Milton who is estimated to have a vocabulary range of around 8000 words, while a university-educated person is between three and four thousand words and the average non-university-educated person’s vocabulary is less than a thousand words.
We can get an idea of his contribution to the English language by listing some of the words that he invented – which are estimated to be more than 1,700:
Alligator: (n) a large, carnivorous reptile closely related to the crocodile
Romeo and Juliet, Act 5 Scene 1
Bedroom: (n) a room for sleeping; furnished with a bed
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 Scene 2
Critic: (n) one who judges merit or expresses a reasoned opinion
Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 3 Scene 1
Downstairs: (adv) on a lower floor; down the steps
Henry IV Part 1, Act 2 Scene 4
Eyeball: (n) the round part of the eye; organ for vision
Henry VI Part 1, Act 4 Scene 7
Fashionable: (adj) stylish; characteristic of a particular period
Troilus and Cressida, Act 3 Scene 3
Gossip: (v) to talk casually, usually about others
The Comedy of Errors, Act 5 Scene 1
Hurry: (v) to act or move quickly
The Comedy of Errors, Act 5 Scene 1
Inaudible: (adj) not heard; unable to be heard
All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 5 Scene 3
Jaded: (adj) worn out; bored or past feeling
Henry VI Part 2, Act 4 Scene 1
Kissing: (ppl adj) touching with the lips; exchanging kisses
Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5 Scene 2
Lonely: (adj) feeling sad due to lack of companionship
Coriolanus, Act 4 Scene 1
Manager: (n) one who controls or administers; person in charge
Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 1 Scene 2
Nervy: (adj) sinewy or strong; bold; easily agitated
Coriolanus, Act 2 Scene 1
Obscene: (adj) repulsive or disgusting; offensive to one’s morality
Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 1 Scene 1
Puppy dog: (n) a young, domestic dog
King John, Act 2 Scene 1
Questioning: (n) the act of inquiring or interrogating
As You Like It, Act 5 Scene 4
Rant: (v) to speak at length in inflated or extravagant language
Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 1
Skim milk: (n) milk with its cream removed
Henry IV Part 1, Act 2 Scene 3
Traditional: (adj) conventional; long-established, bound by tradition
Richard III, Act 3 Scene 1
Undress: (v) to remove clothes or other covering
The Taming of the Shrew, Induction Scene 2
Varied: (adj) incorporating different types or kinds; diverse
Titus Andronicus, Act 3 Scene 1
Worthless: (adj) having no value or merit; contemptible
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 4 Scene 2
Xantippe: (n) shrewish wife of Socrates; figuratively, a bad-tempered woman
The Taming of the Shrew, Act 1 Scene 2
Yelping: (adj) uttering sharp, high-pitched cries
Henry VI Part 1, Act 4 Scene 2
Zany: (n) clown’s assistant; performer who mimics another’s antics
Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5 Scene 2
Indeed, some of the words he invented beginning with the first letter of the alphabet include:
abstemious, academe, accessible, accommodation, accused, addiction, admirable, aerial, airless, assassination and auspicious.
And this is just the letter ‘A’, more could be said about the other letters of the alphabet.
To illustrate this further, this quote by a well-known journalist of his time, the late Bernard Levin, which appeared in the Times, sums up well just one aspect of Shakespeare’s writings:
‘If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare.
If you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare.
If you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare.
If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, and if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare.
If you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift or cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare.
If you think it is early days and you clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if, at one fell swoop, you have your teeth set on edge without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known, you are, if you have a tongue in your head, quoting Shakespeare.
Even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was as dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-heartened villain, bloody-minded or a blinkin’ idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts- it is all one to me, …for you are quoting Shakespeare.’
Indeed, it is difficult to grasp the extent of Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language until it has, so to speak, soaked up our brains.