Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright Ben Jonson wrote in the preface to the famous First Folio collection of plays – published after Shakespeare’s death – that he was ‘not of an age, but for all time’.
And how right he was. Even now, 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, we’re watching his plays and using his words every day – often without realising. His characters and themes still resonate and we recognise that he was a master of spotlighting the human condition.
His plots – both comedies and tragedies – still inspire writers, film makers and artists. There have been many modern versions of his stories such as the 1957 Japanese classic Throne of Blood based on Macbeth and the 1953 musical Kiss Me Kate (loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew and, incidentally, advertised with a poster that would never get approved today showing Howard Keel spanking Kathryn Grayson). The novel A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley was based on King Lear while Romeo and Juliet has inspired dozens of adaptations including the 1961 musical West Side Story and the 2011 animated film Gnomeo and Juliet.
It’s not just his plots that have found their way into our lives; we also use his language. When you say something ‘sets your teeth on edge’, or that you can have ‘too much of a good thing’, you’re quoting Shakespeare. He also coined ‘the lady doth protest too much’ (Hamlet) and ‘foregone conclusion’ (Othello) as well as many, many others words and phrases that we use today.
It’s said that Shakespeare ‘invented’ hundreds of words and phrases but of course we have no way of knowing if they were in use when he was writing. What we do know is that his plays give us the first recorded use of many phrases, from ‘green eyed monster’ and ‘method in my madness’ to ‘it’s Greek to me’ and ‘the milk of human kindness’.
We can’t often pinpoint when a word or phrase was first used, but when Samuel Johnson published his famous English dictionary in 1755 he cited Shakespeare as the reference for many words.
Many people are a bit baffled when confronted with Shakespeare’s language for the first time. Seeing his plays on stage, rather than reading the scripts at school, and hearing the words spoken by good actors makes it all a lot clearer; even if you don’t understand every word, you get the gist. It’s a bit like listening to an opera in a foreign language: you’re not sure what it’s all about but it sounds beautiful and it’s blissful to let the sound wash over you, enjoying it for its own sake.
Ben Elton’s BBC comedy Upstart Crow has fun with Shakespeare’s use of language, with Will (David Mitchell) explaining that using elaborate phrasing is ‘his thing’. Reading plays by Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe shows that they used similar language – though perhaps without quite the same flair. And it’s that joyous use of words that is one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements.
By the time Shakespeare was writing, the Middle English of Chaucer had been replaced by Early Modern English, which is almost identical to the English we use now. Shakespeare wrote – and spoke we assume – in a language that was rapidly evolving, as indeed it still is. He took the relatively ‘new’ English and made it his own, clearly relishing alliteration, puns, bawdy jokes and anguished outpourings.
His legacy is unique; not just powerful plays and beautiful poems but a love of language; a sense of fun and inventiveness with words. Consider this corker of an insult from Henry IV Part 1
“Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!”
We may not be sure what a tallow-catch is (something to do with candles?) but it sounds wonderfully offensive and makes today’s oaths seem very colourless. And how about this explicit insult from All’s Well That Ends Well?
“Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.” I can think of someone I’d like to say that to.
We can learn many things from Shakespeare and for us, as writers and communicators, we can learn to allow ourselves to have fun with words. So let’s use them in interesting ways and never write a cliché – unless it’s one of Shakespeare’s of course.