Around 23 April 1564, a great mind was born in a small English market town. Such an immortal mind was baptised 26 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. With inauspicious beginnings as the third of six children born, first to survive infancy, to a leather merchant and landed heiress, William Shakespeare would go on to lead the life of an intellectual lion, whose roar can still be heard throughout the world today.
Cobbe portrait purported to be of William Shakespeare, c. 1610
Shakespeare’s first poems, “The Rape of Lucrece” and “Venus and Adonis” were dedicated to his patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, in the early 1590s. Beginning around 1594, Shakespeare joined a theatrical company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with the name changing to the King’s Men upon the accession of James I and VI in 1603. Shakespeare is credited with writing in excess of 154 sonnets and 37 plays.
What made him such an enduring figure? As one peruses any of Shakespeare’s plays, it becomes apparent that not only was he a wordsmith with the ability to color a scene with an actor’s speech, but also that he was a bit of a philosopher and psychologist. Britain’s Man of the Millennium had a profound effect on the English language, too.
Growing up, Shakespeare was exposed to the distinct dialects of the different classes as his father rose from the position of a leather merchant to high bailiff, and then Shakespeare’s own scaling of the social ladder. As a playwright, he used words from his personal lexicon that Shakespeare picked up throughout life. It is thought that Shakespeare may have contributed upwards of 12,000 words to the English language!
Shakespeare’s word choices allowed him to convey ideas more easily to the lower-classes that came to see his shows, which helped spread his popularity and influence. In Shakespeare’s day, English was not the language taught in schools; Latin was still the scholarly language. English, the language of common people, was ready to develop. Purposefully or not, that is just what Shakespeare did, and he has become immortal in his own way because of it.
Shakespeare created word couplings commonly used today, such as “house and home” or “law and order.” Such couplings, along with words created by Shakespeare, helped fill in linguistic gaps between scholarly Latin rhetoric and common English. His influence is frequently seen today through cliché turns of phrase, too. Though often misquoted, as in the title of this brief article, but his great wit and imagination contributed inspiration and sayings to English which are still motivational and comical today.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlngs.”
- Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141
On this 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, let us all take a moment to carefully think about the faults in ourselves, then thoughtfully choose our words such that we may shape our destinies, as Shakespeare may have done.
Sources & Suggested Reading
- Wong, Cathy. A Man of Many Words. https://cogito.cty.jhu.edu/17986/a-man-of-many-words/ Published 5 August 2010. Retrieved 17 April 2016.
- William Shakespeare, 1564-1616. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-shakespeare Retrieved 17 April 2016.
- Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141.
- Shakespeare’s Life. Folger Shakespeare Library. http://www.folger.edu/shakespeares-life Retrieved 17 April 2016.