April 2014 marks the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Not only was Shakespeare one of the most prolific writers ever known, but he also, without question, left an extraordinary linguistic legacy through his literary achievements. The author of 38 plays and 154 sonnets, the man we call the Bard remains one of the world’s best-loved playwrights and poets.
His plays, in particular, remain popular with theater groups around the world and are forever being performed and with different interpretations. His poetry is also highly influential; both act as a significant part of our education, in particular for those studying English literature. His greatest legacy, however, was to the English language. In his day, English grammar, spelling and pronunciation were less standardized than they are now, and his use of language has helped to shape modern English. Indeed, Samuel Johnson quoted him more often than any other author in his A Dictionary of the English Language, the first serious work of its type.
Many English words and phrases were either popularized by or originated with Shakespeare. The former are what I would call attestations. For example, alligator appeared in print for the first time as an English word in Romeo and Juliet, but it has Spanish antecedents. Likewise, puke appears as a vulgar term for vomiting in As You Like It, but it appears to have been well known.
Shakespeare’s original phrases have likewise become etched into our daily conversations, and are often familiar enough to be thought of as common expressions and proverbs, even to the point of having become clichés. For business deals, whether it is a case of “neither a borrower nor a lender be” (Hamlet), “make short shrift” (Richard III) or “too much of a good thing” (As You Like It), Shakespeare certainly had a commercial common sense lacking in some modern day practitioners.
For our day-to-day lives, we have “elbow room” from King John, the coined word watchdog from The Tempest, as well as critic from Love’s Labour’s Lost, based on the Ancient Greek word for judge. We have compromising from The Merchant of Venice, based on the late Latin word for a mutual promise, the “spotless reputation” from Richard II and castigating from Timon of Athens, based on the Latin word for pure. The opposite of hearten, a word already at the time of Shakespeare’s writing, dishearten, was most pertinently first employed in print by the eponymous king in Henry V, who didn’t allow insurmountable odds at the Battle of Agincourt to get him down.
And who could forget the classics such as the “sound and fury” from Macbeth, the reference to a person’s “own flesh and blood” from Hamlet and the “pomp and circumstance” from Othello? And the list goes on. We have the now-trite “naked truth” (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and “tower of strength” (Richard III). We still hear the phrase “hoist with his own petard” — in other words, injured by the device that you intended to harm another — from Hamlet, which otherwise would probably no longer make much sense to us. Unsurprisingly for a great writer of romance, there are quite a few heart-based proverbial phrases originating with Shakespeare: “heart of gold” (Henry V); “in my heart of hearts” (Hamlet); “wear my heart upon my sleeve” (Othello); “sick at heart” (Hamlet); and “faint hearted” (Henry VI part 1).
Perhaps we would do well to put life in perspective, as Shakespeare does with his comedies, and remember that all is laughable (The Merchant of Venice). To “break the ice” (The Taming of the Shrew), some choose to be zany (Love’s Labour’s Lost), to make someone a “laughing stock” (The Merry Wives of Windsor), perhaps even by telling cheesy jokes that begin with “knock knock! Who’s there?” (Macbeth)