I’m reading Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare which is typical Bill Bryson and full of fascinating facts put together in an entertaining way. What is amazing for me is how much influence Shakespeare has had on the English language. I did not know this but around 10% of all quotes in circulation today are from him. This is remarkable given he lived more than 400 years ago. We have all quoted Shakespeare, probably without even realising it. Indeed some of his phrases are so common they are clichés now. Shakespeare created all of the following:
one fell swoop
vanish into thin air
play fast and loose
be in a pickle
budge an inch
to thine own self be true
flesh and blood
tower of strength
be cruel to be kind
with bated breath
pomp and circumstance
All that glisters is not gold
He raised the profile of the English language. In 1605 the Bodleian Library in Oxford had almost 6,000 books but only 36 of those were written in English. All the rest were in Latin. English wasn’t regarded as a serious language by academics. But Shakespeare is partly responsible for changing this and while his birth is recorded in Latin, his death was noted in English, no doubt in large part to him.
He created a lot of new words – or at least, their very first recorded use is in his work. All of the following are his:
abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany.
Imagine English without excellent or frugal or well-read. As Bryson points out, most authors today would be honoured to have one word they created become common parlance but Shakespeare has hundreds.
Shakespeare made a lot of factual errors. For instance, in the Tempest he had Prospero set sail from Milan which is not by the sea and in Julius Caesar he has mechanical clocks in Rome fourteen hundred years before their invention. But he had a way with words like no other and he was original. His characters use the word love 2,259 times but hate only 183 times. He gave us 37 plays (probably more if we count lost plays), 31,959 speeches, and 884,647 words. He could peg words together in a way that made them beautiful and meaningful in their own right, separately of the story. Like, Give sorrow words or Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day or This above all: to thine ownself be true.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
– Polonius in Hamlet