Shakespeare’s English?

Sometimes people say annoying things like, ‘There’s no point in studying Shakespeare–it’s completely out of date and has nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century. It’s a relic, dead and dusty. It’s a waste of time.’

If you’ve been living on Mars for your whole life, you might not know this, but Shakespeare (Bill to his friends) lived from 1564 to 1616(ish). So yes, it was a long time ago. But I firmly believe his work is still relevant today.

Why? Well, many movies and books, and other creative arts continue to be based upon or inspired by the plays or poems of William Shakespeare. More than that, so many words he created are part of our everyday language. Although experts continue to disagree about just how many words he actually ‘invented’, whether it’s 1000 words and phrases, or 3000, (or whether all his plays were in fact, his plays), there is an even greater number of words and phrases that you and I use in our ordinary speech which were commonplace in those days but were not recorded in written English until Shakespeare first put them down on the parchment.

Not that Shakespeare was the first person to write in what we call ‘modern’ English–there were many writers in the  hundreds of years before who wrote in the English language: the language of the poor, and working classes, whilst the wealthy well-educated spoke Latin, then French. But I’d argue that Shakespeare was the first to really use the language in a vitally creative way, adapting it to his audience and the form he was writing in.

A quick comment: English is a relatively new language. It’s a mixed up thing, using elements from many other languages. Its words were ‘borrowed’ (but we won’t be giving them back, so it’s more like theft) from the Celts, the Romans, the Greeks, the Norse, Old German, Old French, Latin, Japanese, Yiddish, Native American languages, Chinese languages, Indian dialects, Arabic dialects, Dutch, Icelandic… or all of the above, English as a language is something living and breathing, it evolves, changes, it has trends, adaptations and corruptions. Igloo. Veranda. Wanderlust. Safari. Samovar. Loot. Cookie. Anonymous. Ketchup. Avatar. Telescope. Doppelganger. Genre. Cafe. Lingerie. Kindergarten. Rucksack. Glitz. Schmooze. Guerilla. Macho. Patio. Chocolate. Moccasin. Karaoke. Karate. Typhoon. Moped. Paparazzi. Siesta. Gherkin. Quartz. Horde. Schmuck. And many more…

You only have to compare Englishes around the world to see the changes that have occurred to the ‘common’ language. If it wasn’t so, you wouldn’t need dictionaries of American English and British English, to explain us to one another. Pants and pants. One is underwear, one is trousers (outer wear). And now, it’s a word meaning bad or terrible, as in: ‘My morning at work was completely pants.’

If someone said, ‘Yeah, baby, that’s out of this world, it’s fabulous, man,’ you’d know they were giving you a crash course in 1960s idioms. Once upon a time, if we were satisfied with the way things were, we said things were cool. Then we started saying people should chill out. How quickly words are assimilated into our language these days. They are often not new words at all, but simply known, ordinary words being applied in a new way. Which brings me back to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a genius at taking words we already used and using them in a new context. For example, he often used nouns as verbs. These conjured up vivid mental images, making his plays, for example, colourful and immediate. In a play, already heavily leaning on words for context and meaning, to use words in different way was to bring the spoken word to life.

Here’s a little list of words and phrases, either new or adapted, that can be found in Shakespeare’s work:

Bandit (Henry VI, Part 2)

Critic (Love’s Labour Lost)

Dauntless (Henry VI, Part 3. 1616)

Dwindle (Henry IV, Part 1)

Elbow (the noun used as a verb, King Lear)

Friend (the noun used as a verb, Hamlet)

Green-Eyed (The Merchant of Venice) to describe jealousy; previously or commonly, jealousy was considered to be orange! (Much Ado About Nothing: ‘The Count is neither sad nor sick, nor merry, nor well;/But civil Count–civil (play on the word Seville) as an orange,/And something of that jealous complexion.)

Lacklustre (As You Like It)

Lonely (Coriolanus)

Skim-milk (Henry IV, Part 1)

Swagger (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Unaware (poem: Venus & Adonis)

Uncomfortable (Romeo & Juliet)

Undress (Taming of the Shrew)

Unearthly (A Winter’s Tale)

Unreal (Macbeth.)

 

Maybe it’s time to bring a bit more Shakespeare back into our everyday language? There is nothing the Bard did so well as a good insult. Try these out at the pub:

Villain, I have done thy mother (sounds surprisingly modern – and completely validates my point!)

Thou Painted Maypole (for a tall woman)

Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish

Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon

Poisonous bunch-backed toad

I am sick when I do look on thee

The tartness of his face sours grapes

I was searching for a fool when I found you (my favourite!)

I do desire we may be better strangers

He has not so much brain as ear-wax.

You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness

Her face is not worth sunburning

Thou hateful wither’d hag!

Thou art unfit for any place but hell

Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain

You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard (Of which I think we can all agree, the best response is, ‘What?’)

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