William Shakespeare has had an incredible influence on not just English literature, but the English language in general. Also known as "the Bard of Avon," he is the author of many of the plays that most students in English-speaking countries study in school. Even people who have not read his works know some of Shakespeare's most famous lines.
In this article, we'll explain the appeal of Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in English history, and his impact on the English language.
Who is Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare was a poet, playwright, and actor born in England in 1564. He was active in the world of theater during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The Elizabethan period refers to the years 1558-1603, and the Jacobean period refers to the years 1603-1625.
Early in his career, he worked mostly in London. Two long poems he published there, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape Of Lucrece (1594), are said to have launched his career. Additionally, he was a founding member of the acting group the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and was a regular playwright for about 20 years, writing about two plays a year on average.
During his life, Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, two narrative poems and 154 sonnets, a special type of poem made of 14 lines. He is also said to have written over 150 other works of poetry.
Shakespeare's works are still studied and performed daily around the world. He has been called England's national poet and the greatest playwright of all time. So what is it about his work that makes him so admired?
Standardization of the English language
Shakespeare is said to be the man who standardized the English language. Before him, the rules of English were not very specific. Through his works, guidelines for grammar, spelling and vocabulary were gradually established and became common.
Impact on poetry and literature
Shakespeare's influence on poetry and literature has remained strong through the centuries. He is also considered the person who perfected the blank verse, a style of writing using 10 syllables per line, five stressed and five unstressed. It is estimated that about 75% of British English poetry is written in this style. Shakespeare, however, mostly used this technique in his plays.
English words and phrases created by Shakespeare
Shakespeare is said to have created about 1700 English words. In order to do this, he combined words, changed nouns into verbs, and added prefixes and suffixes to words that already existed. Let's take a quick look at what words and phrases we can thank Shakespeare for.
The word "bedroom" was first used by Shakespeare by combining the separate words "bed" and "room." At that time, bedrooms were called bed chambers or sleep spaces.
This is a word from the tragedy Troilus and Cressida. This first usage did not mean "stylish;" instead, it meant "matching popular trends of the time."
The word "gossip" was originally a noun only. It can be combined with "be," as in "to be a gossip," but Shakespeare shortened it to simply "to gossip," and so was the first to make it into a verb.
He also turned the adjective "lone," meaning "single" or "only," into the word we commonly use today to express sadness due to being alone.
The prefix un- means "not" and is used to indicate the opposite of the original word. So the opposite of dress (to wear) is undress (to take off).
Many phrases that are still in use today originated in Shakespeare's works. Some of these include:
The world is your oyster
The actual line is "Why, then the world's mine oyster," but the phrase has gradually changed and is now often heard in its shortened form. Another way to say this is "The possibilities are endless" or "The world is whatever you want it to be."
Break the ice
The word "icebreaker" was first used in the comedy The Taming of the Shrew, and since then has been used as a term for reducing tension in an uncomfortable situation.
A heart of gold
This idiom, meaning a kind and compassionate heart, first appeared in Shakespeare's historical play Henry V. It is now a well-known phrase and is often used in song titles and lyrics.
If you'd like to learn more about how Shakespeare was able to create so many words, we have a Daily News article all about it!
Four recommended titles
You have learned that Shakespeare produced many works during his lifetime. Let's look closer at four of them, along with their most famous lines!
Romeo and Juliet
Genre: romance, tragedy
Premiere date: 1594-1596
You have probably heard of this title at least once before, as it has been made into movies and musicals all over the world. It is the story of two young people from rival families who fall in love and try to stay together despite their difficult situation.
Here are some of the most memorable lines from Romeo and Juliet:
"Don't waste your love on somebody who doesn't value it."
In other words, you should only give your love to someone who will appreciate it.
"Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs."
"Fume" is another word for smoke, gas or steam. People often sigh when experiencing some kind of emotional pain or difficulty. This line suggests that love is not always a positive thing.
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
Genre: political drama, tragedy
Date of first public performance: 1599-1600
Have you ever heard the phrase "Et tu, Brute?" It's a famous line from Shakespeare's political play Julius Caesar, and is still used today as an expression referring to betrayal by someone you trusted.
Here are some other quotes from Julius Caesar:
"Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
An "underling" is a person with low rank who works for someone or something more powerful. The lesson is that we must think carefully about our own actions instead of blaming others for our situation.
"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones."
The word "oft" in this line is an old way of saying "often." This quote contains another life lesson: When a person dies, the bad things they did may be remembered more than the good things.
Premiere date: 1599-1601
Hamlet is one of the world's most famous revenge stories. It's about a Danish prince who struggles with both the death of his father and with his mother, who married his uncle and the next king, Claudius.
Hamlet has many great lines, such as:
"Give every man thy ear but few thy voice."
In modern English, this would be "Listen to many people, but speak to only a few." In other words, listening is often more important than talking.
"To be, or not to be. That is the question."
This line about life and death is not only the most famous line in Hamlet but also one of the most famous in all of Shakespeare's works. It is not unusual to hear it in movies and TV shows in modern times.
Premiere date: 1606-1607
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's four great tragedies, or dramatic plays with tragic stories, along with Hamlet, Othello and King Lear. It is the shortest of them all and is said to be the last one he wrote.
Let's take a look at some quotes from Macbeth.
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair."
The word "fair" has the connotation of beauty and goodness. "Foul," on the other hand, has a feeling of dirtiness or dishonesty. This line, then, expresses the idea of goodness and beauty in evil, and evil in goodness. It can also be understood as "What was beautiful once will one day become ugly."
"Things without all remedy should be without regard: what's done, is done."
"Remedy" is a word meaning "cure." Basically, the phrase means that there is no reason to think about something that is finished and cannot be changed. These days, it's often shortened to just "What's done is done."
We hope you have learned a little bit about the greatness of Shakespeare and why he is so respected, even many years after his death. Very few historical writers have created so much that is still so commonly used in modern times.
If this article has made you interested in learning more about Shakespeare, we have one more Daily News recommendation for you: "A Beginner's Guide to Shakespeare." There is so much more to learn, so we hope that you check it out!