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How Shakespeare Changed the English Language

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    William Shakespeare was born/baptized on April 26th 1564 and died on April 23rd 1616. He was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon”. His surviving works consist of about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. He managed to capture every facet of the human experience: its darkest perversions, its most glorious triumphs, and all the laughs, tears, and dirty jokes in between. Thomas Carlyle, a critic that today would be the least favored of Shakespeare said, “If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all under that. There are great poets of shocking conceptual originality, like Blake and Emily Dickenson. But no Western writer, or any Eastern author I am able to read, is equal to Shakespeare as an intellect.” (Bloom)

    Shakespeare’s influence on the English language extends from theatre and literature to even being used today whether we are studying, performing, or making movies of his works. Shakespeare transformed European theatre by expanding expectations about what could be accomplished through characterization, plot, language, and genre. Shakespeare’s writings influenced language during the Elizabethan time and have also influenced a large number of novelists and poets over the years. He was the first to use over 2,000 new words, created and used blank verse, and introduced new poetry structure. There are even studies that reading and studying Shakespeare can actually increase intelligence. Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in the history of the English-speaking world and many of his quotations and vocabulary have passed into everyday usage in English and other languages. (“William Shakespeare: Biography) (“Shakespeare: The invention of the Human”)

    During Shakespeare’s time, Early Modern English was very unfixed in structure and vocabulary compared to other languages such as Greek and Latin. When Shakespeare began to write his plays the English language was absorbing words from other languages because of wars, exploration, diplomacy, and colonization. The grammar and rules of English were not standardized. Before Shakespeare had arrived to London, there was very little hope for the future of the English language. By the age of Elizabeth, English had become widely used with the expansion of theology, philosophy, and physical sciences, but because the vocabulary was only about 1,000 words, writers did not have the vocabulary to express their thoughts and ideas. So other writers including Shakespeare had to express their ideas by adopting a new word from another language, often from French but especially from Latin, or one that appeared in both. Between the years 1500 and 1659 there is an estimate that between nouns, verbs, modifiers of Latin, Greek, and modern Romance languages that 30,000 new words were added to the English language. Once Shakespeare’s plays became popular they helped contribute to the standardization of the English language and his words and phrases became embedded in the language. (“A History of English Literature”, Fletcher) (“A Companion to the History of the English Language”, Matto, Riley)

    Shakespeare transformed English theatre by expanding expectations about what could be accomplished through characterization, plot, language, and genre. Shakespeare’s characters and play portrayed a wide variety of emotions. In plays like Hamlet, Shakespeare integrated characterization with plot. He also mixed tragedy and comedy together to create a new romantic tragedy genre. Through his soliloquies he showed how plays could explore a character’s inner motivations and conflicts. The characters in his plays portray a large variety of emotions. Though he borrowed ideas for his plays from popular sources such as history or fold traditions his closeness to human nature made him great and his closeness with popular thinking gave vitality to his language. He represented the English people as actual people rather than just as puppets. Shakespeare united the three main streams of literature; verse, poetry, and drama. Through all of these things he completely changed the language giving it the highest expressions, structure, and intensity. He saved the language from vagueness and gave it vividness. His work in poetry and drama marked the beginning of modernizations of the English language by his introduction of words and expressions, style and form to the language. (“A philosophical analysis and illustration of some of Shakespeare’s remarkable characters” Richardson)

    Shakespeare contributed so much to the English language. One of his greatest contributions was the new vocabulary and phrases that have enriched the English language and along with many of his original phrases are still used today. In all of his work he uses 17,677 words. He was the first to use 1,700 those words. He is known for creating words by borrowing from literature and languages. He created the words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs to adjectives, connecting words that had never been used together, and adding prefixes and suffixes. He also helped to further develop style and structure to a loose and spontaneous language. The Elizabethan era language was written the same way it was spoken. The naturalness gave freedom since there was no formalized grammar binding what they were saying but the lack of prescribed grammatical rules brought vagueness in literature but at the same time also expressed feelings with profound vividness and emotion which created freedom of expression.

    Shakespeare’s influence involved using the life of the language and decasyllabic structure in his work. Putting the language together with structure produced a unique combination that is Shakespeare. (“Words Used by Shakespeare”, Shirly, Phoebe) (William Shakespeare: Biography) (“A History of English Literature, Fletcher) Shakespeare’s blank verse is one of the most important of all his influences on the way the English language was written. In his early works you can see that Shakespeare is still learning from his mistakes. Through experimentation of tri-syllabic substitution and decasyllabic rule he developed the blank verse to perfection and introduced a new style. His adaptation of free speech rhythm to the fixed blank-verse framework is an outstanding feature of his poetry. (“Words Used by Shakespeare”, Shirly, Phoebe) He introduced in poetry two main factors, verbal immediacy and the moulding of stress to the movement of living emotion. “When my love swears that she is made of truth,

    I do believe her, though I know she lies.” —(Sonnet CXXXVIII) In the sonnet above, he has expressed in very simple words “complex and even contradictory attitudes to a single emotion. (“Words Used by Shakespeare”, Shirly, Phoebe)

    Shakespeare has been an influence in so many areas of theatre and literature but he has also been a major influence on many big novelists in European and American literature. For example Charles Dickens uses many of Shakespeare’s quotations throughout his writings and many of his titles have come from Shakespeare. Herman Melvillie used of Shakespeare’s devices and used formal stage directions. He influenced Melvillie so much that he used a classic Shakespearean tragic figure for his antagonist, “a man brought down by his faults.” He also influenced other writers and poets such as Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

    Shakespeare is said to be the greatest writer of the English language and a genious, but can reading him actually increase our intelligence? Professor Philip Davis from the University of Liverpool’s School of English is approaching brain research by “functional shifts” that demonstrates how Shakespeare’s creative mistakes shift mental pathways and open possiblilites for what the brain can do. He thinks it is Shakespeare’s inventions and his deliberate syntactic errors like changing the part of speech of a word that excite us, rather than confuse us. Along with brain imaging scientists he conducted experiments to show what happens to the brain when hearing different types of sentences. A way that the brain can be measured by responses is called an N400, which is normal, milliseconds after the brain experiences and thought or perception. P600 indicates a peak in brain activity 600 milliseconds after the brain experiences a different thought or perception. The P600 is considered a “wow effect” and the brain is excited and then is put into a “state of hesitating consciousness.

    ” When we read Shakespeare our brain peaks to P600 and our brain accepts the “syntactic violations” and our brain gets excited about his style of writing. Davis says that our brain needs creative language to keep our brain alive. Today writing is so predictable we can usually tell what someone is going to say before they finish their sentence. Davis is also a literary scholar and he argues that the mental activity found in the brain responses to his experiments may be one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have such a dramatic impact on us as readers, performers, and audiences. Davis predicts that without this type of creative language we could experience a gradual deadening of the brain. (“Reading Shakespeare Makes You Smarter, Temple”) (“This is Your Brain on Shakespeare”, Honan)

    William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. His surviving works consist of about 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. He contributed so much to the English language including vocabulary, phrases, poetry, and blank verse. His works are still studied, performed, and loved today. He describes the experience of being human more perfectly than any other writer and describes it with exquisite beauty. His works are not a simple thing to get at first. It is not easy or quick. Many people give up without discovering why it is important. But it is wonderful.

    “Love me or hate me, both are in my favor…If you love me, I’ll always be in your heart…If you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind.” ― William Shakespeare

    Words that Shakespeare Invented ( Here are some common words that first appeared in Shakespeare’s plays and their meanings: Auspicious – favorable; promising success; a good omen. A wedding is an example of an auspicious occasion. Baseless – without a foundation; not based on fact. If you accuse someone of wrongdoing, make sure that you have support to back up your claim and it is not a baseless accusation. Barefaced – shameless; without concealment or disguise. When someone tells a ‘barefaced lie’ it is not a very good one and you immediately know it is not true. Castigate – to punish harshly. Sometimes celebrities and politicians are castigated in the press more harshly than ordinary citizens. Clangor – a loud (clanging) sound. Ghosts are sometimes said to be followed by the loud clangor of chains. Dexterously – skillful, especially in the use of one’s hands (or also one’s mind). A good carpenter can dexterously build a bookshelf very easily. Dwindle – to get smaller; diminish. Often used to describe money. Many people’s savings dwindle after losing a job. Multitudinous – a lot; a great number. You are in luck if you can say that you have a multitudinous amount of friends. Sanctimonious – pretending to be very religious or righteous. Sometimes people who judge others harshly are sanctimonious. Watchdog – a person or group that keeps close watch to discover wrong or illegal activity. A popular watchdog group is PETA, which exposes wrongful actions against animals.

    Phrases Shakespeare Invented
    Here are some phrases that Shakespeare is said to have invented, many of which are commonly used today. “It’s Greek to me” (Julius Caesar) – When you say, “it’s Greek to me” you are admitting that you do not know or understand something. “Fair play” (The Tempest) – Follow the rules, especially in competitions or sports. “All that glitters isn’t gold” (Merchant of Venice) – We usually use this phrase after we discover the fact that something that looks good turns out not to be that great. “Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve” (Othello) – To be a hopeless romantic (or be open and honest about how you feel) is to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. “Break the ice” (The Taming of the Shrew) – Often when you meet someone for the first time, you “break the ice” by asking them polite questions about themselves. “The lady doth protest too much” (Hamlet) – If someone denies something more than once, you can say “the lady doth protest too much,” meaning you think that they feel the opposite to what they are saying. “Clothes make the man” (Hamlet) – Although not always true, this phrase implies that how a person dresses tells you something about who they are as a person. “A laughing stock” (The Merry Wives of Windsor) – To be a laughing stock is to be considered a joke by many people. “Too much of a good thing” (As You Like It) – It is said that “too much of a good thing” (i.e. money, love, food) is not necessarily good for you. “In a pickle” (The Tempest) – To be “in a pickle” is to be in trouble or a situation that you cannot easily get out of.

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    How Shakespeare Changed the English Language. (2016, Jun 27). Retrieved from

    Frequently Asked Questions

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    How has Shakespeare changed the English language?
    His works contributed significantly to the standardization of grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. Shakespeare introduced 1,700 original words into the language, many of which we still use (despite significant changes to the language since Shakespeare's time).
    What impact did Shakespeare have on the way we speak English today?
    In fact, during his 52 years on earth, he enriched the English language in ways so profound it's almost impossible to fully gauge his impact. Without him, our vocabulary would be just too different. He gave us uniquely vivid ways in which to express hope and despair, sorrow and rage, love and lust.

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