Friday, 20 May 2016

Not Much Ado About Nothing

If you hadn't noticed (and if you visit the BBC website, its hard not to this year), it is the something or other anniversary celebration of the birth or death of one William Shakespeare esquire, playwright and poet. So what? many people would say.

Well even if you are unequivocal in your dislike of his plays and could never be accused of ever willingly hearing or seeing one of his plays performed, and in fact go out of your way to not do so, by ignoring the Olympian halls of academe. Nonetheless if you speak English, then you are quoting him all the time ..... and you will be familiar with many of his words and works, even if you are not aware of it.

Romeo And Juliet 1599 - The English Is Readable.

In fact, if you are a natural English speaker then you might find yourself blushing in amazement at how much influence he has had over your use of language, and even your thought pattern. Its a fact that his inventiveness is now a fixture in both our and world culture.

This is perhaps not too surprising when you realise that he had the biggest vocabulary of any writer in English (and possibly any writer in any language), with a vocabulary range of over twenty-four thousand words in his works. This was aided by the fact that he felt confident to quote directly in his plays in seven foreign languages, as well as English .... he wrote a whole scene in French for the play Henry V. Obviously living in a major port city and capital (which of course was not his birthplace), will have helped in this regard.

But perhaps I might champion the bard and arouse some more interest in this subject in you, by exposure to a few zany facts:

  • For instance he introduced 1,700 words that we use commonly today, from 'Hobnob' (yes the biscuit name), to 'Advertising', 'Puking' to 'Cold-blooded', and 'Courtship' to ... well the list (if not endless) is 1,700 long.
  • His works have been translated into over 100 languages. This is not the most by any writer 'Don Quixote', by his exact contemporary Miguel de Cervantes, has been translated into around 140 languages, but only that one book. Shakespeare's entire output has been translated into many languages (even, for the benefit of Star Trek fans, Klingon).
  • Shakespeare plays have formed the basis of more than 1,000 films .... many are modern adaptations of his plays, e.g. 'West Side Story' (Romeo and Juliet).
  • Different aspects of his plays are the emphasise in different cultures and this ability to play to these differing audiences make his acceptable and adaptable ... for instance Anglo/Saxon audience may consider the ending of 'Romeo and Juliet' to be tragic. But in Japan, the dual suicide might well be seen as socially acceptable, even honourable.
  • 'William Shakespeare' is an anagram for the sentence ‘I am a weakish speller’ which he proved by spelling his name Shaksper, Shakespe, Shakespere, and Shakspeare in different documents throughout his life.
  • When he first got to London he is alleged to have been working as a parking valet for 'The Queen’s Men' players whose patron was Queen Elizabeth I .... looking after 'playgoers’ horses, while they enjoyed the show - well we all have to start somewhere.
  • He joined 'The Queen’s Men' players, when they were touring outside London and performed in Stratford upon Avon. They were short a man or two, after one actor (William Knell) was killed by another (John Towne) in a duel a few days earlier.
  • Shakespeare's younger brother Edmund followed him down to London, where he lived in Cripplegate (a street or two away from his elder brother), and worked as an actor for the actor and impresario Edward Alleyn at the 'Fortune' theatre near Shoreditch. He died aged 27 and was buried by his brother in a decent plot.
  • Not all Shakespeare's words came off or survived. For instance his longest word 'honorificabilitudinitatibus' never walked outside of his play 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' (its defined as meaning “invincible glorious honorableness"). 
  • At the turn of the 19th century, an avid American fan once tried to import all the birds mentioned in his works to the USA .... predictably there were problems (think cane toads in Australia), and for instance, the 100 European starlings he imported into New York thrived, to the point that they are now currently one of only three birds in the US not afforded any state protection (the other two being the house sparrow and the pigeon) and is treated as a pest.

Finally as well as the straight film adaptations of the plays, there are also all the films based on those stories. I have already mentioned the 1961 hit 'West Side Story', but how about the 1956 Sci-fi movie 'Forbidden Planet' (The Tempest), or Orson Welles 1966 ,movie 'Chimes at Midnight' (which conflates Henry IV, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor). 'Kiss Me Kate' (Taming of The Shrew') or the 1999 film '10 Things I Hate About You' (also based upon The Taming Of The Shrew). There are also many non English adaptation's perhaps the most famous of which are the Japanese films 'Throne Of Blood' (Macbeth), and 'Ran' (King Lear) both by Kurosawa, who has also transposed Shakespeare in to modern stories such as 'The Bad Sleep Well' in 1960.

I am not an expert, but in truth there must be a countless number of films around the world that have been barefaced in stealing their stories from the Bard of Avon, and have been none the worse for this addiction to his works. So in fact, all the world's a stage for Shakespeare .....

Shakespeare - The Most Influential Man In The English Language

Oh, and just as an example, these are just a few of the words he created, and that are featured in this post:

Academe, Accused, Advertising , Amazement, Arouse, Hobnob, Blushing, Puking, Cold-blooded, Exposure, Zany, Birthplace, Addiction, Barefaced, Countless, Champion, Olympian.

So if you have ever thought that you lived in a fool's paradise, and that a sea change was needed in your life. Then realise that as the song goes, all that glitters is not gold, and so do not hold your bated breath, and if you want all's well, that ends well, then leave your ignorance as dead as a doornail at one fell swoop, by brushing up on your Shakespeare. These phrases and hundred of others are all from the greatest word-smith of them all ...... William Shakespeare esquire.

Not bad for grammar boy from Stratford, and so perhaps the BBC's celebration of his life was not much ado about nothing after all?


  1. "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon." ;-)

    My favourite insight of the Bard's (with my limited knowledge) is that "The lady doth protest too much" What an incredible student of human nature! coupled with his command of language and you have literary's Galileo.

    1. Literatures Galileo? I think he would prefer to be remembered as 'Literatures Bard' ... or Einstein, if a comparison required.

    2. Yes, I was actually thinking of DaVinci who's genius was more artistic and earth bound than that of Einstein for example. Thanks for the link; I find it hard to think of an expression that Shakespeare didn't popularise or invent. "Can't see the wood for the trees" maybe?

    3. That one is supposed to be an expression that comes from Bath England somewhere around 1745 AD. It refers to a row of houses that were designed by either the architect John Wood the Elder or John Wood the Younger. Allegedly There was a tree planted directly in front of these houses, and it grew very large. So local people began to complain that "You can't see the Wood for the tree!".

      This later evolved into "You can't see the Wood for the trees".

  2. Speaking of Shakespeare's contemporary Miguel de Cervantes, the following appeared in AWADmail Issue 690 :

    In the previous issue of AWADmail, Jack Miles wrote, “It may be of interest to note that both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare died on the same day, April 23, 1616.”

    Cervantes and Shakespeare did not die on the same day. Shakespeare died a week and half later. While Spain had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, England remained behind the times, sticking with the Julian calendar until 1752. When Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 in England, it was May 3rd in Spain, and Cervantes was long gone.

    Jeff Balch, Evanston, Illinois

    1. Oddly The Calendar (New Style) Act was in 1750 AD (not 1752, which is when it came in to force) .... But if your right about Spain being on the Gregorian calendar, then someone needs to tell Wiki which lists his death as 22 April 1616. The BBC even mentioned that 'both writers were traditionally thought to have died on 23 April' ... so if its wrong, its a common mistake which thankfully I didn't fall into as I chose to just refer to them as contemporaries.


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