Shakespeare’s enduring influence on the English language

April 23rd 2017 marks 453 years since the birth of Britain’s most famous literary icon, William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is considered by many to have been our nation’s greatest wordsmith, and his influence on the English language is still being felt today.

Shakespeare is estimated to have used a mightily impressive 15,000 different words in his plays. To fully grasp the sheer scale of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, it is worth making the comparison with other works – Milton used 8,000 words in his books, whilst the Old Testament is made up of 5,642 different words.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote his plays, the English language was constantly changing and absorbing new words, often as a result of exploration and war. In this spirit of change, Shakespeare would leave a permanent mark on the English language through his use of language in his plays. In order for his characters to fully express their feelings, Shakespeare needed to create new ways of saying things. Sometimes he would do this by borrowing from other languages (known as neologising). Shakespeare also devised his own ways of adapting the English language as it existed at the time, to say things the way he wanted them to be said. Nouns were turned into verbs, verbs were changed into adjectives, prefixes and suffixes were added to alter the meaning of a particular word. Not content with merely adapting the language, if Shakespeare found no existing way of saying what he wanted to say, he would simply invent a new word.

As well as introducing new words to the English language, Shakespeare also coined new phrases and sayings which had never been used before. Many of these still endure to this day, having entered common parlance as a result of the success of Shakespeare’s plays. All of the below phrases were first used by Shakespeare, and can still be heard today:

‘Green-eyed Monster’ (Othello)

‘Wild goose chase’ (Romeo and Juliet)

‘For goodness’ sake’ (Henry VIII)

‘In a pickle’ (The Tempest)

‘Good riddance’ (Troilus and Cressida)

‘Heart of gold’ (Henry V)

‘Pure as the driven snow’ (Hamlet)

‘Forever and a day’ (As you like it)

‘It’s Greek to me’ (Julius Caesar)

‘You’ve got to be cruel to be kind’ (Hamlet)

‘Break the ice’ (The Taming of the Shrew)

The original and often witty ways that Shakespeare used language, combined with the drama and emotion of his plays, mean that they continue to enthral audiences to this day. The most visceral and authentic way to experience a Shakespeare play is at the Globe Theatre in London, a modern reconstruction of one of Shakespeare’s original theatres. For more information on how to attend a performance there, visit http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/