What did Shakespeare do to become so famous?
Everyone knows that he wrote Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet and (at least) 35 other plays. For many, his 400-year-old language is hard to read. Some even find it difficult to understand him in the theater. Yet every year scores of books roll off the presses about him or his works, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. What has made him so famous for so long? What besides write a few old plays? It is not only the crowning glory of England, it is the crowning glory of mankind, that such a man should ever have been born as William Shakespeare. Swinburne
English is the most important language in the world today, the second language of every culture of any size or importance, yet until the second half of the 16th century it had about as much influence on world affairs as does Basque today, or Finnish. Spoken by only the inhabitants of England itself––a tiny fraction of the world’s population––it was an embarrassment to English diplomats abroad, forced to claim it as their own. In fact, it was less a language then than a collection of dialects, each made up of whatever combination of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Gaelic, Breton, Scots, Welsh, French, and Latin had taken root where one grew up, dialects reflected in the diverse and wildly impressionistic spelling of sixteenth-century letters. Most of these dialects were barely intelligible to anyone from outside of their own locales.
For several hundred years, wellborn Englishmen and women had regarded French as the language in which they conversed with each other, English being the jargon their stable boys spoke. Latin remained the universal language of universities and of most legal and diplomatic business. As for literature, while Spain and Italy had literary traditions that began with the Greeks and Romans, by 1550, English literature, rooted in Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English) consisted of little more than Chaucer, Lydgate, Malory and a handful of poets known today only to scholars who study the period. According to C.S. Lewis, until England’s own Renaissance in the mid-sixteenth century, the most impressive literature created in the British Isles was written in the Scots dialect.
The Renaissance that brought such developments to Italy and Spain in the arts, architecture, technology, and learning, was slow in coming to England, separated from the continent by the channel and troubled by civil wars. But something happened to the English in the second half of the sixteenth century. “Little England” began a rise to power that, three hundred years later, was an acknowledged as a world-encircling empire, one on which “the sun never set.”
By now the British Empire has gone the way of all empires, yet its culture, spread to every corner of the earth by its language, is more influential than ever. And although the English language may have been spread beyond its native borders primarily by the cruel forces of colonialism, if it were not for the power and the flexibility of the language itself, it would never have taken root as it has, or gone on to become the lingua franca of our time, the language of trade and discourse for every nation in the world. So it is important for those who speak it to know where and how this language got its start. “Know thyself,” said Socrates.” “I think, therefore I am,” said Decartes, and when the world thinks today, more often than not, it thinks in English.
Many cultural streams converged to create the English language, and many groups and individuals over a long period of time contributed, and continue to contribute, to its evolution, but there was one point in the late sixteenth century when the streams of Latin, of Italian and French, of courtly discourse and street argot, of Old and Middle English, of classical Greek, and, some think, even of Hebrew, converged in the mind and pen of a single individual, to emerge as a new language, shorn of its antiquated awkwardness and ambiguities, its various sounds and rhythms woven together and blended, adopting what was best from each, a bigger, better, more powerful, more expressive language, one that was good for thinking and for expressing ideas, that provided a rich palate of choices with the potential for many shades of meaning, that offered more than one word for things so that thoughts could be crafted into something beautiful and graceful to the ear as well as clear and precise to the mind. This mind and pen belonged to the genius we call Shakespeare.
Out of his thoughts, his personal passions, and his need to express himself, Shakespeare created, or published for the first time, thousands of words that were new to the language, many of which, most perhaps, that have become part of our everyday usage. More than words alone, he created hundreds of phrases and turns of speech that we still take for granted, that we use ourselves, and read or hear every day. Thus are preserved in our minds and the minds of all who read English, truths and bits of wisdom, some he derived from ancient sources, some from the hearth, the pub, or the stable, as he translated them into the English of his time, or, more precisely, as he wished to hear it.
It spread from his pen to the actors and from their lively, polished diction to their audiences and to the pens of other writers. Not unlike the spread of television or radio English in our time to sections of the country that until then could only understand and speak their own regional dialects, the actors took Shakespeare’s language to all of England, where like the seeds of the Bible story, it sometimes fell on fertile soil, taking root, and from thence to North America, India, Australia, and Africa.
It may be that not all the words for which he is listed as “first use” by the Oxford English Dictionary are actually his (the first creator of a substantial English dictionary was, after all, that omnivorous reader and appreciator of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson). Yet those he didn’t make up himself from Latin or Greek were chosen by him, whether from the common speech of the time or from some friend, teacher, or streetwise cockney, thereby preserving them and their usage for all time. His vocabulary, as demonstrated in his known works, ranges anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 words, depending on which authority you read. If one chooses the lower figure it still gives him a vocabulary twice the size of Milton’s.
According to the OED, from him we get such basic words as bare-faced, baseless, countless, courtship, critic, critical, denote, disgraceful, dishearten, distrustful, dwindle, eventful, exposure, fitful, fretful, gloomy, hurry, impartial, inauspicious, lonely, misplaced, monumental, recall, suspicious. He’s been dead for four hundred years, but still whenever we reach for a pithy phrase in conversation it’s more likely to be his than any other. Had his works been lost, had he never written, would someone else have given us these words? Other words just as good as these? Or would we simply be doing without them?
One way to gauge his importance might be to examine The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, (1953) which devotes 6 pages each to Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and Alexander Pope; Shelley gets 7; Byron gets 8; Wordsworth and Samuel Johnson get 10 each; Milton rates 13, as does Tennyson; The Book of Common Prayer gets 14; while the King James Bible ranks a high score of 27 pages. How many pages are devoted to Shakespeare? 66––almost triple the Bible.
The other important collection of English quotations, Bartlett’s (1882, 1980) gives the Bible 47 pages, while Shakespeare again gets 66, a third again as much. When we consider that the Bible was the work of many individuals over a long period of time, and that, all versions taken together, it is by far the best-selling book of all time, that should tell us something about the achievement of this single individual we know as Shakespeare. In the Table of Contents of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, which lists quotations by close to 3,000 sources, only two are broken down into sub-listings, the King James Bible by its books, and Shakespeare by his plays.
A 1959 encyclopedia of concert music devotes more space to the writer Shakespeare than to most composers (Ewen 418-20). The handful of other writers listed, such as Byron and Wordsworth, each get no more than a short paragraph, while Shakespeare gets two full pages, more space than either Handel or Haydn, both among the most famous of composers. Shakespeare gets the same amount of space as Brahms, and only a little less than Mendelssohn. Only the greatest composers of our western culture, Bach, Beethovan, Shuman, Schubert and Mozart, rate more space in this concordance of concert music than Shakespeare. And yet, according to the editor, he was listing only the most significant of the concert works based on his stories.
If you add to this the space devoted elsewhere to such works as Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Berlioz’s symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story (derived from Romeo and Juliet), and others, there is more space devoted to Shakespeare and his works than to any other single subject in this book, which is not about plays or poetry, but about composers and concert music. (Wikipedia goes into detail on the many works based on Shakespeare, at least 24 on Romeo & Juliet alone.) Surely no one in English history, or in world history, more deserves the epithet genius, than “our Shakespeare.”
What’s a genius?
Most of us are aware that there is a difference between a genius and someone who is simply very good at something. Philip of Macedon was gifted at military strategy––his son Alexander was a genius. Jean Racine was a brilliant dramatist––his friend Molière was a genius. Robert Hooke was a leading physicist––his rival Isaac Newton was a genius. There is a difference between one who has mastered an art or science, and one who moves it to another level, who revolutionizes it, leaving it and everything it effects permanently altered––a difference not only in degree but in kind. With genius it is almost as though the mind is of such a particularly high and powerful nature that it could transform any discipline it chose, as we see most clearly in men like Archimedes, Philippo Brunelleschi, or Leonardo da Vinci, men whose genius manifested equally in art, architecture, science, and technology.
Shakespeare was a writer who grew immensely over time, who was never afraid to experiment and fail. We have only to compare his mature works with the poetry of Thomas Churchyard (active 1555-1575) or George Whetstone (active 1574-1587), of plays like Gorbudoc (1561) or Tancred and Gismund (1568), and with prose works like Thomas Hoby’s translation of The Courtier (1561) to hear the difference between his time and the period just preceding his which C.S. Lewis so aptly termed “the drab era.” Though separated by no more than a couple of decades, a gulf in style, in wit, in richesse, in ease of expression and comprehension separates their language from his. This would be achievement enough, but even this is not why he has achieved the status of a world-wide icon.
In our present egalitarian society, much effort has been devoted to “democritizing” the heroes of the past, bringing them down to the level of us ordinary folk. In some ways this is a good thing; our forebears were all too eager to create gods out of men, however gifted. But we should take care not to throw the little genius out with the bathwater. Humanity has been visited from time to time by spirits of such an uncommon sort that, while revealing their all-too-human faults, we must not cease to honor them, not only for their accomplishments, but for the intelligence, courage, and energy it took to overcome the hurdles that such talents face, conquer their demons, and bring their ideas to fruition.
Of course we need to know what it meant to be an ordinary person throughout history, but we also need to find out if we can how the great discoveries in science and technology, from the spear to the computer, came to us through the inspiration of individual humans. Many of them are unknown, and will never be known, but where we can determine who they were, we need to know as much about them as we can. Surely our study of such humans should be at least as enthusiastic and thorough as our studies of Neandertals and chimpanzees, flatworms and fruit flies.
It has always been the poets who have enriched their native languages. During the Renaissance, writers in all the nations of Europe were experimenting with words and new usages in an effort to raise their native vernacular languages to the levels of Latin and ancient Greek. Similarly, scientists have often created the tools they needed to communicate their discoveries, as did Newton in that he not only discovered the Principia of planetary motion, but also the mathematical technique (calculus) by which he proved it. Why then is Shakespeare’s achievement so much greater than Newton’s?
Shakespeare the story-teller
However great may be Shakespeare’s English, this is not the reason that his plays continue to be performed in every language on the planet, including those of music and dance. His true greatness lies in his stories. Deeper than entertainment, deeper even than language, story moves past differences of language and culture to the center of what we human animals hold in common. As Bruno Bettleheim and Robert Bly tell us, psychology is best revealed through story-telling. It is story that reflects us to ourselves and tells us who we are, as a people, as members of a particular community, male or female, youth or elder, and also as individuals, unique to any other. Story is to history as film is to photography, as dancing is to watching others dance. It brings it to life.
From the dull clay of history Shakespeare brought to life the great Romans: Brutus, Antony, Coriolanus; the English monarchs, both terrible and good: Richard the Second, Richard the Third, Henry the Fifth, Bolingbroke, Macbeth; women: Juliet, Ophelia, Kate the shrew, Cleopatra; and perhaps the greatest, most living fictional being of all time, Hamlet the Dane.
Now, finally, we can begin to examine how he found these stories in sources ranging from ancient Greek and Latin texts on the shelves of his tutors’ libraries to folktales told by the kitchen hearth on winter nights, stories that he tweaked, combined, and retold through the words and actions of characters so fully alive that they people our consciousness today. Now, finally, we can locate the sources of these characters in real people, people he loved and hated and who made him laugh, people he used to create characters more real, more alive even than their real models, since these characters never die, never change, never get any older, but, like St. George in the old mummers play, leap once more to life whenever a great actress makes her entrance as Lady Macbeth, or a class of high school juniors reads Julius Caesar out loud.
Shakespeare has left his imprint on every facet of our modern life. Harold Bloom, Yale professor, literary critic, prolific author of books on Shakespeare, may be going a bit too far by calling him “a mortal god” and his mental offspring, Hamlet, “the secular Christ,” but at least he makes the point:
To catalogue Shakespeare’s largest gifts is almost an absurdity: where begin, where end? He wrote the best poetry and the best prose in English, or perhaps in any Western language. That is inseparable from his cognitive strength; he thought more comprehensively and originally than any other writer. It is startling that a third achievement should overgo these, yet I join Johnsonian tradition in arguing, nearly four centuries after Shakspeare, that he went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it. (xviii)
How did he do this? Through his stories. And where did he get his stories? From his life, his loves, and his amazing education.
So who was he?
Shakespeare is everywhere, in the language we speak, in the concerts, ballets, operas, plays and films we see for entertainment. When we marry we walk down the aisle to music written for the wedding of two of his characters. He’s in the stories and characters that reflect us to ourselves, one at least for every phase of life, from Romeo to Lear, Silence to Falstaff, Ophelia to Cleopatra; for each social role––from villain to victim, hero to madman, lover to saint––each speaks, most cogently and poetically, pathetically and hilariously, to a particular condition of being human.
He is everywhere and yet, strangely, he is also nowhere, for however well we may know his stories, we know nothing of the man himself. Nor have we been able to decipher from the mouths of his characters his personal religious or philosophic views. It is almost as though, through the process of giving life to the greatest panoply of characters in literature, his own life was absorbed, leaving not a rack behind.
There is, of course, a biography, but as anyone who has read more than one or two biographies of great artists, particularly the great romantic poets, must come to realize, these biographies of Shakespeare fall short of telling us anything that might bring the writer himself to life. We get lists of the flowers he “must have grown” in his garden, sights he “must have seen” in his perambulations through London. We get reasons for his peculiar interest in sueing his neighbors for small debts, his even more peculiar disinterest in the publication of his plays, or, in fact, in anything that went on in London during his years of fame. So who, then, was the genius we call Shakespeare?
One thing should be obvious by now, it wasn’t, it could not possibly have been, William of Stratford.