Why Shakespeare matters

Most poets agree with Swinburne that “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.”

What did he do to become so famous?

Everyone knows that he wrote Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet and a handful of other plays, but how does that make him so important?  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 beside write a few old plays?

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 sixteenth 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 following the Norman invasion, wellborn Englishmen and women regarded French as the language in which they conversed with each other, English being the jargon spoken by their cooks and stable boys. 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 acknowledged  as a world-encircling empire 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, English 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.

Shakespeare’s legacy

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 than either Handel or Haydn, two of our most famous 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, Beethoven, Schuman, 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, which is not to mention the ballets and operas.

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.”  Isn’t it about time we knew for certain who he was?

8 thoughts on “Why Shakespeare matters

  1. I recently read this, from a review of Kenneth Clark’s PBS series “Civilization”, by Terry Teachout:

    ‘Then Clark reads the stately words of John Ruskin: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”‘

    It occurred to me that the Shakespeare canon embodies all 3 manuscripts, at least with Oxford as author. On the other hand, with the Stratford guy as author, one is, one dimensionally, left with a book of words.

  2. I am not new to your blog, Ms. Hughes, but I have not yet read all of your articles. Today, Jan. 1, 2020, I happened upon this lyrically lovely encomium to both the English language and to it’s greatest practitioner. It reminded me, in my 73rd year, of why I changed my major from Biology to English way back in 1965. Kudos! When can we expect a book length compilation of your scholarship?

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