Much has been written about William Shakespeare, especially this month as we celebrate the anniversary of his death, 400 years ago. He was born on 23rd April 1564 and died on his birthday in 1616, at the age of 52.
Although his original plays and poetry are peppered with words like ‘doth’, ‘thee’ and ‘wherefore’, because they were part of 16th century vocabulary, much of our present vocabulary contains words and phrases coined by Shakespeare himself. Words, such as generous, luggage, monumental, gloomy, hobnob – the list is endless. Over 1700 of our common words were invented by him or changed, adapted and given a new meaning.
He invented phrases too, that we use all the time, without knowing that he first dreamt them up. Expressions such as ‘the game is up’, ‘heart of gold’, ‘laughing stock’, ‘naked truth’ – it might be easier to list the phrases he did not invent. Apart from writers of the Bible, Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in the English language.
Why are Shakespeare’s works still so popular, 400 years on? He wrote for his live audiences – an eclectic crowd, ranging from the poor, the ‘groundlings’, who paid a penny to stand in front of the stage, to royalty who sat on cushions high up in the gallery. He himself performed before Queen Elizabeth I and later, James I, a keen patron of his work. He was unusual in that he was an actor as well as a playwright, which maybe contributed to his success.
His stories were about human love, loss and betrayal – he wanted his audiences to react and they did – they booed and cheered.
His storylines have endured. Comedy, tragedy, love and war are eternal themes. Sometimes his stories are modernised, such as the musical West Side Story, which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, the story of two young people who fall in love despite their families being sworn enemies.
Another reason for the continuing popularity of his works is his brilliant dialogue. He had a masterful way with words, and those words expose his wisdom, philosophy and imagination. Take the line from Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” From Twelfth Night; “Laugh yourself into stitches.” He wrote some great insults and comeback lines. In the play Henry VI, Clifford says: “Why, what a brood of traitors we have here!” to which York replies: “Look in a glass, and call thy image so.”
Now, 400 years on, we have a lot to thank William Shakespeare for.