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Shakespeare, and his influence on the English Language

William Shakespeare is probably the best known English writer in the world! But how much do you really know about him? Here is a beginner's guide to Shakespeare and his influence on the English Language.

Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. The writer's exact birthday is unknown, but it is usually celebrated on April 23. There is documentary proof that Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564, and scholars believe that, in keeping with the traditions of the time, he would have been baptised when he was three days old, meaning Shakespeare was probably born on April 23rd. William Shakespeare’s burial at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford upon Avon is documented as happening on 25th April 1616, and in keeping with traditions of the time it’s likely he would have been buried two days after his death, meaning Shakespeare most likely died 23rd April 1616 – on his 52nd birthday. The house that Shakespeare was born in is now a museum.

Shakespeare penned a curse for his grave, daring anyone to move his body from that final resting place.

His epitaph was:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here: Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.

Though it was customary to dig up the bones from previous graves to make room for others, the remains in Shakespeare’s grave are still undisturbed. Shakespeare’s original grave marker showed him holding a bag of grain. Citizens of Stratford replaced the bag with a quill in 1747.

English Language Day is celebrated every year on April 23 – the date when tradition says William Shakespeare was born. Shakespeare has been called the greatest writer in the English language.

Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays and over 150 poems. Ten of them were named after English Kings. Even though they were fiction, they have affected how people today think of the real people in them. For example, many people think King Richard III was an evil man because of what Shakespeare wrote about him — but experts now say he might not have been so bad!

Some of his best known plays were first seen at the Globe Theatre in London. A new Globe was built in 1997, where people can enjoy Shakespeare's plays as they would have when he was alive — with a large part of the audience standing

in front of the stage with no roof over


Even though he has been called the greatest writer, Shakespeare's biggest impact was on language.

Shakespeare has been credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing almost 3,000 words to the English language, many of which are still used in English today.

So, how did he create new words and phrases?

One of the methods he used was to put two words together. "Bedroom" might sound like an obvious name for the place where you sleep, but Shakespeare was the first to put together "bed" and "room" in that way. Many of the words Shakespeare invented were created by putting together two existing words in this way, like "birthplace," "farmhouse" and "watchdog." Another method he used was to change verbs into adjectives. When it gets cold enough, water freezes and becomes ice. But Shakespeare decided that the verb "to freeze" would also make a great adjective, which is why we can now describe very cold temperatures as "freezing." It's also why we can call a silly idea "laughable," or describe something that satisfies you as "satisfying." He also changed nouns into verbs. Before Shakespeare, your elbow was just a body part. But Shakespeare used "elbow" as a verb for the first time, and today it can be used to mean "to push someone out of your way by using your elbow." And, he added prefixes and suffixes to words. Just adding a prefix like "un-" to the beginning of a word, or a suffix like "-less" to the end of a word, can completely change its meaning. Shakespeare did this with words like the verb "dress," which means "to put on clothes," to create "undress," which means "to take off clothes." He also made the word "count" into an adjective by changing it to "countless," which means "too many to count."

You may use this word on Facebook, but it's much older than the internet.Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare used the verb "unfriended" to describe someone who has lost a friend. The noun "unfriend" was first used in the 1200s to mean "an enemy." Making new words didn't start or stop with Shakespeare, however. New words are still being made in the same way today — such as "overshare," which means sharing too much information, which was just added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2021.

When we talk about ‘Shakespeare phrases’ we mean the many sayings, idioms and phrases that Shakespeare invented that are still in common usage today. It’s unlikely that native English speakers are able to get through a day without using one or more Shakespeare

sayings in one way or another, without

even thinking about it.

Take for example a poster used in many English literature classrooms, devised by a famous English journalist, Bernard Levin some years ago. It reads: If you cannot understand my argument and declare it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tieda tower of strengthhoodwinked or been in a pickle, if you have knitted your browsmade a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play – slept not one wink – stood on ceremony – danced attendance on your lord and master – laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift – cold comfort, or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days, or lived in a fool’s paradise, why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are as good luck would have it, quoting Shakespeare. If you think it is high time, and that that is the long and the short of it, if you believe that the game is up, and that the truth will out, even if involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low – till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge at one fell swoopwithout rhyme or reason, then to give the devil his due if the truth were known for surely you have a tongue in your head, you are quoting Shakespeare. Even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore – a laughing stock – the devil incarnate – a stony-hearted villain – bloody-minded, or a blinking idiot, then by jove – o lordtut, tut!For goodness sake – what the dickens!but me no butsit is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

You can take this concept of how integrated Shakespeare phrases are to everyday English even further by imagining two friends having a conversation. One is very sad as she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. The conversation might go something like this: ‘He just left: all of a sudden. Without rhyme or reason.’ ‘Well, good riddance, I say.’ ‘I know. I was living in a fool’s paradise.’ ‘The world’s your oyster now.’ ‘But he’s made a laughing stock of me.’ ‘I say again, good riddance. He was eating you out of house and home, for one thing. You should have sent him packing long ago.’ ‘Just gone: in the twinkling of an eye.’ ‘Well, don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. He was enough to set one’s teeth on edge.’ ‘Thanks. You’re a tower of strength. A heart of gold.’ ‘You really are a sorry sight.’ ‘I know, I haven’t slept a wink.’ ‘What did you see in him? It’s Greek to me.’ ‘Well, you know. Love is blind. ‘Where is he now?’ ‘I don’t know. He’s vanished into thin air.’

That may be everyday language, but the incredible thing is that almost everything said is a Shakespeare phrase.

Some more well-known Shakespeare phrases:

  • to be or not to be

  • all the world's a stage

  • all that glitters is not gold

  • barefaced

  • be all and end all

  • break the ice

  • breathe one’s last

  • brevity is the soul of wit

  • catch a cold

  • clothes make the man

  • disgraceful conduct

  • every dog will have his day

  • elbowroom

  • fair play

  • fancy-free

  • flaming youth

  • foregone conclusion

  • frailty, thy name is woman

  • give the devil his due

  • green eyed monster

  • heart of gold

  • heartsick

  • hot-blooded

  • housekeeping

  • it smells to heaven

  • it’s Greek to me

  • leapfrog

  • live long day

  • long-haired

  • method in his madness

  • mind’s eye

  • ministering angel

  • more sinned against than sinning

  • naked truth

  • neither a borrower nor a lender be

  • one fell swoop

  • outrageous fortune

  • pitched battle

  • primrose path

  • strange bedfellows

  • the course of true love never did run smooth

  • the lady doth protest too much

  • the milk of human kindness

  • to thine own self be true

  • too much of a good thing

  • towering passion

  • wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve

  • witching time of the night

  • Good riddance “Riddance" is an old word for when something goes away. So a "good riddance" is when someone or something you don't like goes away. "Good riddance" was first used in Shakespeare's 1606 play Troilus and Cressida. Today, the word "riddance" is almost always used as part of that expression. For example, if you found out your noisy neighbours were moving away, you might say - "Good riddance! Now we can have some quiet."

  • Wild goose chase Shakespeare didn't invent "wild goose chase," which was first used in horse-racing to describe when the losing horses would follow the winning horse in a "V" shape, much like flying geese. However, Shakespeare was the first to use the expression to mean "an effort that will fail," in one of his most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet. It is still used today in this manner.

  • In stitches If someone is "in stitches," it means they are laughing a lot, or so much that it hurts. It refers to a "stitch" – a pain in the side caused by too much exercise. Shakespeare first used it in Twelfth Night, a play written in 1601. However, it didn't become a popular expression until the 1930s. Today, if someone makes you laugh a lot, you could say "Fred is so funny, he had me in stitches.

Comprehension Questions:

  1. When was Shakespeare born?

  2. Where was Shakespeare born?

  3. Where was he buried?

  4. What is the house Shakespeare was born in now?

  5. How many poems did Shakespeare write?

  6. What is an epitaph?

  7. Why has Shakespeare's grave remained undisturbed?

  8. Where can his plays be watched?

  9. How many words has Oxford English Dictionary credited Shakespeare with for introducing to the English language?

  10. Name four methods he used to create new words.

  11. What does the word "overshare" mean?

  12. When was it added to the Oxford English Dictionary?

  13. What do we mean by "Shakespeare phrases"?

  14. What does the phrase "wild goose chase" mean in the way it is used today?

  15. What does "it's Greek to me" mean?

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