Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

According to the best guesses available, it’s William Shakespeare’s birthday today. We know he was baptized on April 26, 1564, but the exact date of his birth isn’t known so today is as good a guess as any (it’s also the date of his death in 1616, but that’s more depressing so we’re going to go with Happy Birthday, Will!).  But, what is the legacy of the English language’s best known playwright (and poet, he was also a great poet) nearly 450 years after his birth?  That seems like a silly question.  His plays are still being produced around the world, nearly every English speaking person in the world has read at least one of his plays (whether they wanted to or not) and I’m willing to bet if you stopped a random person on the street she could name one (or probably more) or his plays.  A new movie based on a Shakespearian play (some very loosely based) seems to come out at least once a year (Coriolanus, anyone?) and loads of books and movies are have Shakespeare as a character (one of my recent favorites is Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard by Richard B. Wright). Those are the obvious impacts, but what about some of Shakespeare’s other legacies?

People complain about Shakespearian language being incomprehensible but they don’t realize that Shakespearian language is the language we use every day.  Shakespeare coined 1700 words, many, many of which are in common usage today. Without Shakespeare we’d have no “accommodation” or “amazement.” The “apostrophe” would not exist (which for people who use it incorrectly might be a blessing).  There would be no “assassination”s, and no one could “castigate” you about your “courtship.”  There would be no “critical” “critics” and the difference between “frugal” and “generous” would be unknown.  It would take ages to go through the whole list, but you can “submerge” yourself in it below (borrowed from nosweatshakespere.com).

But coining words wasn’t enough.  We’ve taken complete phrases and adopted them into everyday usage. Without Shakespeare, we’d never know that “all that glitters isn’t gold” and there’d be no “foregone conclusions.”   Nobody would have any “elbowroom,” be “fancy-free” or have a “heart of gold.” There’d be no “method in his madness” or “pitched battle[s].” We quote Shakespeare whenever we complain about a “barefaced” liar or say someone has displayed “disgraceful conduct.”

So, while the obvious impacts of Shakespeare’s plays live on in theatre productions, adaptations and (to the chagrin of “disheartened” high school students) classrooms, so do the less obvious impacts.  The next time you tell someone they are “laughable” or “majestic” or are “suspicious” of someone being “obscene” or “sanctimonious” you’ll be quoting Shakespeare.  His legacy lives on in everyday language.

  • accommodation
  • aerial
  • amazement
  • apostrophe
  • assassination
  • auspicious
  • baseless
  • bloody
  • bump
  • castigate
  • changeful
  • clangor
  • control (noun)
  • countless
  • courtship
  • critic
  • critical
  • dexterously
  • dishearten
  • dislocate
  • dwindle
  • eventful
  • exposure
  • fitful
  • frugal
  • generous
  • gloomy
  • gnarled
  • hurry
  • impartial
  • inauspicious
  • indistinguishable
  • invulnerable
  • lapse
  • laughable
  • lonely
  • majestic
  • misplaced
  • monumental
  • multitudinous
  • obscene
  • palmy
  • perusal
  • pious
  • premeditated
  • radiance
  • reliance
  • road
  • sanctimonious
  • seamy
  • sportive
  • submerge
  • suspicious
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