Let’s ‘give the devil his due’ (Henry IV Part I), in the history of the English language only the King James Bible has had the same influence as the works of William Shakespeare. In 1623, just a few years after his death in 1616, two members of Shakespeare’s playing company (The King’s Men) published the First Folio, a collection of all the extant plays Shakespeare had written in his lifetime.
Know someone with a ‘heart of gold’? That’s Shakespeare (Henry V). Or perhaps they’re the ‘devil incarnate’ (Titus Andronicus and Henry V). Shakespeare again. Do you consider it a ‘foregone conclusion’ (Othello) that it’s ‘an ill wind which blows no man to good’ (Henry IV Part II), or that your kids will ‘eat you out of house and home’ (Henry IV Part II again)? Perhaps you’ve known someone to end up ‘hoist with his own petard’ (Hamlet; a phrase which, without going into details, I used recently of a now-former colleague) or be ‘more sinned against than sinning’ (King Lear). Perhaps you were a ‘laughing stock’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor) the last time you told a joke that began ‘Knock knock! Who’s there?’ (Macbeth. I’m lucky enough to work with kids who are at the perfect age to appreciate a good knock-knock joke). If you’re ready to cry “For goodness’ sake” (Henry VIII) and bid “good riddance” (Troilus and Cressida) to my slew of quotes, fear not. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ (Hamlet), and having ‘broken the ice’ (The Taming of the Shrew) I shall ‘cease [my] counsel’ (Much Ado About Nothing).
Many of Shakespeare’s plays had previously appeared in low-quality, bootlegged quarto editions, but the Folio was different. It drew together as many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare as could be located, taking into account alterations which had been made since each play was first performed and dividing them along the Classical lines of Tragedy, Comedy and Romance. The result has been to preserve an artistic legacy which continues to dominate the landscape of English literature today – it is estimated that every single day, somewhere in the world, one of Shakespeare’s plays is performed.
Shakespeare, less educated than many playwrights of his day, combined an extensive vocabulary (around 22,000 words – the average English-speaking university graduate of today apparently utilises around 10,000) with keen insight into human nature and an unrivalled common touch. It is perhaps no wonder that so many words and expressions still used or recognised today can be traced back to the work of the Bard of Avon.
Do you quote the Bard? Which words and phrases have popped out of your mouth lately?