I recently watched great Shakespearian actor Judi Dench discover her heritage in the TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?”. Her 10x great-aunt not only served Queen Sophia at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark (the castle that featured in William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”), but also it is probable that her relative actually watched some English players on tour there in 1586, one of whom was Will Kemp, an actor at the Globe Theatre in London. It is said Shakespeare wrote specific roles for him to show off his comedic talents.
Judi Dench’s first role was as Ophelia in Hamlet at the Old Vic, and she has loved performing Shakespeare ever since. Her late husband and fellow actor, Michael Williams, referred to William Shakespeare as “the man who pays the rent” as he kept them both in lucrative employment for many years (and as a guide of Stratford-upon-Avon, I could say the same!).
As his works are the most performed plays in the world and were translated into every living language, this comment got me thinking about the legacy that William Shakespeare left behind. Many of us may be unaware of his lasting influence.
I love the fact that like the present day “Royal Variety Show” performers, William Shakespeare and his company performed 187 times in front of King James I and his courtiers. Not quite the poorly educated country bumpkin from rural Warwickshire that some make him out to be. Although possibly we can lay some of the blame on writer Ben Elton and actor David Mitchell who plays William Shakespeare in the TV comedy series “That Upstart Crow”, the only quote (by snooty Robert Greene) referring to William Shakespeare being a writer.
‘There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.’
Poor old Will was looked down upon because hadn’t had a formal university education. As far as we know he left the King’s New School in Stratford upon Avon at 13. As I listened to recent news when a politician described something being “in a pickle”, I wondered if he realised that he was quoting Shakespeare. Who knows? It comes from a scene in The Tempest.
Other words and phrases like ‘beautified’ (mockingly used by Robert Greene in the quote above), ‘eyeball’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), ‘fashionable’ (Troilus and Cressida) pious, frugal, bump, elbow room and wild goose chase (Romeo and Juliet) were all coined or invented by Shakespeare. If he couldn’t find a word that fitted, then he made one up. To be precise he made the first recorded use of 2035 words including names like Jessica, Olivia and Miranda. He gives the audience of Hamlet 600 words they would have never heard before. He was the first person to use un as a prefix as in unmask, unlock and untie.
Remember the English language as we know it now was less than 100 years old, Middle English had been replaced by Early Modern English in 1450. Legal and religious documents and most education was carried out in Latin. There were no dictionaries, no formal spelling as most people couldn’t read and write, hence the 6 signatures of Shakespeare, the only words we have written in his own hand, apart from the two words “by me” on his will, are all spelt differently, and none are like we spell his name today.
If it hadn’t been for his two good mates, fellow players and “sharers” in his Globe Theatre, Henry Condell and Richard Heminges, who had the forethought to collect the written copies of Shakespeare’s plays and have 36 of them published together in the First Folio in 1623 these works of genius would probably have been lost forever. In the 16th century, each player got his own lines on a piece of paper and no one else’s and there was only one, at most two, complete scripts with stage directions used by the director or prompter. Printing and paper were very costly.
So next time you hear expressions like “to thine own self be true”, “a heart of gold” or being “a tower of strength” or a person being in their “salad days”, even if you aren’t a Shakespeare fan, you can thank “the man who pays the rent” for expressing himself so succinctly and enriching our vocabulary. No single writer has done more to change and shape the English language and his legacy is that we still use these words today.
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