Brush up your Shakespeare

by Colin McIntosh

shakespeare2016 is Shakespeare Year. Four hundred years ago England’s national poet and playwright, major figure of world literature, William Shakespeare, shuffled off this mortal coil, or died (the phrase is used in Hamlet). His life will be celebrated around the world this year, with productions of his plays being performed in theatres from London to Singapore.

Shakespeare of course was an important influence on the English language, and many words and phrases coined by him (or appearing in his work for the first time) are still used today, although those using them are not always aware that they are quoting Shakespeare. Some of these, and other words and phrases connected with Shakespeare , have recently been added to the Cambridge Dictionary.

One of the words most commonly searched for on the Cambridge website, and commonly misspelled, is Shakespearean. Shakespeare himself famously spelled his name in many different ways, but nowadays we only allow one, although the adjective Shakespearean has the variant Shakespearian.

Writing over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare used a form of English that is noticeably different from the English we use today. In order to study the plays, or just to enjoy them in the theatre, as many thousands of modern English speakers do, it helps to have a little knowledge of Early Modern English (used up to around the middle of the 17th century).

Some words have fallen out of use since Shakespeare’s time, although they may sometimes be used for humorous effect. Sans is one such word. Borrowed from French, where it means “without”, Shakespeare used it frequently, for example when talking about the final age of man, when our bodies decay and we lose our faculties, in As You Like It:

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything

The Cambridge Dictionary example shows its modern humorous use:

It’s great to have a grown-up meal in a restaurant, sans kids!

As well as words that are now rare or obsolete, some verb forms pop up regularly, reflecting the grammar of English at the time. Art is the form of the verb be used with thou (modern English “you are”):

Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Doth is the third person of the verb do (modern English “does”):

He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus (Julius Caesar)

Some common English idioms can be traced back to Shakespeare. If something has seen better days, it is old and in bad condition:

We have seen better days. (Timon of Athens)

If you say something is all Greek to you, you do not understand it at all:

But, for my own part, it was Greek to me. (Julius Caesar)

According to his contemporary Ben Jonson, Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek” (knew very little Latin and even less Greek), which perhaps explains this quotation.

Curiously, the Spanish writer Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, died on the same day as Shakespeare (April 23). He too has left his mark on English, with two items which relate to the personality of Don Quixote. The idiom tilt at windmills means to fight enemies who do not really exist; and the adjective quixotic is applied to ideas that are unusual but not practical:

It is a vast and, some say, quixotic undertaking.

So let’s remember the contribution of these two influential writers as we celebrate the Shakespeare and Cervantes Years.

4 thoughts on “Brush up your Shakespeare

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