Monday, August 27, 2012

Shakespeare's Influence On The English Language

      William Shakespeare's influence extends from theater and literature to present-day movies and the English language itself. Widely regarded as the greatest writer of the English language, and the world's pre-eminent dramatist, Shakespeare transformed European theater by expanding expectations about what could be accomplished through characterization, plot, language and genre. Shakespeare's writings have also influenced a large number of notable novelists and poets over the years, including Herman Melville and Charles Dickens. Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in the history of the English-speaking world after the various writers of the Bible, and many of his quotations and neologisms have passed into everyday usage in English and other languages.
       Early Modern English as a literary medium was unfixed in structure and vocabulary in comparison to Greek and Latin, and was in a constant state of flux. When William Shakespeare began writing his plays, the English language was rapidly absorbing words from other languages due to wars, exploration, diplomacy and colonization. By the age of Elizabeth, English had become widely used with the expansion of philosophy, theology and physical sciences, many writers lacked the vocabulary to express such ideas. To accommodate, writers such as Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare expressed new ideas and distinctions by inventing, borrowing or adopting a word or a phrase from another language, known as neologizing. Scholars estimate that, between the years 1500 and 1659, nouns, verbs and modifiers of Latin, Greek and modern Romance languages added 30,000 new words to the English language.
By age five Freddie Bartholomew
 was a popular Warminster
 celebrity, the "boy wonder elocutionist",
reciting poems, prose, and selections from various
 plays, including Shakespeare.
      Shakespeare is cited as an influence on a large number of writers in the following centuries, including major novelists such as Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner.  Examples of this influence include the large number of Shakespearean quotations throughout Dickens' writings and the fact that at least 25 of Dickens' titles are drawn from Shakespeare, while Melville frequently used Shakespearean devices, including formal stage directions and extended soliloquies, in Moby-Dick. In fact, Shakespeare so influenced Melville that the novel's main antagonist, Captain Ahab, is a classic Shakespearean tragic figure, "a great man brought down by his faults." Shakespeare has also influenced a number of English poets, especially Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge who were obsessed with self-consciousness, a modern theme Shakespeare anticipated in plays such as Hamlet. 
      Shakespeare's writings were so influential to English poetry of the 1800s that critic George Steiner has called all English poetic dramas from Coleridge to Tennyson "feeble variations on Shakespearean themes." Shakespeare's writings greatly influenced the entire English language. Prior to and during Shakespeare's time, the grammar and rules of English were not standardized. But once Shakespeare's plays became popular in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, they helped contribute to the standardization of the English language, with many Shakespearean words and phrases becoming embedded in the English language, particularly through projects such as Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language which quoted Shakespeare more than any other writer. He expanded the scope of English literature by introducing new words and phrases, experimenting with blank verse, and also introducing new poetic and grammatical structures.    
      Shakespeare wrote under the influence of writers such as Chaucer, Spenser and Sidney. It is also important to note the setting of Shakespeare's language. In 449, the Germanic tribes - the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had moved to Britain to side with the Celts in order to help them defeat their northern neighbors. After their victory, however, the Germanic tribes gradually pushed the Celts into what became Wales and Cornwall. The tribes introduced Anglo-Saxon, more commonly known as Old English language (Mario Pei). Anglo-Saxon survived despite the Norman invasion of 1066, which introduced French to England and strengthened Latin's existing power. These events marked the beginning of the Middle English period. Around 1204, bilingualism developed amongst "Norman officials, supervisors, [and] bilingual children [resulting from] French and English marriages". English was, however, still not in common use, at least in matters of the state and clergy. King John's death indicated the end of Norman rule. The decision of the Norman proprietors and Edward I's (Henry III's son) conquest of Wales all contributed to increased usage of the English language. French/Norman cultural supremacy in England waned. The increase in the use of English resulted in the "smoothing out of dialectal differences [and] beginning of standard English based on London dialect". Nevertheless, French remained the official language until around the 14th century. It was not until 1509, however, that English was recognized as the official language of England. Until 1583, the rhetoric of the English language was deeply indebted to Chaucer. Otherwise, given the relative lack of written records, "the innovation of the language was uncertain". The late 15th and early 16th century marks the approximate shift from Middle English to Early Modern English, the language of the Renaissance. 
Statue of Dylan Thomas in Swansea.
Thomas grew up listening to his
father recite Shakespeare.
       Among Shakespeare's greatest contributions to the English language must be the introduction of new vocabulary and phrases which have enriched the language making it more colorful and expressive. Some estimates at the number of words coined by Shakespeare number in the several thousands. However Warren King clarifies by saying that, "In all of his work – the plays, the sonnets and the narrative poems – Shakespeare uses 17,677 words: Of those, 1,700 were first used by Shakespeare." He is also very known for borrowing from the classical literature and foreign languages. He created these words by, "changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original." Many of Shakespeare's original phrases are still used in conversation and language today. These include, but are not limited to; "seen better days, strange bedfellows, a sorry sight," and "full circle". Shakespeare's effect on vocabulary is rather astounding when considering how much language has changed since his lifetime. 
      Shakespeare helped to further develop style and structure to an otherwise loose, spontaneous language. The Elizabethan era language was written the same way it was spoken. The naturalness gave force and freedom since there was no formalized prescriptive grammar binding the expression. While lack of prescribed grammatical rules introduced vagueness in literature, it also expressed feelings with profound vividness and emotion which created, "freedom of expression" and "vividness of presentment". It was a language which expressed feelings explicitly. Shakespeare's gift involved using the exuberance of the language and decasyllabic structure in prose and poetry of his plays to reach the masses and the result was "a constant two way exchange between learned and the popular, together producing the unique combination of racy tang and the majestic stateliness that informs the language of Shakespeare". 
      While it is true that Shakespeare created many new words (the Oxford English Dictionary records over 2,000), an article in National Geographic points out the findings of historian Jonathan Hope who wrote in "Shakespeare's 'Native English'" that "the Victorian scholars who read texts for the first edition of the OED paid special attention to Shakespeare: his texts were read more thoroughly, and cited more often, so he is often credited with the first use of words, or senses of words, which can, in fact, be found in other writers." Shakespeare created many words that are commonly used today.    
Charles Kean (left) and Ellen Terry in
The Winter's Tale, 1856.
 Terry began acting as a child in
Shakespeare plays and continued as
 a teen, in London and on tour.
      Shakespeare's first plays were experimental as he was still learning from his own mistakes. It was a long journey from Titus Andronicus and King Henry VI to The Tempest. Gradually his language followed the "natural process of artistic growth, to find its adequate projection in dramatic form". As he continued experimenting, his style of writing found many manifestations in plays. The dialogues in his plays were written in verse form and followed a decasyllabic rule. In Titus Andronicus, decasyllables have been used throughout. "There is considerable pause; and though the inflexibility of the line sound is little affected by it, there is a certain running over of sense". His work is still experimental in Titus Andronicus. However, in Love's Labor's Lost and The Comedy of Errors, there is "perfect metre-abundance of rime [rhyme], plenty of prose, arrangement in stanza". After these two comedies, he kept experimenting until he reached a maturity of style. "Shakespeare's experimental use of trend and style, as well as the achieved development of his blank verses, are all evidences of his creative invention and influences". Through experimentation of tri-syllabic substitution and decasyllabic rule he developed the blank verse to perfection and introduced a new style.
       "Shakespeare's blank verse is one of the most important of all his influences on the way the English language was written".  He used the blank verse throughout in his writing career experimenting and perfecting it. The free speech rhythm gave Shakespeare more freedom for experimentation. "Adaptation of free speech rhythm to the fixed blank-verse framework is an outstanding feature of Shakespeare's poetry". The striking choice of words in common place blank verse influenced "the run of the verse itself, expanding into images which eventually seem to bear significant repetition, and to form, with the presentation of character and action correspondingly developed, a more subtle and suggestive unity". Expressing emotions and situations in form of a verse gave a natural flow to language with an added sense of flexibility and spontaneity. 
       He introduced in poetry two main factors - "verbal immediacy and the moulding of stress to the movement of living emotion". Shakespeare's words reflected passage of time with "fresh, concrete vividness" giving the reader an idea of the time frame. His remarkable capacity to analyze and express emotions in simple words was noteworthy: "When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies-" —(Sonnet CXXXVIII) In this sonnet, he has expressed in very simple words "complex and even contradictory attitudes to a single emotion". 
      The sonnet form was limited structurally, in theme and in expressions. Liveliness of Shakespeare's language and strict discipline of the sonnets imparted economy and intensity to his writing style. "It encouraged the association of compression with depth of content and variety of emotional response to a degree unparalleled in English". Complex human emotions found simple expressions in Shakespeare's language.


  1. Replies
    1. This article is from Wikipedia here.