If it wasn’t for Shakespeare, I wouldn’t be writing this. Well, it’s possible that I would be writing something, but most certainly not this particular combination of words and letters.
When I was young, it seemed like we studied Shakespeare every year in literature class. Cue eye roll… Yes, yes, yesss, we know already… Shakespeare was amazing. Now please leave us alone and show us that Hamlet movie again! At the time, I was so tired of hearing about Shakespeare. Sure, he had a ruffed collar and an earring and wrote funny sounding words… so what? Even though Shakespeare’s face is probably THE most recognizable face around the world other than the face of the Mona Lisa, most people don’t understand why.
What my teachers didn’t really talk about in school was how unconventional and earth-shatteringly different Shakespeare truly was. There’s a reason that the way he spoke sounded a bit odd – he made up 10% of the words he used! That equates to about 1,700 words, and countless phrases. And he didn’t do it in the insane Lewis Carroll “Twas brillig in the slithy toves” kind of way… Shakespeare was sneaky about it. He threw in his own little nonsense words here and there, but with enough context and “sounds like” clues for us to imagine the meaning. Essentially he single-handedly invented a massive part of the English language. Many of the words and phrases we use every day were simply made up by Shakespeare because he needed a word, and it sounded alright. Come to think of it, I’d like to do that. Maybe I’ll try it tomorrow at work in a meeting – maybe a nonsense word or two might help. It would be a conversation starter, at the very least…
Here are a few very basic words that simply didn’t exist before Shakespeare made them up: hurry, road, majestic, lonely, critic, laughable, obscene, and frugal.
And some phrases that Shakespeare invented include: mind’s eye, to catch a cold, hot-blooded, method in his madness, in one fell swoop, it’s Greek to me, be all and end all, to eat out of house and home, and fancy-free.
For someone so foundational to the formation of current Western culture, quite a bit is not known about Shakespeare. However, I think that an important part of what he was able to do lies in his upbringing. As a shoe-maker’s son from Stratford, he was educated just enough to learn the language well, and was probably an avid reader, but because he was from the country and he wasn’t university educated, he didn’t inherit the highbrow snobbery that you’d find in other written works of the day. He wasn’t part of the educational elite. His father was a leader in the community (in fact the equivalent of the mayor for several years) but he lived in and around the working-class. Shakespeare wrote for these people – the masses. He told dirty jokes. He wasn’t afraid to deal with messy subjects. He made up nonsense words up for a laugh. He knew how to tell a tragic, gritty story about death, lonliness or pain. He truly was first an entertainer, and secondly, a writer.
The way he approached his subjects and characters so bluntly, honestly, and directly was very unusual. Elizabethan-era England was a strange wide-ranging mix of social class and moral disparity. Contrary to how they seem to us now, Elizabethans were at times outrageous. Upper class costumes made out of wrought iron shapes with oddly colored wigs could most certainly rival the spectacle of Lady Gaga herself. But lower classes were typically illiterate and were lucky if they had any educational background at all. For the Elizabethans, Shakespeare was probably a shock – but a welcome one – somewhat scandalous, new, fresh, captivating, visual… and simply irresistible. His plays had enough plot complexity and subject matter to thrill theatre enthusiasts, and yet enough low-brow humor and common language to satisfy anyone looking for simpler forms of entertainment. His theatre productions in London and around the country attracted both the wealthy and working-class alike. There seemed to be “something for everybody” in a Shakespeare play.
The fact that Shakespeare was able to do all that and become famous in his lifetime really did not sit well with academics – and in fact, for some, it still doesn’t. Shakespeare’s genius continues to amaze us – so much so that many people even today continue to come up with alternate theories as to the authorship of his works. It’s true that we don’t know a lot about Shakespeare, but it seems to me that we don’t know a lot about very many people who lived during that time. It doesn’t seem all that suspicious to me. But some academics seem to have a hard time believing that a middle-class country boy could have written the things that Shakespeare wrote. It begs the question – can a genius still be a genius, even if they aren’t educated at Oxford? I know what my answer is on that – you decide.
Josh and I had the pleasure of getting to wander around Stratford-upon-Avon for an afternoon last December on our trip through the UK. It’s a cute little town, forever tied to Shakespeare’s legacy. You can visit several important heritage sites, including the house where he was born, the site of his house in later years, as well as Anne Hathaway’s (his wife’s) lovely and picturesque cottage where she grew up. The cottage is incredibly charming in and of itself – and in fact it is also known as one of the most beautiful and most photographed cottages in England.
One of the most fascinating and frustrating stories that we heard on our informal tour through Shakespeare’s hometown was about Reverend Francis Gastrell, who purchased Shakespeare’s last home “New Place” some years after he died for use as a summer home. Now, I don’t often call people ridiculous on this blog (I do try to be nice), but I have to say it… Reverend Francis Gastrell was a ridiculous man. In the 1750’s, Gastrell owned many homes throughout the country. He liked New Place in Stratford, but he was constantly “annoyed” by visitors and trespassers to his garden – in the 1750’s tourists flocked to Shakespeare’s hometown to take cuttings from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree as souvenirs. So, Gastrell had the tree cut down and chopped into firewood. Swell guy. Next, he got into an argument with the city about the taxes on the home. He didn’t want to pay those very much, so he had the house completely destroyed. Come on, Gastrell! What! To this day, historians are baffled about why he didn’t simply sell the home to be rid of all the unwanted visitors and taxes. It doesn’t make any sense to me either… which is why I called him ridiculous.
Today, in the vacant lot where New Place once stood is a mulberry tree, said to have been planted from a graft from Shakespeare’s original tree, and the guides point out where Shakespeare’s writing office once was thought to be. Pacing over the grass in that very spot, you wonder if he paced there nearly 400 years ago, dreaming up tragedies, comedies, characters, words, nonsense. Was he aware that at the same time, he was also re-inventing literature, drama, and all of western culture? I guess we’ll never know.