Having just finished reading Bill Bryson‘s Shakespeare: The World as Stage, I’m in a sort of Shakespearean reverie. Shakespeare has been part of my life (as he has been in yours) for many years, and Bryson’s book has renewed my interest in a fellow who is so ubiquitous in our culture yet so maddeningly difficult to know anything about. His influence has far surpassed anything that most peaceful, literary human beings could ever hope to bestow on posterity. And although his death was but little observed and his works were only saved through the efforts of several of his acquaintances, he lives on in the plays that he wrote and in the words and phrases that we speak every day.
Many people think of Shakespeare as that ancient playwright whose works have language that is difficult to fathom. Reading the plays in a freshman literature class or watching their performance by professional actors produces the same result in many people – wonderment that anyone could comprehend the flowery, archaic vocabulary and actually understand anything about them.
For me, the best part of watching a Shakespeare play is the effort required to catch the humor, the irony, and the nuggets of wisdom when they occur. You have to be on your toes, because one nugget follows another swiftly as the actors work their way through the plays. Wordplays, puns, and jokes abound. Shakespeare had a great sense of humor and knew how to use it to contrast and amplify the more serious issues presented in his works. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss many wonderful and potentially pleasing tidbits. Don’t let your mind wander. Focus on the players and let their dialogue pull you along. You don’t have to understand each word and difficult phrase in order to get the main drift. To help in your endeavor (and it will be an endeavor because you have to work pretty hard) it is good to read a particular play (or read the Cliff’s Notes version) before seeing the production. That will give you a foundation to work from and will at least make you familiar with the plot, structure, and with Shakespeare’s intent.
In his book, Bryson reminds us that Shakespeare was personally responsible for the coining of new words and the manufacture of many idioms that are still in common use today. If you don’t think that Shakespeare plays a daily role in your life, perhaps seeing some of the words and phrases that Shakespeare coined will change your opinion. From the book:
Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others. Where would we be without them?
Bryson also lists some of the many phrases that are first seen in Shakespeare’s works:
One fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, remembrance of things past, beggar all description, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, more in sorrow than in anger, the wish is father to the thought, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, be cruel to be kind, blinking idiot, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance.
So there you go. Your language is partly a direct result of Shakespeare’s having been among us. You are linked to him whether you like it or not.
Bryson also covers some of the outrageous attempts over the centuries to discredit Shakespeare and give others credit for his plays and poems. I’ve kept an open mind about such things in the past, but now I feel more comfortable giving Shakespeare complete credit for every work that bears his name, mainly because so many of the people that launched discrediting attempts were odd, eccentric, had ulterior motives, or were just plain crazy. These attempts will no doubt continue, but I believe no one will produce a more likely author of Shakespeare’s works than Shakespeare himself.
All’s well that ends well, and this is the end of today’s blog.