Speechless without Shakespear


We may not have read a line of his since our schooldays or ever seen one of his plays, yet there are few of us - even those of few words - who don't quote Shakespeare almost every day. Once in a while we know we're doing so, but most of the time we use his words to season our speech without knowing the source. Some of his expressions have changed a little with 400 years of everyday use, though even these can easily be traced to him.

If this doesn't make sense to you and you say, it's Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you think my point is without rhyme or reason and you say I'm, a laughing stock or a blinking idiot or bloody minded or a rotten apple or a stony-hearted villain or even the devil incarnate, you are also quoting him. And if you bid me good riddance or send me packing or wish I was hoist with his own petard or dead as a door- nail - at one fell swoop - you are still quoting him.

When we say that it's a mad world or not in my book or neither here nor there or last but not least, these phrases - and all the other in bold here - are Shakespeare's. And when we use such expressions as poor but honest or as luck would have it or what's done is done, we're equally indebted to him. Whether you are holding your tongue or simply tongue-tied, you just can't get away from the fact (the more fool you are) that you are quoting Shakespeare. But maybe that was the unkindest cut of all. And if you think this remark smells to heaven, you're at it once more.

Be that as it may - and though you still insist that I'm living in a fool's paradise - we can have too much of a good thing. And there we go quoting him again. For the long and the short of it is that we'd be nearly speechless without Shakespeare.

When we talk of someone showing his heels or having no stomach for fight or bearing a charmed life; when we speak of cold comfort or grim necessity or bag and baggage or the mind's eye, we're quoting him. When we refer to our salad days or our heart of hearts or our heart's desire; when we deplore the beginning of the end we're doing the same. If we claim to be more sinned against than sinning; if we act more in sorrow than in anger; if our wish is father to the thought; if something we've lost has vanished into thin air, we're borrowing from the Bard. If we refuse to budge an inch or suffer from green-eyed jealousy; if we've played fast and loose; if we've been a tower of strength or hoodwinked or in a pickle, we're still doing so.

If you have knitted your brows or stood on ceremony or made a virtue of necessity or danced attendance or laughed yourself into stitches or had short shrift, you're using Shakespeare's words. If you say you haven't slept a wink or are as sound as a bell or can only die once or that your family is eating you out of house and home, you're not being very original.

When you state that love is blind or there is a method in your madness (or someone has made you mad) or the truth will come to light or the world is my oyster, you are also borrowing your bon mot from the Bard. If you have seen better days or think it is early days or high time; if you lie low till the crack of doom, because you suspect foul play; if you tell the truth and shame the devil, even if it involves your own flesh and blood and you believe the game is up, you are at the same game.

If you have your teeth set on edge or have a tongue in your head, then by Jove or Tut, tut or for goodness sake or what the dickens or but me no buts - it's all one to me, for you are simply quoting Shakespeare.

Beside these and many more of our everyday phrases, we are also indebted to him for a host of words. Accommodation, assassination, dexterously, obscene, premeditated, reliance and submerged are only a few that made their first appearance in his plays.

And yet our knowledge of this man, who greatly enriched our lives and our speech, is so meagre that the 18th-century Shakespearean scholar George Steevens wrote, "All that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakespeare is that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, married and had children there, went to London where he became an actor and wrote poems and plays, returned to Stratford, made his will, died and was buried."

More is known of him now, 200 years later, but not much more. For though thousand of books have been written about him and his work - more than about any other literary figure in the whole world - Shakespeare the man escapes us.

William Shakespeare was a country boy, born on April 23rd 1564 in Stratford, then a small town of 1,500 people, in Warwickshire. He was the third of the eight children of a prosperous merchant, John Shakespeare, and Mary Arden, both Catholics. Willim went to Stratford Grammar School. In an age of academic snobbery, he did not have a university education, unlike most of his later literary London associates - one of whom sneered that he knew "little Latin and less Greek".

At 18 he married Anne Hathaway, a farmer's daughter eight years older than himself. They had three children, two girls, Susanna and Judith, and her twin brother Hamnet, who died at 11. Shakespeare is next heard of seven years later as an actor-dramatist in London, where he became so prosperous that he owned houses there and in Stratford. He died in his native town on his 52nd birthday, in 1616.

In writing about all kinds of men and women in every conceivable situation, Shakespeare showed that his greatest gifts were his knowledge of the human heart and his genius for words. He had a wonderful facility for "headlining" even his finest and most poetic passages. When Hamlet says, To be or not to be: that is the question, he summarised in one line all that follows in the famous soliloquy. This shows Shakespeare's mastery of what Samuel Johnson called "diction of common life".

We are fortunate that he lived at the time when printing was first introduced. He himself paid so little attention to posterity that he didn't even bother to have his own plays printed. It was seven years after his death that his collected plays were first published in a volume called the First Folio. There, 38 plays and 154 sonnets were written in the 20 years between Love's Labour Lost in 1591, when he was 27, and The Tempest in 1611. They contain some 30,000 different words, for he had one of the largest vocabularies of any English writer - more than twice that of a well-educated person today.

He was, to use his own phrase, a man of fire-new words, who loved to experiment with words. Among the words he introduced in his plays are allurement, armada, antipathy, critical, demonstrate, dire, emphasis, emulate, horrid, initiate, mediate, modest and vast.

And, of course, most of all he had an extraordinary ability to write memorable combinations of words. Scores of his phrases, as we have seen, have entered the English language and some have even become cliches. One play alone, Hamlet, is a treasure house of "quotable quotes" or, as someone said, it's "full of quotations". Among them are: Frailty, they name is woman! . . . The primrose path of dalliance . . . Something is rotten is the state of Den- mark . . . Brevity is the soul of wit . . . I must be cruel, only to be kind . . . The rest is silence.

The English-speaking world is indeed indebted to William Shakespeare more than to any writer in any language who ever lived. "He was not of an age," said his contemporary, Ben Jonson, "but for all time".