“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” ~ Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.
Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, not yet authenticated.
Huzzah, I say, Huzzah!
And, bullyrook, scullion, rampallian, fustilarian! Let me tickle your catastrophe, o trencher-friends!
Lords, Ladies, Cousins and Curs: don your finest cauls, corsets, breeches and brocade! Only your finest jeweled or flowered ruffs will do. If thou hast need for a codpiece, joyfully tie a big one
on — for today is Will Shakespeare’s 445th birthday!
Ay, our most beloved red-haired poet, actor, and dramatist from Stratford-upon-Avon, who gave us 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and several other poems besides, is still the brightest star amongst all the luminaries who ever dared to tarry with the English language. His comedies, tragedies, and histories are still the most widely performed on the planet, and even after centuries of scholarship, speculation, and debate — some details of his life, as well as doubt over his authorship, continue to mystify and enthrall enthusiasts and detractors alike.
Franco Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1968).
photo from EmMe09’s photostream.
I must admit I didn’t truly “get” Shakespeare until I saw the Franco Zefferelli version of “Romeo and Juliet” in high school. I remember swooning over Leonard Whiting, and thinking Olivia Hussey the most beautiful woman ever. For the first time, I really listened to Shakespeare as these actors delivered their lines, and realized how beautiful, varied, complicated, precise, multi-faceted, and glorious the English language really was. For months afterwards, I listened to my R&J record and recited some of the most memorable speeches, imagining myself in “fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”
In college, I was fortunate enough to make the requisite “English major pilgrimmage” to Stratford-upon-Avon one summer, to see the Bard’s first digs for myself. I remember it to be dark, rustic, and well suited to short people. I knew that Shakespeare married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, when he was just 18, and she, 26. I loved visiting her cottage, and purchasing a mini copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets at the gift shop. Several years later, I would return to England, meet and marry Len, and celebrate with an Elizabethan banquet.
Shakespeare Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (photo by SnowmanRadio).
These days, I am still trying to process the impact Shakespeare has had on modern English. They say the average person has a working vocabulary of around 10,000 words, a good novelist, probably around 15,000. Shakespeare’s personal arsenal contained approximately 30,000 words; he used between 17 – 23,000 different words in his plays, and is responsible for introducing and/or inventing at least 1700 words. Some of these are quite surprising, since we use them all the time without knowing their source: puke, lonely, critic, exposure, amazement, bump. Many common phrases, such as, “sweets to the sweet,” “lean and hungry look,” “break the ice,” ” heart on your sleeve,” “live long day,” and, “one fell swoop,” were also coined by the Bard.
photo by Karmel Design.
In evaluating his genius, we need to consider that Shakespeare was truly a product of his age. During the reign of Elizabeth I, English was just coming into its own as a respected, significant literary language, replacing Latin as the language of serious intellectual and artistic activity in England.
Rules of grammar and spelling had not yet been fully formalized, so Shakespeare had free reign to experiment, bend and shape words, and play with syntax and vocabulary to suit his style, thereby giving each of his characters a very distinct speech. This accounts for such high hootin’ insults as: “thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch” (Henry IV, Part l).
Later, when Dr. Johnson compiled the first dictionary, he used many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases to establish standard usage.
photo by Rienk Mebius.
The Renaissance was probably the most exciting and fertile period in history for a man of Shakespeare’s talents to be living and working. New words were being coined every day as a result of Latin and European influences. Though he did not attend university, Shakespeare knew how to make the best possible use of all the resources at hand.
It is well known that he “borrowed” virtually all of the plots for his plays save four. This was common practice during a time in which plays were written solely for the acting company and not meant for publication. But Shakespeare’s genius lies with his innovations in the dramatic potential of characterization, plot and language. The soliloquy, for example, became a way of delving deeper into the human psyche, rather than just conveying information. One could say Shakespeare took a conventional plot, and stretched it up, down, inside and out, embellishing it by entwining various sources, combining elements from world literature, picking and choosing just what he needed to create characters who would deepen our understanding of human nature.
Ultimately, it comes down to his singular use of language. There are many who say, “Shakespeare is unfathomable,” or that “he is too dense and daunting,” without realizing that they use some of his words and phrases all the time. Though his sonnets were written for an aristocratic audience and privately circulated before their unauthorized publication, his plays were written for a popular audience.
Unlike most theatre goers today, who may sit silently throughout a performance, Elizabethan audiences went to hear Shakespeare, and actively participated by yelling, hooting, snacking, and chatting as they followed the action. The Globe Theatre seated about 3,000 people, with “groundlings” standing right in front of the stage for a penny admission, while wealthier patrons paid more for tiered seating. Shakespeare purposely wrote for this open air, many sided, circular venue. His language was weighted with metaphor, conceit and double entendre, by turns lyrical, bawdy, colorful, grandiose. His stories appealed to the entire spectrum of London society, and he further engaged the audience via direct address and asides.
New Shakespeare Globe Theatre, Southwark (opened in 1997).
photo by wallyg.
I’ve been thinking about the rascals, knaves, servants and beggars who spent their pennies to hear Shakespeare. Most of them probably couldn’t read, never owned any books, and were completely removed from the prevailing sonneteering vogue practiced by the aristocracy. Yet, the Bard of Avon gave them poetry! And, as poetry was born of an oral tradition, the plays nourished and enriched and entertained with stories they loved and understood — exalted, earthy, profane and sublime. It is estimated that approximately 10% of London’s population attended the theatre then, much more than in major cities today.
Well, now, no theatre experience would be complete without provisions. Street vendors of the period sold mini meat pies, apples, oranges, nuts, ale, and gingerbread, all of which were consumed as well as liberally hurled at the actors according to whim. Hazelnuts were especially popular, and were the equivalent of modern day Raisinettes. I can’t imagine a more passionate crowd, littering the ground with parings and nutshells, truly believing that “the play is the thing.”
Prithee, make haste and raise a tidy tankard of cider, ale, wine, or mead, in honor of Mr. Shakespeare! Neither a borrower nor a lender be; get thee some gingerbread!
photo by allison on flickr.
William Shakespeare died of unknown causes on his 52nd birthday, April 23rd, 1616. He is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. His epitaph curses any who may dare disturb his remains.
Shakespeare’s tomb (photo by LuvNYankee.)
Do you know where the following phrases came from? (Answers below.)
1. Bated breath
2. Dead as a doornail
3. Neither rhyme nor reason
5. The green-eyed monster
6. The apple of her eye
7. Remembrance of things past
8. In my heart of hearts
9. To thine own self be true
10. Salad days.
To see Shakespeare’s Poesies, an A-Z listing of food references in Shakespeare’s plays, click here.
Today is Talk Like Shakespeare Day!! Go here to get in on all the fun.
To see a video clip from “Shakespeare in Love,” (one of my all-time fave movies), click here. *swoon*
The famous balcony scene from the Zefferelli movie can be seen here.
Here are the answers to the phrase quiz above:
1. Merchant of Venice
2. Henry VI, Part 2
3. Comedy of Errors
4. Merry Wives of Windsor
6. Love’s Labour’s Lost
7. Sonnet 30
10. Antony and Cleopatra.
*Shakespeare illos from emillustration’s flickr photostream.
P.S. Zounds! Shakespeare did NOT invent the word, “gadzooks!”
“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.” ~ Costard, Love’s Labour’s Lost.