The English language has been in constant transition throughout its history, but the most significant transformation in modern English can be credited to William Shakespeare. With Shakespeare’s invention of commonly used expressions, his creation of new words, and his use of iambic pentameter, he was able to affect the language in a way that no person since has. Shakespeare’s influence on modern English
is not only visible in everyday speech, but also in the fact that his work has survived over four hundred years and it continues to be performed and read worldwide.
Shakespeare’s ability to mold the English language
into eloquently written poetry gave him the ability to affect the language as he did. Hundreds of clichés that are used daily by English speakers were invented in Shakespeare’s writings. Few people are aware, but expressions such as “dead as a doornail” (Henry IV, Part II) or “something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth) can both be accredited to Shakespeare. In The Story of English, Bernard Levin writes that “if [the reader] cannot understand my argument, and [declares] ‘It's Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare” (McCrum, Cran, MacNeil 99). Levin is simply reminding the reader that much of common English speech
can be traced back to idioms used in Shakespeare’s writing. Shakespeare even took the liberty to invent words of his own, supposedly inventing over one thousand commonly used words. Shakespeare was able to create words in multiple ways, including changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and coming up with words that were completely original (pathguy.com). Shakespearian words include “assassination” and even “obscene” (McCrum, Cran, MacNeil 99), and other such words that are used by English speakers daily. Although a number of writers have used the English language to their advantage, no writer has taken the language to the level that Shakespeare was able to do.
In addition to adding an incredible amount to the language, Shakespeare’s work offered a reflection on the language itself through his use of iambic pentameter in his verse. Iambic pentameter is a style of poetic writing in which each line is ten syllables, alternating from soft to hard accents (five soft, five hard). Iambic pentameter captures the natural underlying rhythm in English speech. Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines have been written in iambic pentameter. For example, the opening line in one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, Romeo and Juliet, reads “Two households both alike in dignity” (I, i, 1). The arches mark the soft syllables and the slashes mark the accented syllables. If one were to pay attention to the way his speech flows, it will be clear that iambic pentameter is what flows naturally in the English language.
Shakespeare’s work is in constant use yet is hardly ever given credit for its incredible contribution to the English language. He took the language of the time, varied it, sculpted it, and reflected upon it through his articulate and expressive plays and sonnets. Shakespeare’s impact on the English language may never be duplicated, but we will always have his profound and eloquent writings, so, as the bard says, “all’s well that end’s well.”
Levin, Bernard. Enthusiasms. From The Story of English. Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Viking: 1986. 99.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry IV Part 2. Folger Shakespeare Library. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine.
http://www.pathguy.com/shakeswo.htm. “Pathguy”. 1999. September 28th, 2004.