Ah, the sun is out, the breeze is blowing, flowers are dotting the landscape and I am in love again. It’s with a heavy heart that I admit it is not my husband who has inspired my ardor though. It’s a much older man whom I was introduced to long before him. He has provided me with sage advice, witty comebacks and wicked names to insult my enemies with. At times he has frustrated and confused me, but he is one of the only relationships in my life that has never let me down or disappointed me. I’m speaking, of course, about the bard himself: good ol’ Bill Shakespeare.
For the past nine years, I’ve looked forward to my Shakespeare unit. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado, Midsummer’s or Julius Caesar. I love getting up in front of my students, and amazing them by reciting some of my favorite speeches. It always surprises me how impressed they are that I have memorized the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. They follow along diligently, just waiting for me to mess up, and when I don’t, they think I am brilliant. I’m not sure if it is for my memorization skills, or the fact that they’ve been taught Shakespeare is somehow a measure of intelligence. They really do believe that the ability to understand a passage of his work, any passage, is close to genius. When I show them how easy it really is to understand (and point out all of his dirty jokes), they start to think a bit highly of themselves as well, which is just one reason I love the guy.
I think my enthusiasm for his work helps a lot too. I devote an entire bulletin board to him, with a poster of the entire script for Romeo and Juliet, tube maps to the Globe, pictures of me at the Globe, a historical timeline of his work as well as various snarky quotes from his plays. This alone I think is the reason that while some of my kids don’t like me, they all think I’m super smart. Ok, I’ll admit it, that’s another reason to love Bill.
But I digress. This post isn’t actually about how I love his plays or the fact that he makes me look so good to 15-year-olds. I’m currently reading Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (yet another Bill I adore) and was amazed to find out another reason Shakespeare is so cool. The man invented 2,000 words. Think about this. Before he set pen to paper, these words did not exist. He just rolled out of bed one morning, started writing Henry IV and decided “bastard” would make a good adjective, so he created the phrase “that bastardly rogue.” He thought, here’s something I like the sound of. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a word, I’m writing it. According to Bryson, it is estimated that of the 17,677 words Shakespeare used in his plays, about 1/10 were words he just made up. The man came up with “frugal,” “dwindle,” “countless,” “hint,” “hurry,” “lonely,” “excellent,” and “obscene” just to name a few. Imagine just for a second our day to day language without these words. Without the word “obscene,” what would the religious right have to complain about? Or how would we describe Shakespeare for that matter?
Not only did he give us all these great words, he also gave us some amazing phrases. In his plays he gave us “vanish into thin air,” “flesh and blood,” “to be in a pickle,” and one of my favorites, “on and on and on.” In Othello, he gave us the idea of jealousy being the “green-eyed monster.” Before he wrote these words down, they just didn’t exist. To me, this is astounding. I think of all the words I know and use on a regular basis and how many of them are attributed to one man who liked to write plays. In all the writing I’ve done, plays, poems, short stories, vignettes, I don’t think I’ve ever created a single original word. I know new words are being created and added to our lexicon every day, but most of these are jargon of some sort. That’s not what Shakespeare gave us. He gave us real words that we use every day. To me, this is astounding, and the current reason I adore him. And who knows, maybe when I tell my kids this, they’ll realize that he’s not some old dead guy who has no impact or bearing on their lives. Probably not, but hey, it’s worth a try.