The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good.
For 170 years after his death nobody questioned that fact that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author of the 36 plays which were gathered into the First Folio of his works of 1623. His fellow actors and writers marked his death by writing glowing tributes. The greatest historian of the day, William Camden, listed him among the great writers of the age. At the time of his death there were 70 editions of his works in print: far more than any other playwright – equivalent to 50,000 individual copies in a city of 180,000 residents. Of the 3,000 plays performed between Elizabeth’s accession in 1588 and the closure of the theatres in 1642, only 230 survive. A sixth of them (38) are by Shakespeare. When he died in 1616 there would have been few people in London who didn’t know who Shakespeare was or even, given that he was also a performer, what he looked like.
The first dissenting voice came in 1785, when an Oxford scholar (also from Stratford) called James Wilmot concluded that Shakespeare was a near-illiterate country boy on the make – an inconceivable CV for the greatest writer in the language. This was to spawn an industry that now boasts over 5,000 books and sixty different theorists, with supporters ranging from Mark Twain and Henry James to Orson Welles, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance.
What is remarkable is that there is not one shred of reliable documentary evidence to support any of these rival claims. Most of them say that ‘we don’t know much about Shakespeare’. In fact, we know more about Shakespeare than about most of his contemporaries (we don’t even know when Ben Jonson was born or how many children he had). We know he married very young (at 18), that he worked for almost three decades as an actor/writer and eventually major partner in one of the most successful theatrical companies of the time, and that he died a wealthy man.
What we don’t know is what he thought or felt, because like most of his contemporaries, he didn’t write memoirs or diaries or keep letters and the plays he wrote were the property of the company, not the author. Plus, an Elizabethan grammar school education (which he almost certainly received) was equivalent to a university degree today, leaving its pupils with a thorough grounding in history and a fluency in spoken and written Latin.
Lots of Shakespeare’s coinages have been adopted into the English language. They include: accessible, acutely, assembled, barefaced, beguiling, bewitchment, cloud-capped, critic, even-handed, eyeball, foul-mouthed, footfall, Frenchwoman, hot-blooded, insulting, hunchbacked, laughable, leap-frog, marriage-bed, moonbeam, mountaineer, neglected, overpower, pageantry, promising, published, radiance, revealing, rose-cheeked, sanctimonious, satisfying, schooldays, silliness, suffocating, time-honoured, three-legged, useful, well-behaved, and well-bred.
But there is a word of caution to remember in all this. Shakespeare is sometimes said to have coined more new English words than anyone else, which is probably untrue. The compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary were often keen to cite examples of him as the first example of a word, especially given that they didn’t have the technology to search archives of sixteenth-century books. So, many of Shakespeare’s supposed coinages are older than his work.
Shakespeare’s vocabulary – assuming his works represent his whole vocabulary – is 20,000 words, about half that of the average modern English person’s vocabulary. In one study, adults took 1% of pages from a college-sized English dictionary (with about 100,000 words) and were asked to identify the words they used, as well as the ones they knew but didn’t use. Their estimates of their active vocabulary averaged at 50,000. The average passive vocabulary was roughly 25% larger.
David Crystal, a linguistics expert, tested the Sun newspaper and found that in just 100 articles spread across one issue of the paper there were 5,190 lexemes (a lexeme is the set of forms produced by a single word, so ‘run’ is a lexeme which creates and includes ‘runs’, ‘runner’, and 'running’). The first five lexemes were ‘abandon’, ‘abdicate’, ‘abdominal’, ‘ability’, and ‘ablaze’. He estimated that there would be at least 6,000 in any complete issue of the Sun, whereas the entire King James Bible only contains 8,000 lexemes.
A pair of boots is worth more than Shakespeare.
Not all of the words and phrases that Shakespeare introduced to the English language are in use today. Here are some Shakespearean coinages that didn't stay the course:
Others include bubukles, congreeing, conspectuities, dispunge, enactures, fracted, to friend, germins, incarnadine, intrenchant, irregulous, mirable, oppugnancy, palmy, plantage, primy, propugnation, relume, reprobance, rigol, rooky, roted, rubious, smilets, unsisting and virgined. 'Virgined' means 'held securely', incidentally.
Prudish Victorians altered the word 'strumpet' to 'trumpet' throughout Shakespeare's works. This resulted in a line from Cymbeline reading: 'Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the trumpet in my bed'.