How Has Shakespeare Influenced the English Language?

by Derek M. Kwait
William Shakespeare is uncontested as the most influential English author.

William Shakespeare is uncontested as the most influential English author. Images

The influence of William Shakespeare's writings on the English language is second only to that of the Bible. His words, characters, plots and philosophies so thoroughly saturate English that its speakers are scarcely aware of how much of his work pervades their lives. That language influences not only the words its speakers use but how they think about the world means that even those English speakers who have never read Shakespeare's work view the world, in some sense, through his eyes.

Words and Phrases

Shakespeare's influence on English can perhaps best be seen in the many common words and phases he invented. Some of the 1,700 English words Shakespeare invented include: "accommodate," "amazement," "bloody," "bump," "critic" and "critical," "generous," "gloomy," "impartial," "hurry," "lonely," "misplaced," "monumental," "pious," "premeditated," "reliance," "sanctimonious" and "suspicious." His invented phrases include: "break the ice," "brevity is the soul of wit," "elbowroom," "catch a cold," "foregone conclusion," "heartsick," "green-eyed monster," "hotblooded," "it's Greek to me," "mind's eye," "one fell swoop," "strange bedfellows" and "to wear one's heart on one's sleeve."

Storytelling Paradigms

Shakespeare's plays have forever altered the way English speakers think of storytelling, and his characters have become paradigms for thinking about certain situations and emotions: A manipulator is a Lady Macbeth, lovers in bad circumstances are Romeo and Juliet, a trickster is Puckish and a dark, brooding person is a Hamlet. Shakespeare's influence on character types is such that it is difficult to write a character without viewing him through the lens of Shakespeare's treatment of a similar character type.

American English

In early America, the plays of Shakespeare were popular among the masses and widely performed. As such, they have had an almost incalculable impact on the development of American English. According to English teacher and writer Adam Watson, some of what is commonly seen by outsiders as American grammatical laziness in fact comes from the popular influence of Shakespeare. For example, when Americans say "You and I" instead of the more correct "You and me," or use double negatives to show emphasis, it is because of similar forms used by Shakespeare.

"The Invention of the Human"

According to critic Harold Bloom in his book "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," Shakespeare invented the way people think, speak and write about the human. As Bloom writes to open the book, "Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging.... In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves.... Self overhearing is their royal road to individuation, and no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished... creating such [different] yet utterly self-consistent voices for his" characters. In other words, Shakespeare made language about people's inner lives and personalities possible.

About the Author

Derek M. Kwait has a Bachelor of Arts in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh and has been writing for most of his life in various capacities. He has worked as a staff writer and videographer for the "Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh" and also has training writing fiction, nonfiction, stage-plays and screenplays.

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