The Shakespeare I have come to know: A scholar separates legend from legacy - Hindustan Times

The Shakespeare I have come to know: A scholar separates legend from legacy

ByJonathan Culpeper
Jan 19, 2024 11:01 PM IST

He certainly did not invent the 1,000-odd words often attributed to him, says Jonathan Culpeper of Lancaster University. But then, most writers don’t coin one.

Even if you have never read Shakespeare, there’s one thing we all know for sure: He was a great writer.

The ghost of the King appears before Horatio and the guards in Hamlet. (Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
The ghost of the King appears before Horatio and the guards in Hamlet. (Wikimedia Commons)

But just how great was he? For the last 25 years, I have been working at Lancaster University in the UK, on his language, using computers to pinpoint patterns and help us gain a better understanding of it.

Some people think that the Bard contributed many of the words that we use in English today. Indeed, I have read claims that as many as half the words in the English language come from Shakespeare. This is simply impossible. About 21,000 different words survive in the poet’s texts. Let’s say that the English language consists of 500,000 words (excluding rare, technical ones). Even if — and this would be ridiculous — all of Shakespeare’s words were uniquely invented by him, that would only amount to 4.2% of the words currently in the language.

So, how many words did he actually invent? Wild speculations are easy to find. Even the web pages of the esteemed Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (the independent educational charity formed to preserve his birthplace as a national memorial) states that the figure is 1,700. It is not clear how that number was arrived at.

Working with colleagues, I have been discovering that the truer number is closer to 400.

Another popular idea is that Shakespeare’s language is “universal”. The themes and aspects of the human condition represented in his plays certainly are. Love is love. Death is death. This is why his work remains as compelling today as it was all those years ago. But all language changes, and even some of the seemingly everyday terms used by Shakespeare are not exempt from this law.

Take “time”. About 400 years ago, when he was writing, people understood time as very closely linked to the cycles of the moon and sun. This is why the word time, unlike today, often co-occurred with the words “day” or “night” (eg, “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night?” – Horatio in Hamlet).

If the reality about Shakespeare’s language is rather different, why do we have these myths?

The idolisation of the Bard, known as Bardolatry, grew over centuries, reaching its heyday in the late-19th century. In 1840, the famous Victorian scholar Thomas Carlyle wrote: “This King Shakespeare, does not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying signs; indestructible […]”.

Bardolatry became fused with nationalism and imperialism. As the British Empire declined, the British became ever more desperate to pump up Shakespeare as proof of their own superiority — the best writer there ever had been, in any language.

Am I saying that Shakespeare is not great? Did the British government make a mistake in funding my research? Not at all.

All these myths get in the way of seeing his true greatness. In celebrating him for what he didn’t do, we tend to lose sight of what is truly impressive. Such as the fact that most writers in English go their whole lives without creating a single word. Shakespeare seems to have created about 400. We’re still using them. And, often, celebrating where they came from. What a triumph!

(Jonathan Culpeper is a professor of English language and linguistics at Lancaster University, and editor of Volumes 1 and 2 of The Arden Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language, published by Bloomsbury in August)

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