William Shakespeare

World's greatest poet and dramatist - Written by Adam Seex

"On, on you noblest English!
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof;
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here the mettle of your pasture.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry "God for Harry! England and Saint George".

The name William Shakespeare is often associated with one of the greatest poets and dramatists of all time, and more importantly, with Englishness.

Shakespeare’s birth date is traditionally accepted by most to have been 23rd April 1564; an important day for the English, as it is also St. George’s day. Born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, he probably began attending the grammar school there at around 6 or 7. Here he would receive education in the great Latin poets: Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and Horace, which would greatly impact his later career. At the age of 18 he married Anne Hathaway who bore him three children: Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith.

Between the years of 1585 and 1592, Shakespeare became a successful actor and writer in London, writing plays until 1613, where it appears he retired to Stratford. Shakespeare died three years later in 1616, leaving a legacy of about 46 plays, and over 100 poems.

Shakespeare wrote plays in three broad categories: Comedies, Tragedies and Histories. Some of the most powerful English plays written were his ‘Histories’, these were plays that recorded the actions of great British Kings, and helped reinterpret their actions for a contemporary England. These plays and Shakespeare himself played an important part in the spirit of Englishness in the seventeenth century. Richard II in particular was seen to represent contemporary Englishness so strongly that the Earl of Essex, the night before his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601, commissioned a special performance of the play (Known for the dramatic scene in which Richard II is dethroned by an uprising by Henry VII – Act 4, Scene 1).  

It is clear that for seventeenth century England, Shakespeare was helping to shape impressions of what it meant to be English.

But what about today?

Too often Shakespeare’s work and achievements are taken for granted, he is unfortunately seen as tedious by many forced to study his work in earlier education. But this study often approaches the appreciation of Shakespeare’s art, for art’s sake, rather than his contribution to Englishness. In his plays he talks about England or the English 506 times, using the word England 323 times, and English 165 times; as one might expect 85% of this occurs in the history plays.

So what does he say about the English?

One reference to the English that appears in the play ‘Othello’ portrays the English as good drinkers: ‘potent in potting’, an allusion that most Englishmen will smile and agree with. On a more serious note Shakespeare also shows a love for England that is rarely found in modern times. Nowhere is this passion, and love for England more intense than in Richard II. Mowbray is given a ‘dateless exile’ from England because of a quarrel with another, and delivers this speech:

The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo,
And no my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp…
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

(Richard II, Act 1 Scene 3 Line 148-167)

This bemoaning for his loss of the English language represents a greater grief of losing England, perhaps reflecting Shakespeare’s own thoughts that without English he would be lost, and his free and easy speech imprisoned.

The speech also contains another of Shakespeare’s contributions to the English: his language. Shakespeare is credited with creating around 2000 new words; perhaps making English what it is often described as today: The most expressive language on the planet. To place this achievement in perspective, it is estimated that an intelligent person has a working vocabulary of around 5000 words. To list a few of Shakespeare’s neologisms (newly created words): monumental, obscene, lonely, excellent and hurry. Also, many phrases which are modern day idioms, bound up with the English language were coined by Shakespeare: Cruel to be kind, all’s well that ends well, wearing one’s heart upon one’s sleeve and to eat out of house and home. Not only are these words and phrases circulated in England, they are used everywhere in which English is spoken. Shakespeare enriched the English language, through his words and works, and as the English, we should be proud of his achievement, and proud to be part of it.

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