Influence of Shakespeare on English Language

The English language has been in constant transition throughout its history, but the most significant transformation in modern English can be credited to William Shakespeare. With Shakespeare’s invention of commonly used expressions, his creation of new words, and his use of blank verse with iambic pentameter, he was able to affect the language in a way that no person since has. Shakespeare’s influence on modern English is not only visible in everyday speech, but also in the fact that his work has survived over four hundred years and it continues to be performed and read worldwide.

Among Shakespeare's greatest contributions to the English language must be the introduction of new vocabulary and phrases which have enriched the language making it more colorful and expressive. In all of his work – the plays, the sonnets and the narrative poems – Shakespeare uses 17,677 words: Of those, 1,700 were first used by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was able to create words in multiple ways, including changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and coming up with words that were completely new (assassination, obscene etc). He is also known for borrowing from the classical literature and foreign languages.

 Hundreds of clichés that are used daily by English speakers were invented in Shakespeare’s writings. Few people are aware, but expressions such as “dead as a doornail” (Henry IV, Part II) or “something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth) can both be accredited to Shakespeare. If someone cannot understand an argument, and declares ‘It's Greek to me’, he is quoting Shakespeare.  Thus, much of common English speech can be traced back to idioms used in Shakespeare’s writing. (“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”)

Shakespeare helped to further develop style and structure to an otherwise loose, spontaneous language. In the absence of prescribed grammatical rules, Elizabethan written English was identical to the spoken version. To the natural exuberance of the colloquial language Shakespeare added a structure in prose and poetry of his plays. Through experimentation of tri-syllabic substitution and decasyllabic rule he developed the blank verse to perfection and introduced a new style. Shakespeare's blank verse is one of the most important of all his influences on the way the English language was written.  He used the blank verse throughout in his writing career experimenting and perfecting it. The free speech rhythm gave Shakespeare more freedom for experimentation. "Adaptation of free speech rhythm to the fixed blank-verse framework is an outstanding feature of Shakespeare's poetry". The striking choice of words in common place blank verse influenced "the run of the verse itself, expanding into images which eventually seem to bear significant repetition, and to form, with the presentation of character and action correspondingly developed, a more subtle and suggestive unity". Expressing emotions and situations in form of a verse gave a natural flow to language with an added sense of flexibility and spontaneity.

He introduced in poetry two main factors – "verbal immediacy and the moulding of stress to the movement of living emotion". Shakespeare's words reflected passage of time with "fresh, concrete vividness" giving the reader an idea of the time frame. His remarkable capacity to analyze and express emotions in simple words was noteworthy. The sonnet form was limited structurally, in theme and in expressions. Liveliness of Shakespeare's language and strict discipline of the sonnets imparted economy and intensity to his writing style. "It encouraged the association of compression with depth of content and variety of emotional response to a degree unparalleled in English". Complex human emotions found simple expressions in Shakespeare's language.

Shakespeare's writings greatly influenced the entire English language. Prior to and during Shakespeare's time, the grammar and rules of English were not standardized.  But once Shakespeare's plays became popular in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, they helped contribute to the standardization of the English language, with many Shakespearean words and phrases becoming embedded in the English language, particularly through projects such as Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language which quoted Shakespeare more than any other writer.

Last modified: Tuesday, 3 April 2018, 1:56 AM