This essay will be exploring the works of William Shakespeare and its influence in the English Language. In this paper, I am going to be focussing on the changes that occurred in literature as a result of William Shakespeare’s influence. My work is divided into five sections. The first section begins with me quickly highlighting what the Renaissance is and generally what happened in that period. Furthermore, it contains the changes that occurred in literature and a little historical background of the English language. The second section is a quick biography of William Shakespeare. Following it is a section about his contributions to the English literature. What exactly did he invent or add to the already existing language? The fourth section deals with how he was able to spread his contributions and lastly, the final section talks about the impact of William Shakespeare on modern literature and if a world without him is possible. This essay will be concluding that although William Shakespeare is dead, his legacy lives as the English Language benefitted from the words he introduced.
Table of Contents
William Shakespeare, a name often mentioned in an English class, did more than just write plays for the English literature. He contributed a lot of things that helped to bring English to the way it currently is. My work stands to prove that there is more to Shakespeare’s influence on the English literature. Additionally, this paper aims to shed light on how literature changed as a result of the Renaissance and also on how William Shakespeare, although born towards the ending of that era, is amongst the founding father of today’s English literature because of his immense contributions towards it after its rebirth. In other to understand his contributions, one has to know that he was born in a time where things were changing dramatically. The world was undergoing transformations in every possible aspect.
In this paper, I am going to be focussing on the changes that occurred in literature as a result of William Shakespeare’s influence. My work is divided into five chapters. The first chapter begins with me quickly highlighting what the Renaissance is and generally what happened in that period. Furthermore, it contains the changes that occurred in literature and a little historical background of the English language. The second chapter is a quick biography of William Shakespeare. Following it is a chapter about his contributions to the English literature. What exactly did he invent or add to the already existing language? The fourth chapter deals with how he was able to spread his contributions and lastly, the final chapter talks about the impact of William Shakespeare on modern literature and if a world without him is possible.
As a result of my topic being historic for most parts, it is based entirely on literary sources. I have consulted a number of books and websites which are either primary or secondary sources. The majority of the sources are secondary sources as they are mostly interpretations done by various authors due to it being hard to come by primary sources that share the same opinion concerning his contributions. My topic is a topic that has been well discussed among several authors, so I am not going to be providing any new facts to it. As mentioned earlier, there are times when opinions vary but that there is all to it.
Renaissance, a word originated from the French and when translated means rebirth, is a time in European history that led to the beginning of classical learning and wisdom. This period was a transition from the Middle Ages into the modern world. At that time new continents started being discovered and explored, the feudal system was abolished; there was an increase in trade and the powerful innovations such as paper, printing press, the mariner’s compass, and gunpowder were invented. The fascinating part of this movement is that it combined scholarly, cultural, social, and political characteristics into one.
This movement began when the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire failed in providing the people with a stable spiritual and material life and as a result of this, major changes occurred which included the rise of national monarchies and their own languages. There were many different aspects of the Renaissance, one of which is Humanism which originated in Italy. It emphasises the importance of truth spread in philosophical and theological schools and the dignity of man and human nature in a demonstration. In general, the idea behind humanism is that humans are reborn with a new spirit, wisdom and ability to explore their potential thinking. This can only be achieved through breaking mental restrictions caused by religion. The motion spread very quickly with the help of the printing press which had gotten invented around that time.
1.1 Changes in literature
The invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg made a huge impact in the world of literature because it made printing books more efficient and this gradually led to the increase in literacy rate. Literary works were now easily attainable. People no longer had to depend on communal reading in order to obtain information. Everyone, regardless of his or her social class, could practice individual reading because the opportunity had been opened as a result of the newly discovered press. Reading was no longer a thing for the privileged. It became something that could be achieved by anyone that desired the skill.
As mentioned earlier, Italy is well-known for being the land that underwent a lot of changes at that time in history. However, when focusing solely on the literary aspect, England is said to be a rival because it went through lots of changes in that same form. Great Britain benefited a lot from the Renaissance because it advanced from a barbaric nation to an influential and powerful country. The English Renaissance is widely known for having produced a vast amount of the greatest works of literature, which include poems and drama. These two genres were the most dominant forms of the English literature of that era. The sole purpose of a poem was to capture beauty and truth in words and this was possible in the style of repetition accompanied by a subtle wit whereas the function of drama was to entertain people and alongside to criticise society.
1.2 Historical background of the English language
The English Language was born when three Germanic tribes (the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes) invaded Britain in the 5th century AD. Before they occupied the country, the Celts had already taken residence there. However, due to their arrival, the Celtic tribe was forced to move and settle in the northern part of the land where today’s Wales and Scotland are located. The Angles had come from a place called “Englaland” and whose lingua franca was “Englisc” and this is where present-day England and its official language English originated from. There are three classifications of English, which are Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.
Old English can be dated back from 450 till 1100 AD and it was spoken by the Germanic invaders. The similarity to how today’s English is spoken can be classified as good as none existent. But there are still a few words like “be”, “strong” and “water” which originated from it and are still being used at present. Middle English evolved when William the Conqueror defeated England in 1066. As a result of him being French, French was adopted in Britain and became the language of the Royal court and business class. This led to a visible separation between the social classes, as the upper classes communicated in French and the lower ones in English. Although English was dominant and spoken by most parts of the society, there was a huge amount of French words being added to the day to day conversations. For example, the word “restaurant” is derived from the French and means a place where meals are prepared and served to customers. Modern English can be classified into two subcategories, namely Early Modern English and Late Modern English. Early Modern English was developed in the Renaissance, it brought new words and phrases as a result of the invention of new machinery. The invention of the printing press made it easier for more people to learn how to read because more books were being printed out and therefore increased the opportunities. Printing also made it easier for publishing houses to standardize spelling and grammar. In 1604, the first dictionary was published. Late Modern English is the English we still speak and write in today. The difference between the early one and itself is that more vocabulary was invented due to the constant change in the world we live in. The first flow of new words occurred during the Industrial Revolution, as new technology was being developed. The next was during the British Empire, as Britain controlled at least one-quarter of the earth.
English spread around the world due to the rule of the British Empire, however, each colony decided to add their own touch to its newly adopted language. That is why we are confronted with a lot of different dialects in the English language today. We can differentiate between American English, British English, and Australian English. For example, in British English one says “pepper”, the Americans call it as “bell pepper” and the Australians refer to it as “capsicum”. Additionally, although it is not official in the constitutions, many countries use English as their internal lingua franca because of how rapidly the language is growing and because of its popularity. A future prognosis would be that English might turn into a universal language if it will keep on being introduced the way it presently is.
1.3 Introduction of Shakespeare’s influence
No one could match William Shakespeare’s level when it came to drama due to his broad range of vocabulary and how he applied them splendidly. Moreover, he had the ability to create stories that ran from the classical Greco-Roman to contemporary tales of unrequited love. He also had the capacity to shift between comedy and tragedy, from complex character study to light-hearted farce. His plays show in high esteem the formal structure which embraced the emotional and psychological arc of the action in the drama. Furthermore, he brought the English language to a very prestigious stage after being seen for years as a disdainful language. His sonnets specifically display a brilliant verbal performance with images layered one on top of another in a sensory kind of collage.
2. Who was William Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare was a genius. He was not a genius according to the modern meaning of the word, which states that a genius is an exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity. He was a genius in the sense that he had the extraordinary ability to bring words into life.
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. He was born into the family of a local farmer, John Shakespeare, who was married to Mary Arden. They had a total of 8 children with only 6 surviving as 2 died at their early stages in life. He attended King’s New School and later Stratford grammar school where he learnt Latin and a little bit of Greek. He did not attend a university due to lack of funds caused by his father’s debts. 
At the age of 18, William got married to Anne Hathaway who was carrying his child and 8 years his senior. They both had three children (a boy and two girls). Unfortunately, the boy died 11 years later. From 1585 till 1592 not a lot of information was recorded concerning Shakespeare’s life. Therefore, this period is referred to as ‘the lost years’ and there are lots of theories and speculations about what happened to him at that time. One of the theories that had more advantage over the others was the Lancashire theory by John Aubrey. According to it, Shakespeare left Stratford to work as a schoolmaster in the country. Somewhere along the way, he must have ended up in central London during the late 1580s.
Shakespeare’s career in central London did not start on the stage but rather next to the stage. He began by writing for professional stages rather than acting. In 1594, he joined a theatrical troupe called the Chamberlain’s Men. In 1597 they encountered a disaster which led to the Chamberlain’s Men not having a permanent residence to perform at anymore. This was what led to the building of London’s largest and most famous amphitheatre, which was called the Globe. That same year, William purchased New Place, one of Stratford’s grandest premises, for himself and his family. 
King James I took the Chamberlain’s Men under his wing and they were to perform at court for him with their new name the King’s Men.  During this period, Shakespeare wrote lots of plays, mainly tragedies and sonnets and his sonnets started being published officially in 1609.
He retired around 1613 and moved back to his hometown, Stratford. Around the time of his retirement, a massive fire occurred at the Globe Theatre which led to it burning down completely. The fire happened during the performance of a play about Henry VIII and it was caused by a canon that was used for creating special effects on stage mostly especially when acting out an event that took place in history. He had written his will about a month before he passed away.
William Shakespeare died on the 23rd of April 1616. No one is certain about the cause of his death but there are speculations on illnesses that might have troubled him. Some stories say that he had a fever while others say he suffered from typhoid and syphilis. However, there is not really a source that has a record of the exact ailment.
He was buried two days later at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. As a way of honouring his legacy, his closest theatrical friends gathered all his works and published it a few years after his death. 
In the early 16th century, The English language was not highly rated. It was rather seen as a language spoken day-to-day by the lower-caste society due to it sounding barbaric and lacking the sophistication that foreign languages required. Therefore, it was not promoted at schools. Children were taught Latin and Greek in schools because they were the default languages for scholarly and ecclesiastical communication. English was not ideal for literature. It was merely a language of the street.
In the mid-16th century, everything was slowly changing. English started developing into a respectable means of communication with the help of many factors. For example, the literacy rates were increasing which meant that many people were eager to learn how to read and write. Writing in English became signified as a symbol of growing patriotism. Moreover, every man that was proficient in this language was known for being more cultured and having a rounded personality.
This was the birth of early modern English.
Shakespeare’s greatest achievement was that he could unify the three main streams of literature: verse, poetry and drama. At that time, it was normal for plays to be written in rhyming verse. However, in the plays that he wrote, he mixed verse, poetry and drama altogether. The use of verses in his plays affected the expressiveness of English positively while the use of poetry added more intensity to the structure of the language. Additionally, the usage of drama broadened the vocabulary and prevented the English language from any signs of unclearness. All together these three main streams were what led to an era of new words, phrases, expressions, style and form.
Blank verse was used for writing plays because of the free speech rhythm it provided for the author. Although it demanded a certain selection of words, the author could use this form to show the emotions of a character in a way that boosted the language. The usage of Blank verse in Shakespeare’s written works affected the English language greatly because it later determined the way the language would be written in.
3.2 New words, vocabulary, phrases
William Shakespeare is among the poets that are known for having enriched and broadened the vocabulary of the English language. He could achieve this because he was good at coinage. According to Oxford dictionary, coinage is the invention of a new word or phrase. Shakespeare particularly was very skilful at borrowing words from Latin and transforming them. He did this by keeping the stem that belongs to one language and the prefix or suffix to the other. Examples of these words are accommodation, fixture, pious, generous, educate and so on. Through his borrowings, it is said that he introduced roughly 600 words into English. The thing about broadening a language is that some old words will assume new meanings and others not. Furthermore, some of the new words will stick around while others will fade away. This is something that is prone to happen and quite a few of Shakespeare’s words, for example, crimeless, insisture, primy, unsisting, etc. happened to disappear as the English language continued to evolve. This was the process which led to literary language slowly rising towards standardization.
3.3 Standardization of the English Language
William Shakespeare’s writings are a part of one of the factors that led to the standardization of English because as soon as they became popular, his words and phrases were put into full action and from this, the grammar and rules of English slowly started being established.  Moreover, his writings represent the rules that are currently being used in the English language, for example, he reinitiated the use of suffixes in grammar. Although he has been dead for a very long time and English has been more modernised since then, Shakespeare’s grammar still remains the same.
3.4 Conspiracy theories concerning Shakespeare’s works
According to the English Oxford living dictionaries, a conspiracy theory is a belief that some convert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event. There are lots of these theories that suggest that Shakespeare may not have written his works by himself. The argument for these accusations is that there is so little biographical proven information found on him. Therefore, one cannot be sure if he had an underground author writing for him.
The most claimed “actual author” behind Shakespeare’s pieces is a Venetian Jewish woman called Amelia Bassano. The theory behind her being the real writer is that most of the written plays were set in Italy and she is said to have had knowledge of the country. Whereas William Shakespeare is believed to have had none, as he never left England. Furthermore, the fact that she left “clues” to her identity in the plays, for example, Bassanio in “The Merchant of Venice”. Another argument that proves this hypothesis is that women were not allowed in Elizabethan London to write original literature, so she probably used William Shakespeare as a figure head in order to achieve her goal. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets perfectly accentuates this point because it is written about a “dark lady” and Amelia fits in the role as a teacup does to a saucer. 
Another famous conspiracy theory is the “Baconian theory” and this one suggests that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The reason behind Shakespeare being the figurehead is that Sir Francis did not want to ruin his image as an important statesman. Therefore, he let him assume the role of the author. A man of his timber and calibre could not risk being recognized as a mere dramatist. Moreover, lots of Bacon’s philosophies are ideas that were used in creating the plays that William Shakespeare wrote. Even in the works that Bacon published, lots of parallels can be drawn between his story and that of Shakespeare.
The Earl of Oxford has also been considered as Shakespeare’s ghostwriter, because he was popular for his beautiful poetry, had lots of travel experiences which are well displayed in Shakespeare’s collections and lastly, a large number of his favourite passages in the bible were used as references in the plays. Although the Earl had died before Shakespeare’s works got published, people from Oxford believe that the dates on the plays were falsified. The film “Anonymous” plays a huge role in hinting at these theses.
Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare’s biggest rival in the context of writing. The explanation that supports this hypothesis is that both authors had the same style writing style and usually used the same amount and type of phrases. Furthermore, the fact that the data kept concerning how Marlowe died is considerably shady, so most people often conclude that his death was staged in order to prevent the truth from being revealed.
At the end of the day, no one really knows if these theories are actually true. They are just speculations done by some experts based on their individual interpretations of William Shakespeare’s works.
William Shakespeare’s works were spread with the help of the theatre as most of them were produced there. As previously stated, his occupation in central London began as a screenwriter for plays and the first plays recorded under his name were King Richard III and Henry VI.
4.1 The impact of Shakespeare on the English Stage
There is no proof of Shakespeare having had any experience based on acting. However, it is believed that any boy that grew up in the West Midlands had a certain knowledge about the different types of theatres that England offered. Also, Stratford was known for having hosted lots of travelling troupes of actors, so he had probably encountered one of the theatre companies somewhere along the way.
Nevertheless, when Shakespeare moved to central London in the late 1580s, the English theatre was undergoing some transformations. There were a group of writers, called the “university wits” and they were revolutionizing against the Tudor morality plays, which was the most popular form of Theatre at that age. Tudor morality plays were based on characters that chose a virtuous godly life over an evil one. The main problem with these theatrical works was that they were unrealistic. The goal of the revolutionists was to create a drama that had more philosophical depth and made fun of morality in an improper way.
Shakespeare went overboard with these new reforms because he generated theatrical pieces which connected his audience with various emotions and made them evaluate and argue on the starting point of human nature. His play, “Hamlet”, contains an “integrated characterisation plot” which represents a plot that is reliant on the development of the principal characters. In “Romeo and Juliet”, according to Jill Levenson, he combined tragedy and comedy and came up with a new genre which was the romantic genre. Before then, no one had regarded romance as being worthy to be associated with tragedy.
While working for the English theatre, William Shakespeare wrote lots of poems and later sonnets which are also poems but are made up of fourteen lines. He wanted to excel not only as a playwriter but also as a poet. His big break in poetry writing occurred between 1592 till 1594 when the theatres were closed in London because of the plague. During that period, he wrote two poems titled “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. Both were inspired by Ovid, a classical poet. They were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who is said to have sponsored Shakespeare while he was writing them.
Shakespeare’s sonnets can be divided into two different series. The first series deals with his conflicted love to a young gentleman referred to as “fair youth” and is made up of 126 sonnets. There are speculations that this series is based on the earl considering how the earl’s autobiography fits in perfectly with that of the main protagonist. Nevertheless, there is no certainty to this hypothesis. The second series emphasises on the uncontrollable sexual encounter he had with a so-called “Dark Lady” and consists of 26 sonnets. Due to how 126 works of his are solely concentrated on the beauty of a young man and the sexual desires between two men, there are rumours that suggest that William Shakespeare may just have been bisexual. Furthermore, the fact that when he wrote them, they were never intended to be published proves this theory. They were simply written to contain his secret homosexual feelings for the unknown young gentleman.
Modern storytellers are still instilling Shakespeare into modern tales because of his capacity to describe human emotions in a simple but expressive way. For example, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is a famous line from his play “A Midsummer night’s dream”. This line expresses the beauty of love towards someone other than oneself. Moreover, Shakespeare having written works that move from one genre to another (i.e. Romeo and Juliet started out as a romance story but ended up as a tragedy) has influenced lots of films and TV-Series, which include “Ten things I hate about you” and “Game of Thrones”.
5.1 Game of Thrones – a modern tale with Shakespearean components
“Game of Thrones (GoT)” contains elements that hint that George R.R. Martin, the author of these series, might have gotten some ideas for the books and HBO’s tv show from Shakespeare’s English history plays. Shakespeare’s play “Richard III” begins with the War of Roses while “GoT” also starts with a war which has reference to it. The Wars of Roses are a string of civil wars whose violence paved the way for the government of the Tudors. The parallel between both is that the tussle at the beginning of both stories represents the struggle the rulers undergo in order to take hold of their power. Another similarity between the two tales is that the two authors have an outcast, with a brilliant mind, sharp tongue and taste for wine, who shows the development of a good leader and how he abides by the duties that come along with the post. For example, the play “Henry IV”, a continuation of Richard III, portrays Henry V, a drunken ruffian, who fights for what he believes and proves his worth when he has to defend his father’s kingdom. Similarly, in “Game of Thrones”, Tyrion, a drunken hooligan, has to wrestle for his beliefs and later, turns out to be very effective when he is ordered by his father to defend their homeland.
Furthermore, Martin does not argue against having taken inspiration from Shakespeare. “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important. I’m proud of my work, but I don’t know if I’d ever claim it’s enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow, they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own,”. This is a statement from him and with it, he is trying to say that there is no way one can generally have ideas that belong only to him. Right from the beginning of time, writers have always copied from one another and the thing that separated each and every one of them is their ability to present their ideas to their audience.
5.2 Movies – inspired by Shakespeare
The movie “10 Things I Hate About You” is a modification of Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew” because both narratives share the same plot. The plot is generally about a female who is searching for her real self and finally finds it at the end of the day. This film is basically a modern-day version with easier language. The characters even share the same names, like Kat for Katherina and Bianca, the younger sister. Additionally, when analysed carefully, quotes from Shakespeare can be found, for example, “I burn, I pine, I perish” was recited by Cameron, one of the main characters.
The film “Romeo + Juliet” by Baz Luhrmann is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. The fascinating part of this production is how the director was able to transform Shakespeare’s dialogues into a futuristic, medieval-punk setting with killer music. With this movie, the audience understands that the star-crossed lovers are teenagers because the actors and actresses have the most sizzling chemistry possible and portray youthful innocence, unlike other productions that have been done where the actors are usually middle age appear as ancient and uncool.
Lastly, the motion picture “She’s the Man” takes its plot from “The Twelfth Night”. In both stories, the main protagonist is a woman who disguises herself as a man. A visible similarity between both is that in the play, Viola goes to the land of Illyria, while in the film, Viola attends Illyria High School. Furthermore, the male that the character in each storyline falls in love with is called Duke. Duke in “She’s the Man” also quotes a famous line from the play which is “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
5.3 Theatre all over the world
Although William Shakespeare begun his career in England, today he is known worldwide. He created his stories by adapting and borrowing from the stories and traditions of other countries. In return, his plays were adapted, translated, and performed in(to) several languages. These languages range from Armenian to Zulu. In Poland, he is known as “Szekspir”, in Japan as “Sheykuspia” and in China as “Shashibiya” or “Old Man Sha”. During the time of Imperialism, the English were able to popularise Shakespeare among their colonies because he was an important poet in the history of the English language. This was how it came about to Shakespeare being taught in the curriculum of schools in India and West and Central Africa. Additionally, the fact that his plays have universal themes and are able to exceed any barriers such as class, language, colour, or creed helps to promote them even more all over the world.
5.4 English without Shakespeare
A lot has been stated so far concerning William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language, but how would the world have been without his impact? English would have probably expanded and been standardized at a much later stage. So, eventually, the words that Shakespeare had coined, would have been coined by someone else. However, it is undisputable that without Shakespeare, the language would not be the same today. Shakespeare is known for having been experimental and as a result of that, he invented many household words and phrases. Without him, we would have to find alternatives for terminologies and expressions such as “bump”, “bedroom”, “alligator”, “castigate”, “fair play”, “a laughing stock”, “knock, knock, who’s there?”, “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve”, etc.
Another important aspect would be that our impression of how a writer should be, would be different. Usually, when it comes to writing, there is only Shakespeare, because there is no one in comparison to him unlike for example, in music. In music, when one is an upcoming composer you refer to him as a future Bach, Mozart, or many more. However, in writing there is just William Shakespeare, because he is the universal picture of everyone’s thoughts about literature. Without him, it would be difficult to determine the quality of the work of an author for he is indeed one in a million. The lack of Shakespeare would take away the complexities of a character. Shakespeare’s soliloquies are known for being when a figure explores his/her personality, motivations, and ambitions. If you take him away, a lot of parts of the English language would be missing. Maybe someone else would have invented all these things, but it is undeniable that it would have taken longer.
To sum it up, after the Renaissance, the English literature was reborn and slowly started rising to one of the world’s best because the English language finally gained the superiority it had been lacking all along. The fact that people became more literate was a great assistance as more writing was done and thereabout, there was a need to standardize the language. William Shakespeare is one of the authors that helped to smoothen this process. I think it is very important for people to generally know that he did not just write plays that English speaking natives do not even understand but is responsible for having unified the three main streams of literature: drama, poetry, and verse. Additionally, he is known for being able to shift from one genre to another and through his writings, he invented lots of vocabularies that helped to broaden the English language. His newly invented words and phrases were also a factor that helped in quickening the process of standardising English.
In spite of the fact that William Shakespeare has been dead for over two centuries, he brought the English language to its current standard and is still influencing a lot of up-coming film producers and writers based on how phenomenal his writing style and character development was. He may be dead, but his works and legacy still live on. His plays will always come across as incomprehensible to the latest generation but without them, English would not have advanced as it did. Some other person would have probably stumbled upon the words that he invented. However, it is undoubtable that it would have been prolonged, and that English might not have moved forward up to this level.
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