Yvette Huddleston: Why the word’s the thing when it comes to Shakespeare

The great and the good, including Sir Ian McKellen, have been out in force celebrating Shakespeare's 400th anniversary. Ian West/PA Wire
The great and the good, including Sir Ian McKellen, have been out in force celebrating Shakespeare's 400th anniversary. Ian West/PA Wire
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He was the greatest storyteller of them all. Although as is well documented, like any good writer he stole most of his ideas from others. What’s important, however, is that he made them his own. Last weekend was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – a high point in a whole year of celebrations of that clever lad from the Midlands.

He put his own special spin on all those appropriated stories, so special, in fact, that centuries on we are still enthralled by his genius. Partly, of course it is the universality of the plays, sonnets and narrative poems that gives them their enduring quality, and they will continue to speak to humanity – as long as people fall in love, make mistakes, lie, scheme, avenge, lust and go to war (so pretty much guaranteed, then). But what also makes his work so extraordinary is his use of language. It may seem pretty facile to say that one of the world’s most revered and celebrated playwrights is ‘good with words’ but bear with me.

As a writer he was incredibly resourceful and innovative – if there wasn’t a perfect word or phrase for what he wanted to say, then he just invented one (often, of course, for comic effect). So, apart from anything else the huge gift that Shakespeare gave us was to enrich our language, bringing those words into common usage. Even those who think that Shakespeare isn’t for them will be frequently using his invented words and phrases in their everyday speech. We are unwittingly quoting him all the time. Words you might use on a daily basis include gloomy, hurry and lonely, others – for more special occasions, perhaps – include inauspicious, dexterously and multitudinous. His compound adjectives are a thing of beauty – witness tongue-tied, bloody-minded and stony-hearted – while the longer phrases are a linguist’s delight. The late journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin’s famous piece about the Bard’s influence on common discourse includes many examples, such as ‘too much of a good thing’, ‘the long and short of it’, ‘the truth will out’ and ‘vanish into thin air’. Shakespeare really is for everyone. This month’s performance of the RSC’s Play for the Nation Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bradford Alhambra brought amateur and professional actors together on the same stage to create something very special. In his own era, his plays were aimed at ordinary people – this was theatre for the masses, not the elite. As the poet and author Robert Graves so succintly put it “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”