Speechless Without the Bard

 

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The English language may have ‘seen better days’ but ‘for better or for worse’, even ‘blinking idiots’ still quote Shakespeare liberally, albeit without knowing it. Indeed, if it were not for these bon mots we’d be nearly speechless.

We have all come across Shakespeare in school, we may even have seen one of his plays on television or in the cinema, yet there are few of us – even those of few words – who don’t quote Shakespeare almost every day. Once in a while we know we’re doing so, but most of the time we use his words to season our speech without knowing the source. Some of his expressions have changed a little with 400 years of everyday use, though even these can easily be traced to him.

If this doesn’t make sense to you and you say, it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you think my point is without rhyme or reason and you say I’m a laughing stock or a blinking idiot or bloody minded or a rotten apple or a stony-hearted villain or even the devil incarnate, you are also quoting him. And if you bid me good riddance or send me packing or wish I was hoist with his own petard or dead as a doornailat one fell swoop – you are still quoting him.

When we say that it’s a mad world or not in my book or neither here nor there or last but not least, these phrases – and all the others in bold print here – are Shakespeare’s. And when we use such expressions such as poor but honest or as luck would have it or what’s done is done, we’re equally indebted to him. Whether you are holding your tongue or simply tongue-tied, you just can’t get away from the fact (the more fool you are) that you are quoting Shakespeare. But maybe that was the unkindest cut of all. And if you think this remark smells to heaven, you’re at it once more.

Be that as it may – and though you still insist that I’m living in a fool’s paradisewe can have too much of a good thing. And there we go quoting him again. For the long and the short of it is that we’d be nearly speechless without Shakespeare.

When we talk of someone showing his heels or having no stomach for a fight or leading a charmed life; when we speak of cold comfort or grim necessity or bag and baggage or the mind’s eye, we’re quoting him. When we refer to our salad days or our heart of hearts or our heart’s desire; when we deplore the beginning of the end we’re doing the same.

If we claim to be more sinned against than sinning; if we act more in sorrow than in anger; if our wish is father to the thought; if something we’ve lost has vanished into thin air, we’re borrowing from the Bard. If we refuse to budge an inch or suffer from green-eyed jealousy; if we’ve played fast and loose; if we’ve been a tower of strength or hoodwinked or in a pickle, we’re still doing so.

If you have knitted your brows or stood on ceremony or made a virtue of necessity or danced attendance on or laughed yourself into stitches or had short shrift, you’re using Shakespeare’s words. If you say you haven’t slept a wink or are as sound as a bell or can only die once or that your family is eating you out of house and home, you’re not being very original.

When you state that love is blind or there is method in his madness (or someone has made you mad) or the truth will come to light or the world is my oyster, you are also borrowing your bon mots from the Bard. If you have seen better days or think it is early days yet or high time; if you lie low till the crack of doom, because you suspect foul play; if you tell the truth and shame the devil, even if it involves your own flesh and blood and you believe the game is up, you are at the same game as before!

If you have your teeth set on edge or have a tongue in your head, then by Jove or Tut, tut or for goodness sake or what the dickens or but me no buts – it’s all one to me, for you are simply quoting Shakespeare.

Besides these and many more of our everyday phrases, we are also indebted to him for a host of words. Accommodation, assassination, dexterously, obscene, premeditated, reliance, allurement, alliance, antipathy, critical, armada, demonstrate, dire, emphasis, emulate, horrid, initiate, mediate, modest, vast and submerged are only a few that made their first appearance in his plays.

Indeed, it is obvious that Shakespeare was a man who loved to experiment with words. Most of all he had an extraordinary ability to write memorable combinations of words. Scores of his phrases, as we have seen, have entered the English language and some have even become clichés. One play alone, Hamlet, is a treasure house of ‘quotable quotes’ or, as someone once said, it is ‘full of quotations’! Among them are the following: Frailty thy name is woman!…..The primrose path of dalliance… Something is rotten in the state of Denmark  … Brevity is the soul of wit…… I must be cruel, only to be kind …  The rest is silence.

The English-speaking world is indeed indebted to William Shakespeare more than to any writer in any language who ever lived. “He was not of an age,” said his contemporary Ben Jonson, “but for all time”.

Adapted from an article by Paul Hurley in The Irish Times

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