World of Words Literary Review

In many words

The famed Martin Droeshout engraving of William Shakespeare, printed on the cover of Shakespeare's first Folio, printed in 1623.  

Shakespeare is considered the greatest genius ever born because of his insight into every aspect of human behaviour and emotion. He packed his plays with 9,36,433 (about one million) words out of which 27,870 are ‘different words’ (the highest vocabulary in history). His enormous and extraordinary vocabulary represented 40 per cent of the total vocabulary of the English Language up to the year 1623 (and Shakespeare had no access to any dictionary to learn those words!)

To put it in perspective, the average person has only a speaking and writing vocabulary ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 words, and a recognition capacity of about 5,000 words. In great writers these figures grow to one and a half times or twice the number — Milton had a vocabulary of 10,000 words and Homer 9,000 words. The King James Bible has 8,000 words. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 4,50,000, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists 6,15,000, Today, our Modern English has two million words followed by German which has 1,86,000 words, Russian with 1,36,000 words, and French with a pathetic figure of 1,26,000 words. Thus Shakespeare in the 16 Century used five times the total number of words in modern German!

Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in history. His plays have been translated into 50 languages. In the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations containing about 20,000 quotations, Shakespeare alone monopolises a staggering 60 pages (10 per cent). He coined 1,700 new words, in the English Language. It is not widely known (except to Shakespearean scholars) that he was the first person to have used words like accommodation, aerial, assassination, baseless, bedroom, castigate, courtship, dishearten, dislocate, exposure, eventful, generous, gnarled, hurry, impartial, indistinguishable, laughable, lapse, monumental, multitudinous, obscene, pedant, perusal, radiance, reliance, sanctimonious, seamy, and useless. Many of the phrases and expressions coined by him are now in daily use. Thus if you were to say ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, ‘there’s the rub’, ‘the apparel oft proclaims the man’, ‘neither a borrower or lender be’, ‘paint the lily’, ‘the milk of human kindness’, ‘the most unkindest cut of all’, ‘a heart of gold’, ‘all that glitters is not gold’, ‘laugh yourself into stitches’, ‘more sinned against than sinning’, ‘if music be the food of love’, ‘strange bedfellows’, ‘blinking idiots’, ‘break the ice with one fell swoop’, you are quoting Shakespeare.

He audaciously created expressions like ‘heaven-kissing hill’, ‘world without end hour’, ‘proud pied April’ and double plays like ‘green-eyed’, ‘laughing stock’, ‘stony-hearted’, ‘tongue-tied’, ‘sea change’, ‘towering passion’, ‘yeoman’s service’, ‘long haired’, ‘love affair’ and ‘green eyed’, just to name a few. There are many, many more such phrases scattered throughout his plays and poems.

Some of his phrases have been liberally used as titles for their books, by famous authors. For example, Faulkner chose the phrase ‘sound and fury’ from Macbeth, as the title of one of his novels. Robert Frost’s ‘Out out’ and Rose Macaulay’s ‘Told by an idiot’ are also from Macbeth. There are several other phrases from that one play alone which have been used as the titles of books by their authors. The title of Robert Stone’s book Dogs of war has been taken from Julius Caesar. So also John Gunther’s Taken at the flood and Lance Hill’s The Evil that Men do. Ford Maddox Ford’s It was the Nightingale, Frederick Reynolds’s Fortune’s Fool, Philip K. Dick’s Time out of Joint, Ogden Nash’s The Primrose Path, Dorothy Parker’s Not so deep as a well are all from Shakespeare.

Then you have Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world, John Steinbech’s The Winter of our Discontent and Noël Coward’s Pomp and Circumstance. The list is endless. No writer in the history of any language has this distinction. Ernest Weekley, the famous etymologist opined that Shakespeare’s contribution to the phraseology of English, is ten times greater than that of any other writer to any language in the history of the World, and I am inclined to regard it as an understatement. The vastness of vocabulary and the ability to see the relationship between words is one of the major factors in measuring genius. Shakespeare excelled any other human being in this aspect. His encyclopaedic knowledge of science, history, mathematics, classical literature sociology, psychology, law, Latin, French politics, music and art acquired by studying books relating to almost every mental discipline and observing the habits and style of life of various sections of people all around him enabled him to draw ideas generously from all those sources for being used as colourful phrases and expressions in his plays.

The lyrical grandeur of his poetry covers every known figure of speech in the English language, which were known to Shakespeare alone such as Aphorism, Allusion, Alliteration, Anaphora, Anastrophe, Acyron, Allegory, Amphibologia, Anacoenosis, Accismus, Allusion, Bombast, Caesura, Digression, Deixes, Epithet, Equivocation, Epimone, Epistrophe, Homiologia, Hyperbole, Hendiadys, Irony, Insultatio, Isocolon, Litotes, Metonymy, Metaphor, Malapropism, Neologism, Oxymoron, Paradox, Parallelism,Parenthesis, Pedantry, Ploce, Prolepsis, Personification, Pun, Repartee, Repetition, Sarcasm, Syllepsis, Soliloquy, Simile, Synecdoche, Tapinosis, and Tricolon.

Some of these figures of speech are so obscure that they are beyond the comprehension of others, including poets like Milton and Keats. It is only now that Shakespearean scholars, critics, poets and grammarians, are racking their brains over these complex figures of speech. It is felt that Science will never be able to explain how the teeming brain of Shakespeare used many of these very obscure figures of speech. Such feats of human intellect make us wonder whether Shakespeare was a mere mortal for he seems scarcely human. No wonder that De Quincey wrote, “O, mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers, like frost and snow, rain and dew, hailstorm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties.” 

The alchemic process in the crucible of Shakespeare’s brain transmuted emotions like ambition, frustration, jealousy, greed, romantic love, joy, and sorrow he found all around him in people, into the rich gold of his everlasting plays. Hence there is no emotion or activity or situation in the human condition that is not found in his plays.

Adman Stephen Baker, whose native language is Hungarian and who adopted English, writes: “No other language is like it. Nothing even comes close to it in sound, eloquence, and just plain common sense.” He further states, “No doubt English was invented in heaven. It must be the lingua franca of the angels.”

Twisting his observation to suit our context we would be justified in saying, that English was in fact invented for Shakespeare. It must be the lingua franca of God himself.

There are three popular anagrams which are relevant to our discussion: Has Will a peer, I ask me. I swear he’s like a lamp. We all make his praise.

The peculiarity of this is that each anagram uses all the letters in the name William Shakespeare and each utters a profound truth. Incomparable Shakespeare shines with his incandescent luminosity through every word he wrote. This cannot be said about any other poet or dramatist since the dawn of human civilisation.


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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 9:26:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/in-many-words/article7067763.ece

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