How Did Anyone Understand Shakespeare At The Time?

The Bard. (British Museum)

William Shakespeare, it is often said, invented a lot of what we currently call the English language. Not just phrases: you’d expect such a ubiquitous and popular writer to have had more than a passing influence over the sayings and idioms of his language, but actual words. Something like 1700 of them, all told.

To put that into context, there are 17,677 words across all of Shakespeare’s output – sonnets, plays, the lot. So out of every ten words, one will either have been new to his audience, new to his actors, or will have been passingly familiar, but never written down before (in a form that survives to the present day).

Some of them are merely the adjectivisation of verbs, like drugged or laughable, and some are well-used words that have have prefixes or suffixes added in order to fit properly, like remorseless, bloody or invulnerable, but he also invented whole words, out of nothing. Words with no obvious precedent to the listener, unless you were schooled in Latin or Greek; words like lapse, obscene, bubbleamazement, suspicious, apostrophe, auspicious, castigate, critic, dwindle, gnarled, perusal, pious

Which begs an interesting question. Even at a time of great linguistic upheaval, what on Earth did Shakespeare’s uneducated audience make of this influx of newly-minted language into their entertainment?

We already know that the poorer theater-goers had to watch the plays standing up, and that they are very long. Much is made nowadays of trying to make Shakespeare relevant to a younger audience, so they don’t get bored or hostile, but spare a thought for the hapless Elizabethan, standing ankle-deep in mud, with drizzle coming from on high, for hours on end, having to pick their way through a three-hour presentation, when at least 18 minutes of it would be in a completely unknown language. These can’t have been superhumanly patient people, and the only way to keep up with what is going on would have been to pay close attention and infer meaning from the context of each new word as it comes up.

What would that be like?

Well, to use another (far too) common trick of teachers trying to update Shakespeare for the modern age, it would be like going to a three-hour long, open air rap battle. One in which you have no idea what any of the slang means, even the most commonly-used hip-hop-isms. It would all seem terrible important and dramatic, you’d be trying to read your cues off other people, to work out what is actually being said. And probably a good portion of it would go over your head at first listen. You’d maybe get the gist, but not the full impact.

This applies even if the words weren’t written by Shakespeare himself (let’s ignore that theory that he didn’t write the plays either for now, it’s the impact of the fresh language we’re looking at). Even if he simply sucked in words that no one had written down before, it’s likely a lot of his audience wouldn’t have known them either. And their use is incredibly nuanced and complex, in the middle of a very long narrative. How were these plays ever a hit?

Luckily, not every fresh word was used once and then passed on like a gift to language. So, just as rap fans pick up the idioms over time, so did Shakespeare’s audience. A word used in one context would find its way into another, and of course, with the plays being performed so very often over the years, the new words soon become old words and so embedded into the language their origins become lost.

But at the time of their first public use, in the rain and the mud and without the aid of modern amplification systems, such things would have been unthinkable. Which is worth remembering the next time you irrationally castigate someone for using LOL or OMG. They may well be speaking the language of the future.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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