Gettin’ Down With My Homie Will Shakespeare

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2015-09-27 – Imagine you went to see a play by Shakespeare and it was filled with words you never heard before.

Oh, you don’t have to imagine that? It happens every time you go to see a play by Shakespeare?

Well, then. Imagine you went to see a play by a contemporary playwright and it was filled with words you never heard before. Maybe you would walk out. Or, if you stayed to the bitter end, you probably wouldn’t go to plays by this playwright again.

Right?

Well, I had a conversation with my son the other day about Shakespeare. He is reading Hamlet in his college literature and we were talking about the difficulty of the language, so when I saw link to an article on Slate called “Is Hamlet Fat?” I had to read it. The article talks about hints in the language of the play that Shakespeare may have conceived of Hamlet as a fat character. In the course of this article, I learned that scholars say that Shakespeare invented more than 1700 words.

Are you kidding me?

If this is true, then audiences in his time would have had no more idea what he was talking about than we do. And just as we would walk out of a play where we didn’t understand the language, audiences of Shakespeare’s day would have done the same. No audiences. No fame. No posterity.

Scholars!

These people have been wondering for years: Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? They can’t believe that a common guy like William Shakespeare could be responsible for the great works that we know today. It had to be someone from the nobility, they say.

But this argument about Shakespeare’s original coinages seems to me to cut the other way. I’m willing to bet that most of the new words that he “introduced” into the language were already part of the everyday vernacular for a commoner like he was. They were just not part of the written record.

So when the scholars don’t find any record of these words prior to Shakespeare, it doesn’t mean that Shakespeare made them up. It just means that Shakespeare made the vernacular language popular among folks who did write this stuff down.

The audiences loved it because he was talking their language. And the snooty nobility saw that it was so good that they wanted to get down with their homie.

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