Thursday, 24 April 2014

Shakespeare: Why is he important?

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This week Shakespeare would have been 450 years old, and his plays and sonnets are still studied across the world. To many people, reading Shakespeare is a bit like Marmite-you either love it or hate it, but there is no denying the influence he has had on the English language of today.

William Shakespeare is one of the most prolific writers in English history, and many people still enjoy reading and watching productions of his plays. His sonnets are popular wedding readings, particularly Sonnet 18 ‘Shall I compare thee to a summers day’. Some of his most famous plays have been made into blockbuster films and form the basis of many other story lines-how many times have we heard the phrase ‘It’s the modern day Romeo and Juliet!’

NEC tutor Julia reminds us that Shakespeare's plays never seem to age ‘You only have to consider the problems of the teenage years if you have young headstrong siblings to engage with 'Romeo and Juliet' or to turn on the news and listen to the endless political rivalry to enjoy, 'Julius Caesar'.’

Of course it wasn't just plays that Shakespeare was famous for, his sonnets should not be forgotten, as NEC tutor Liz reminds us. ‘Sonnets; those wonderfully structured and mysterious poems which tell us so much about the human condition.’

It’s not just the plays and sonnets themselves that stand the test of time, phrases and words coined by Shakespeare still appear throughout the English language.

Even if you’re on the ‘hate it’ side of the fence, chances are that you use some of Shakespeare’s own phrases every day. For example the play ‘Measure for Measure’ which is studied as part of A level English Language and Literature offered by NEC, is believed to be the first time the word ‘belongings’ was used, and the first appearance of the phrase ‘Refuse to budge an inch’.

Another play studied in A level English Literature offered by NEC, is Othello. This is where the phrases ‘Forgone conclusion’ and ‘Wear my heart upon my sleeve’ are believed to originate. It is also believed to be the first time jealousy is referred to as ‘the green eyed monster’.

There are too many phrases to mention here, but some others that are so ingrained into our everyday conversation that we forget their origins, are:
  • A sorry sight (Macbeth)
  • What’s done is done (Macbeth)
  • Truth will out (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Own flesh and blood (Hamlet)
  • Laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • Heart of gold (Henry V)
  • Eaten me out of house and home (Henry IV)
  • Lie low (Much Ado About Nothing)

NEC tutor Colin points out that our language also contains phrases and sayings which sound as if they derive from a Shakespearean source, he says ‘I couldn't help thinking that Shakespeare's imprint on our language is so strong that we seem to find it even if it is not literally there!’

Next time you think to yourself 'I wonder where that phrase came from?' Spare a thought for William Shakespeare, there's a good chance he had something to do with it!

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