On an average, Shakespeare wrote 1.5 plays a year, since he started writing in 1589
William Shakespeare’s language can seem strange to us. It is a foreign tongue, full of terms that have long fallen out of common usage and even memory. Indians may not trip up on Shakespeare’s use of the archaic “thou” and “thee”, counterparts to tum, but they draw a blank when they encounter words such as “iwis” (meaning certainly) and “foison” (abundance). They don’t realise that Shakespeare, for all his flights of poetic fancy, was a champion street swearer―his purple curse words (“marry!” “zounds!” “‘sblood!”) are easily mistaken for quaint filler, of a piece with “fol-de-rol” (a showy by worthless trifle) and other Ye Olde nonsense.
And, they don’t realise that even Shakespeare’s original London audiences might not have understood all his language, as he sometimes used dialect confined to his village of Stratford-upon-Avon, words such as “pash”, meaning ‘pound someone hard enough to draw blood’, and “geck,” meaning ‘idiot’. (These words, by the way, provide strong circumstantial evidence that the works of Shakespeare were written by a native of Stratford and not, as the Hollywood-approved conspiracy theory has it, by some anonymous nobleman.)
Adding to the strangeness of Shakespeare’s language is that it was pronounced rather differently from how we speak now. Not only was “sea” pronounced like “say” and “grace” like “grass”. For those who feel the need to channel their inner Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles when they read Shakespeare’s language out loud, it is worth noting that the royal British accent deviates from Shakespeare’s on two notable scores: its vowel sounds are different, and its cadences are much less varied. Shakespeare’s language is altogether more rhythmical. For him, iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter weren’t CBSE English board exam answers, but forms of music that variously expressed ecstasy. You can hear Romeo’s delighted heartbeat when he says of his lover, “It IS the EAST and JUL-iet IS the SUN!”―or eeriness―you can sense the ominousness when the witches of Macbeth stir their cauldron to the beat of “DOUB-le, DOUB-le, TOIL and TROUB-le”.
Little wonder, perhaps, that the modern form of English that sounds most like Romeo or the witches is Caribbean patois, which retains much of the musical rhythms of Shakespeare. Try reading out Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech in Bob Marley’s accent, and you will hear what I mean.
At the same time, Shakespeare’s language is uncannily familiar. That is partly because several of his lines have become proverbial sayings known to most English-speaking Indians: many a self-pitying uncle likes to claim, as does King Lear, that he is “more sinned against than sinning”; and “all’s well that ends well” has morphed into the catch cry of “All is vell” chanted by Rajkumar Hirani’s Three Idiots (or should that be Three Gecks?).
Moreover, a surprising number of words that are part of our everyday vocabulary find their first recorded occurrence in Shakespeare. Nobody could get “addicted”, “aroused”, or “excited” before Shakespeare. Nothing was “obscene” before Shakespeare. Indeed, a lot that we think of as illicit fun didn’t exist before Shakespeare. There weren’t even “bedrooms” before Shakespeare!
This doesn’t mean that Shakespeare invented all these words. In many instances, he most likely popularised recently coined terms that he had heard in taverns, on the street, or in the playhouses. But the high incidence of new terms in his plays points to a reality of his culture. There was, in fact, no standard English at the time. The “official” language of England was very much an open question: Latin had been, until the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the language of the church; French―brought to England by the Norman conquerors―continued to be spoken by many of higher station; and the diverse dialects of rural England incorporated Anglo-Saxon Germanic, Scandinavian and Celtic elements.
Shakespeare’s language was a khichdi that creatively combined all these diverse ingredients. The word “dauntless”, for example, appears first in Macbeth: we know that it means fearless, but it enacts what it means, fearlessly disregarding the purity of different tongues by yoking “daunt”, from the old French danter (to fear), and “less”, from the Germanic laesse (smaller).
No wonder, Shakespeare and his audience loved puns so much. Romeo and Juliet begins with two characters, in four quick lines, quipping about “coals”, “colliers”, “choler”, and “collar”: this is the punning slang of the London streets, made possible by diverse languages hooking up courtesy of different words with similar sounds. “Coal” is of Germanic origin; “colliers” is French; “choler” is Latin; and “collar” is Italian.
In this, Shakespeare is utterly desi. Only Indians can rival him in their love of puns, and for a similar reason: in our everyday speech, we are used to swerving between tongues―English and Marathi, English and Bengali, English and Tamil, English and Hindi/ Urdu/ Punjabi/ Malayalam/ Bhojpuri. Perhaps, Shakespeare’s language is not so strange after all.
Harris is dean of academic affairs and professor of English at Ashoka University. He is also president of Shakespeare Society of India.