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Over our yoghurt and granola on Tuesday morning this week, my wonderful long-suffering baby-mother reminded me that I ought to have a special spring in my step on account of how today was William Shakespeare’s birthday. “Ah, my dear,” I said, whilst carefully replacing the spoon in the breakfast bowl, and taking the moment to remind myself that every opportunity is a learning opportunity. “Nothing lovelier can be found in woman than to study household good, and good works in her baby father to promote”, I continued, much in the same vein as Adam famously responded to Eve that fateful afternoon.  The Director finds that a literary quip is a very effective way of diffusing what might potentially be a tricky situation.  Humour as we know, is a salve to a great many things.  I shall not bore you with further details of our exchange over the kipper course.  Suffice to say, it did provide me with the starting point for today’s ePamphlet.

There are very few details we know for sure about William Shakespeare’s life. Contrary to my baby-mother’s opinion, we actually do not know the date of his birth.  It  is celebrated on 23rd April because, according to the record at least, we know that he was baptised on 26th April. The baptismal registry of Holy Trinity Church in  Stratford-upon-Avon (as shown above) records the event: “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspeare”.  Traditionally babies were baptised on the 3rd day after they were born, hence the 23rd April being agreed upon as the date of the Bard’s birth.

We also know, according to the record,  that he died on 23rd April 1616, aged 52.  There are some interesting stories about that which we could fruitfully explore in some future world.  Setting his birthday on the same day as his deathday has a certain neatness of symmetry, it’s true, and often neatness and symmetry is what we impose on the world to make it an easier place to navigate.  Shakespeare of course, and this we also know, was not someone who was very much interested in either neatness or symmetry.

If all goes to plan, these words will be e-published on the 26th April 2024.  So, 460 years on from Shakespeare’s baptism which itself is a potent symbol of birth, death as well as resurrection, might it be edifying for  the Director to share some thoughts about him?

No, I doubt very much it would be.  Far better to let Shakespeare’s words speak for themselves.

There are thousands upon thousands of words which are attributed to him.  Shakespeare, as we know, was phenomenally creative in adding new words to the lexicon.  The OED lists 2035 instances when Shakespeare is the first recorded user of the lexeme (posh word for word). In comparison, his contemporaries Spencer produced about 500, Sidney about 400, and the King James Bible only about 50.

Linguist David Crystal estimates that Shakespeare coined  about 1700 words. Out of his original 2035 lexemes (OED), 309 have no recorded use again by others. Altogether, about 900 words have fallen out of use so only about 1100 had a longer  influence on the word stock. Of these, 300 are of uncertain use – so perhaps only 800 modern words can be attributed to Shakespeare. Of course, a modern author would be pleased with just the one!  Probably Thomas Nashe comes closest to Shakespeare with 800 attributions but most of his quickly fell out of use.  And if you looked any of them up, you’d soon see why.

Inventing new words is, of course, only part of the story. It is Shakespeare’s innovative use of existing words that is his real legacy. Below is a list of many phrases and sentences which he coined which have become part of general use English (some after modification). Some may have been existing proverbs – but Shakespeare gave them a public hearing.

your lord and master (All’s Well that Ends Well, Il.iii. 18 5)

my salad days (Antony and Cleopatra, I.v.y3)

it beggared all description (Antony and Cleopatra, II.ii. 103)

we have seen better days (As You Like It, II.vii.izi)

neither rhyme nor reason (As You Like It, III.ii.3 81)

can one desire too much of a good thing (As You LikeIt,IV.i.m)

the game is up (Cymbeline, Ill.iii.ioy)

I have not slept one wink (Cymbeline, III.iv.102.)

in my mind’s eye (Hamlet, I.ii.iSs)

more in sorrow than in anger (Hamlet,

I doubt some foul play (Hamlet,

I am … to the manner born (Hamlet, I.iv.15)

brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet, II.11.90)

hold … the mirror up to nature (Hamlet, III.ii.zz)

I must be cruel only to be kind (Hamlet, Ill.iv.iyg)

to have the engineer hoist with his own petard (Hamlet, III.iv.zo8)

I’ll send him packing (Henry IV Part i, Il.iv.zfjo)

tell truth and shame the devil (Henry IV Part i, III.i.55)

set my teeth … on edge (Henry IV Part i, Ill.i.izy)

give the devil his due (Henry V, III.vii.ri3)

knit his brows (Henry VI Part 2,1.ii.3)

dead as a door-nail (Henry VI Part z, IV.x.38)

it was Greek to me (Julius Caesar, I.ii.zSr)

I never stood on ceremonies (Julius Caesar, II.ii.r3)

play fast and loose (King John, III.i.z4z)

I beg cold comfort (King John, V.vii.^z)

more sinned against than sinning (King Lear, III.ii.6o)

the be-all and the end-all (Macbeth I.vii-5)

stretch out to the crack of doom (Macbeth, IV.i. 116)

at one fell swoop (Macbeth, IV.iii.zi8)

all our yesterdays (Macbeth, V.v.zz)

with bated breath (The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.izi)

in the end, truth will out (The Merchant of Venice, II.ii.y4)

mine own flesh and blood (The Merchant of Venice, II.ii.85)

love is blind (The Merchant of Venice,

a blinking idiot (The Merchant of Venice, II.ix.54)

green-eyed jealousy (The Merchant of Venice,

let us not be laughing-stocks (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 111.1.77)

what the dickens (The Merry Wives of Windsor, III.11.17)

as good luck would have it (The Merry Wives of Windsor, III.v.76)

pomp and circumstance (Othello, III.iii.35i)

a foregone conclusion (Othello, III.iii.4Z5)

make a short shrift (Richard III, III.iv.95)

I dance attendance here (Richard III, III.vii.56)

a tower of strength (Richard III, V.iii.iz)

if ye should lead her in a fool’s paradise (Romeo and Juliet, II.iii.i55)

I’ll not budge an inch (The Taming of the Shrew, Induction Liz)

the more fool you (The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii.izS)

keep a good tongue in your head (The Tempest, III.ii.34)

melted … into thin air (The Tempest, IV.i.i5o)

I have been in such a pickle (The Tempest, V.i.zSz)

the incarnate devil (Titus Andronicus, V.i-4o)

a good riddance (Troilus and Cressida, Il.i.i 19)

’tis but early days (Troilus and Cressida, IV.v.iz)

’tis fair play (e.g., Troilus and Cressida, V.iii.43)

you will laugh yourselves into stitches (Twelfth Night, III.ii.64)

make a virtue of necessity (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, IV.i.6z)

with bag and baggage (The Winter’s Tale)


One of my favourite philosophers, Slavoj Žižek once said this about Shakespeare:

“It’s not, ‘Oh, to understand Shakespeare, you have to know all the Elizabethan history and so on’. No, if anything, it’s the other way around.” “To understand Elizabethan England, read Shakespeare. You will learn more than reading somebody’s history [book].”

nd would add that it’s not just Elizabethan England that is better understood by reading Shakespeare.  Any time and any place you happen to find yourself in will become clearer to you in Shakespeare.

Until next time, Happy Reading/Birthday!

PS In other matters, as you will know, the Director welcomes feedback and will always attempt to act on it to the best of his meagre abilities. A recent theme emanating from the postbag has been that whilst these articles are vaguely interesting, they often lack any practical application.  So, in order to rectify this, the Director proposes to add a practical tip to this and subsequent e-Pamphlets.

Director’s Tip #1 

To be used when sewing buttons

Buttons sewed too tightly will be useless. A matchstick placed between button and fabric will ensure an ideal gap. To make buttons stay on longer, paint thread with colourless nail varnish (after sewing, naturally).