William Shakespeare: Architect of our languageWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
April 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. As might be expected, the event inspired commemorations of various sorts, not just in Britain but around the globe. And whether one is a fan of the Bard or was forced to endure him in high school, it was an anniversary worth celebrating.
Language is one of God’s great gifts to humanity, and one of the clearest indicators that we’re made in his image. And when it comes to the English language, no one has had a more profound impact on its modern development than Shakespeare.
A brief biography of Shakespeare
Large swaths of Shakespeare’s life – his background, education, religious beliefs, family situation, even many aspects of his career – remain unknown or poorly understood. Perhaps it’s fitting that way. It has certainly added to his mystique and led to plenty of speculation, both scholarly and popular, over the years since his death.
What’s known for sure is that by the time he was 30, he’d moved to London and embarked on a 20-year career as an actor, playwright and entrepreneur that made him wealthy and famous in his own lifetime. During those two decades, his plays and poems revolutionized English literature and enriched the language in ways never seen before or since.
Much has been made of Shakespeare’s keen psychological insight, and rightly so. His work, even at its most fantastical, is marked by honest portrayals of human nature, a sensitivity to things that move the human heart. This was a radical departure from the stylized, formulaic theatre of his time and paved the way for more realistic approaches to storytelling that have come to dominate modern literature.
Contributions to the development of modern English
However, it’s Shakespeare’s contributions to language that have had the most pronounced effect on the English-speaking world. The beauty and power of his expression captured the popular imagination and helped shape the grammar and syntax – and even the cadence (or sound) – of early modern English.
More than that, he expanded the vocabulary of English with thousands of words and phrases that he either popularized or invented from scratch. From aerial to zany, from breaking the ice to a wild goose chase, chances are most of us quote Shakespeare nearly every day without being aware of it.
Language is powerful evidence of the image of God
Why is any of this significant? As mentioned above, language is one of the strongest evidences for the Imago Dei, the imprint of God’s likeness on humanity. In fact, it’s arguably the single human trait that most resists any naturalistic explanation.
Where does language come from? How to explain a commonly understood pattern of sounds and symbols that expresses ideas, conveys emotions and creates aesthetic pleasure? Learning a new language comes naturally to young children, but for adults it becomes a challenging paradox. There are too many rules for the intuitively inclined, and too much that seems arbitrary for those of an analytical bent.
Language is a wonderful mystery, a unique attribute of humans because it’s a special attribute of our Creator. God spoke reality into existence and sustains it by the word of his power. Over a span of centuries, he revealed himself to the world via the human authors of Scripture. And before the coming of the Messiah, he arranged political circumstances so that a common Greek language would facilitate the spread of the Gospel.
Likewise, it might be argued that the development of modern English has served a similar function in the era since the Reformation. Indeed, there have been more translations of the Bible into English than into any other language in history. Much like the koine Greek of the 1st century, English has become, to a large extent, the lingua franca or common tongue of the contemporary world.
And standing at the forefront of that linguistic shift is William Shakespeare. More than any other individual, he’s responsible for the dynamic, flexible, expressive tool that our language is today. English speakers the world over – especially followers of Jesus – owe him a greater debt than most of us realize.
Sources and further reading
Basic information about Shakespeare’s life is available at the Folger Shakespeare Library and at Biography.com.
Digital texts of Shakespeare’s complete works can be read or downloaded for free, once again at the Folger Shakespeare Library or at the Shakespeare MIT site.
Lists of words and phrases coined by Shakespeare can be found at No Sweat Shakespeare, and there’s also a shorter list at the Anglophenia site of BBC America.
And for something a bit different, there’s Good Tickle Brain, a blog featuring Shakespeare comics and humour.
As always, these external links are provided for information purposes. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Focus on the Family Canada in their entirety. Interested readers should proceed with discernment, and in the spirit in which these resources are intended.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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