I’ve just finished reading a biography of William Shakespeare, written by Bill Bryson. As you may know, Bryson is an American raised in England and the author of several well-received books, including A Walk in the Woods, his absolutely hilarious account of his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail.
His biography of Shakespeare is well-written, very well-researched, and clears the air of the many myths, exaggerations, and lies about the great poet and playwright. Based on many official records, including those extant from Shakespeare’s time, it also offers an interesting look at Elizabethan and Jacobean England and the role of theatre in society.
One of the most interesting things this book reveals is the enormous contribution to English made by Shakespeare. He made up a surprising number of words and phrases for use in his works that have survived to become common usage today. Do you recognize any of these, first found in Shakespeare?
Antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany. And countless others, including countless.
From the book: “He was particularly prolific when it came to attaching un- prefixes to existing words that no one had thought of before: unmask, unhand, unlock, untie, unveil and no fewer than 309 others in a similar vein”.
And how about these phrases: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, remembrance of things past, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance, foregone conclusion.
Fascinating! Bryson reckons Shakespeare single-handedly "produced roughly one tenth of all the most quotable utterances written or spoken in English since its inception". Bryson also, I think, lays to rest with authority, the question “was Shakespeare really written by Shakespeare.” I admit to having my thinking on this matter changed by the book (yes, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote it all).
For those of you who, like me, have a theatre background, many of the things Bryson writes about will have a particular resonance.
This is a short book (just 200 pages), is an interesting and engaging read, and has been on the Best Sellers list in the US for a while. I heartily recommend it to you!