Shakespeare 450

William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is today, born 23 April 1564. Or at least it is traditionally celebrated on 4/23. He was baptized 4/26 so his birth date would be a few days earlier. Being born 450 years ago today adds a certain symmetry—he also died on 4/23, in 1616, 398 years ago today.

Just about a tenth of all the words in Shakespeare’s works are words that he invented (from “A Man of Fire—New Words” by Richard Lederer, Mensa Bulletin April/May 2014). Shakespeare was the first to use more than 1,700 words, according to Lederer, most of which we still use: for example, “auspicious, bedroom, bump, dishearten, dwindle, hurry, lapse, lonely, majestic, road, sneak, and useless” (Lederer). He invented words to spice up his plays. Amazing they are such “regular” words that we use today.

Shakespeare not only invented words, he was the most inventive with how he used them. Lederer nicely compiles a few Shakespeare phrases that we still hear all the time. All of these phrases come from just one single Shakespeare play: “brevity is the soul of wit; there’s the rub; to thine own self be true; it smells to heaven; the very witching time of night; the primrose path; though this be madness, yet there is method in it [or ‘method in his madness’]; dog will have his day; … neither a borrower nor a lender be;… something is rotten in the state of Denmark;… hoist with his own petard; the lady doth protest too much; to be or not to be; sweets for the sweet; the be-all and end-all; to the manner born” (Lederer), among others.

It’s hard to believe so many familiar phrases could come from one play 400 years ago, and that’s just a sampling. Consider Shakespeare wrote forty plays, give or take one or two depending on who’s counting, and you can imagine just how Shakespearean is our everyday language 400 years later. You can browse a few more B of A quotes here . Or just search the Bard of Avon and spend all day reading.

I can’t remember a time not knowing about Shakespeare. My mother talked about him, pointed out Shakespearean references when they popped up in commercials or TV shows. I read Shakespeare plays that my parents had on the shelf, and saw TV adaptations whenever they were on PBS. In college and since then, I’ve seen 30 or 40 performances on many different kinds of stages. I took Shakespeare in college, which was required but I loved it anyway (I received my MA in Literature). I’ve read all of his sonnets out loud, and silently, many times over. Later in life my kids performed in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I saw every performance.

My kids are grown up, my college days were over 30 years ago, but I still love Shakespeare. Recently I bought a new “complete” collection and re-read a few favorites. They never get old, even though I do.

So, Happy 450th William Shakespeare. All the world’s a stage, and I like it better that you were once on it.

And now I must quit, though “parting is such sweet sorrow” (R & J) [couldn’t resist that one]. Finally, what wisdom can we take away from this auspicious birthday? You can’t encapsulate wisdom in a phrase, unless perhaps the phrase was Shakespeare’s. “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none” (All’s Well That Ends Well).

Full list of Shakespeare’s plays.

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