Introduction

by Julian D.

This chapter is a free excerpt from Biography of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare is arguably the most important figure in Western literature. Critic Harold Bloom claims it is impossible to escape Shakespeare, that "no one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean.” Shakespeare’s reputation has only grown in the period since his death; especially since the end of the 17th century when Classical dramatic ideals went out of fashion, for Shakespeare's endless inventiveness and blending of comedy and tragedy conflicted with these strict rules. His popularity reached the stratospheric heights we are familiar with today in the 19th century, when the Romantics found his work elided with their aesthetic concerns.


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William Shakespeare is arguably the most important figure in Western literature. Critic Harold Bloom claims it is impossible to escape Shakespeare, that "no one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean.” Shakespeare’s reputation has only grown in the period since his death; especially since the end of the 17th century when Classical dramatic ideals went out of fashion, for Shakespeare's endless inventiveness and blending of comedy and tragedy conflicted with these strict rules. His popularity reached the stratospheric heights we are familiar with today in the 19th century, when the Romantics found his work elided with their aesthetic concerns.

It is not just in the rarefied realm of literature that Shakespeare's influence weighs heavy; the very English language remains unbelievably Shakespearean. He can claim first recorded usage of 2,035 words, with Hamlet alone contributing 600, an average of one every two-and-a-half lines. David Crystal, in "The Stories of English," points out many of these are words with un- prefixes, such as unlock, unmask, untie, unveil. Just imagine how wordy and inelegant the alternatives are.

A perhaps more visible effect has been his impact on the English idiom. Journalist Bernard Levin wrote a beautiful piece demonstrating just how many turns of phrase are Shakespeare's: "If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare . . . if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy . . . even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then  by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare."

So how was Shakespeare "created"? What conditions, historical and personal, allowed a leatherworker's son to become such a celebrated figure?

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