The Bard lives on in our language, and how!

Years back, 2015 to be precise, I came across media reports about American showman P T Barnum’s attempt to buy the 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon house of William Shakespeare and ship it brick by brick to New York sometime in the 1840s. Barnum was stopped from doing so by Charles Dickens and others, who set up the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and bought the house in 1847.  It had then given me a reason to look at the Bard’s lasting imprint on English language.

There is another reason to do so this week.

There are few surviving details about the life of Shakespeare but when he died on April 23, 1616 at the age of 52, the world knew him as the greatest-ever playwright in English. The church records show he was baptised on April 26 in 1564. Since the customary wait for baptising a newborn was three days, his date of birth is believed to be April 23. So, the last Sunday was both his birth and death anniversaries. The day is also observed as the World English Day as a tribute to his linguistic acumen that few have been able to match.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare wrote about one-tenth of the most quotable quotations ever written or spoken in English. Quotes from his characters come alive in regular conversations and writing. They are simple in construction, evocative and, to use a Latin expression, say multum in parvo (much in little).

Here’s a selection of 10 such original expressions taken from his comedies, tragedies and histories, the genres his plays were written in. The list can’t be exhaustive. The idea is to showcase the embellishment that Shakespeare’s play of words lends to the English language. The title of the play appears within brackets and is followed by the meaning and a sentence.

I have been in such a pickle (The Tempest): to be in a pickle is to be in a difficult situation. Often pickle follows either pretty or right. With a flat tyre on the highway, we were in a pretty pickle.

Lie low (Much Ado About Nothing): to hide so that you don’t draw attention or are not found because someone is looking for you. I will suggest that you lie low till the controversy settles down.

Dead as a doornail (Henry VI): something which is completely inactive, dead or non-functional. It can be used in a literal sense or figuratively. On close inspection, he realised that his dog was as dead as a doornail. With both parties going their own ways, the contract is as dead as a doornail. Doorknob may replace doornail while keeping the meaning intact.

We have seen better days (As You Like It): Originally used to mean a decline in fortune, the expression is now used for indicating ageing or deterioration in both humans and objects or for something which is worn out. My grandpa’s old Ambassador car has seen better days.

A wild goose chase (Romeo and Juliet): go on a complicated pursuit of something which is unlikely to bear fruit. In the end, finding a perfect holiday destination proved to be a wild goose chase.

The world’s mine oyster (The Merry Wives of Windsor): In current usage, the expression is modified as “the world is your oyster” to imply that someone can achieve what she wants or go where she wants because she has the capability. For someone as bright and energetic as you, the world is your oyster.

Wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello):  To wear one’s heart on sleeve is to betray one’s true feelings or allegiance. He wears his right wing political affiliation on his sleeve.

The be-all and the end-all (Macbeth): As a noun, the phrase designates a thing, an idea, a person or an activity that is the most essential element in a person’s life, with no substitutes or alternatives. Kindness is the be-all and end-all of a life well lived.

Jealousy is the green-eyed monster (Othello): It refers to envy or jealousy that is so strong that it makes one sick and is counter-productive. The young actor was taken over by the green-eyed monster when she realised that the lead role in the movie had gone to her friend.

Laugh oneself into stitches (Twelfth Night): to laugh so hard that one is unable to control it. In fact, “in stitches” would suffice to convey the meaning in a sentence. The stand-up comedian had us in stitches.

So, if you want to avoid saying it’s Greek to me (Julius Caesar), it is time you picked up Shakespeare and went through some of his famous works. Or, brace up for being called a blinking idiot (The Merchant of Venice) by your friends.

Wordly Wise is weekly column by Amitabh Ranjan published every Saturday in the Explained section. Please tweet your feedback to @ieexplained


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