If you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, 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.
The quotation above, from a well known article by Bernard Levin, shows us that William Shakespeare enjoys the reputation of having coined many common phrases. But did he? In this post, I’ll show that many of the phrases Shakespeare supposedly coined were really traditional sayings of his day. When we use them, we, like Shakespeare, are using folklore. Far from making him less creative, this penchant for using traditional speech is part of what has made Shakespeare’s plays and poetry so enduring.
To set the stage (as it were), I’ll note that for many years scholars have argued that Shakespeare was a linguistic anomaly, vastly greater than all other writers, both in terms of his vocabulary, and for the number of words and phrases he single-handedly coined. One of the most influential scholars to make this suggestion was the great Victorian philologist and folklorist Max Müller, who wrote in his book The Science of Language that Shakespeare “probably displayed a greater variety of expression than any writer in any language,” estimating Shakespeare used 15,000 words to Milton’s 8000, versus 3,000-4,000 for an educated Englishman of his own era, or as few as 300 for a rural laborer. This general thesis was accepted by the philologist Ernest Weekley, who, in his 1929 book The English Language, made the following audacious claim:
Of Shakespeare it may be said without fear of exaggeration that his contribution to our phraseology is ten times greater than that of any writer to any language in the history of the world.
Honestly, ten times greater? It sounds like maybe we should fear exaggeration. Weekley’s statement is surely an example of what George Bernard Shaw called “bardolatry”: excessive admiration of Shakespeare founded on ignorance.
Müller’s and Weekley’s exaggerations have been accepted by generations of popular writers right down to today, but current scholarship is disputing this received wisdom. David Crystal points out in his 2004 book The Stories of English that these statements both overestimate Shakespeare’s vocabulary and underestimate the size of an average English vocabulary. More recently, Hugh Craig has argued that Shakespeare did not really have a prodigious vocabulary, but that the large number of total different words Shakespeare used in all his writings is rather a function of the very large corpus of his writing that survives. In his article “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality,” Craig compared Shakespeare to other playwrights of his time proportionally, and found that “Shakespeare is in fact no different from his contemporaries in the number of different words he uses.” A similar study by Ward E.Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza, “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Did it Dwarf All Others,” available here as a pdf, and originally published in this book, reached the similar conclusion that previous scholars were “right that Shakespeare had a big vocabulary, but wrong in supposing that it was bigger or better than other writers’ vocabularies, either in his own day or since.”
On the question of Shakespeare’s coinages, David Crystal also notes that the Oxford English Dictionary contains a huge number of words for which it gives Shakespeare as the first citation. This has led many to claim that Shakespeare was a prodigious coiner of words. Crystal began to question this received wisdom, pointing out that in many cases other authors used the words at around the same time, so Shakepeare having the first recorded usage was probably just luck.
Crystal didn’t go far enough, though. He assumed the OED was reliably providing the very first recorded appearance of a word in the written record. It turns out this frequently is not the case. In fact, it turns out that Shakespeare’s reputed prowess at coining words is partly a result of the limited knowledge of the OED‘s editors through the years. Most of those editors simply weren’t that well acquainted with any literature earlier than Shakespeare. The first example they found of many words was from Shakespeare simply because he was the earliest author they looked at. This gave users of their influential dictionary the impression that Shakespeare was the first author to use many words.
Recently, Jonathan Culpeper, the editor of the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language, has been seeking the 1,502 words attributed to Shakespeare by the OED in books which predate Shakespeare–and he’s finding most of them. According to a plenary lecture Culpeper delivered in 2017 (available as a pdf from this link), “if the current pattern continues, less than a quarter of those 1,502 words can reasonably be attributed to Shakespeare.”
It turns out, in other words, that when the OED lists Shakespeare as the first author to use a particular word, it doesn’t mean there aren’t earlier instances of the word in English literature. It just means the editors of the OED didn’t know about them.
I’m going to take a similar look at the phrases supposedly invented by Shakespeare. In doing so, I’ll either link to older primary sources, or cite a reliable secondary source, whenever I claim a phrase is known from a work earlier than Shakespeare’s.
Let’s begin with the phrases in Bernard Levin’s popular essay “On Quoting Shakespeare,” which I quoted at the beginning of this post. Levin’s piece first appeared in his 1983 book Enthusiasms, and has since been republished many times. On the internet, it is posted in thousands of locations, as an essay attributed to Levin, as a pirated piece with no attribution, as a jpg image with the quotations in red, and in many paraphrased forms like this one from The Irish Times. It exists as a reading for theater workshops, in which many readers alternate in declaiming the various quotations (see page 8 of this pdf for an example), and it exists as a classroom exercise, documented in this terminally cute video.
Last year for National Poetry Day, Levin’s immortal essay received new prominence when the Prince of Wales read it aloud on the BBC–hear the recording here!
You can read Levin’s piece yourself in its entirety at this link thanks to the Huffington Post, which reprinted it with Levin’s permission. In all, it seems to list 62 words and phrases that are allegedly quotes from Shakespeare. But how accurate is it? Let’s look at the very first phrase Levin includes. According to Burton Stevenson’s standard 1948 reference book The MacMillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases, “It’s Greek to me” predates Shakespeare as a common proverbial phrase for “I don’t understand it” in both English and French, and seems to derive from medieval Latin, where the phrase “it is Greek, and cannot be read” was used as a gloss. Shakespeare may have been quoting it from Gascoigne’s The Supposes, a translation of Ariosto’s Italian play, which used the phrase before him. But it probably was simply part of the oral tradition in his time, and available to him as a proverbial phrase, just as it is available to us. Within twenty years of Shakespeare’s play, “it was heathen (i.e. ancient) Greek to me” was the common form of the proverb, showing that it probably didn’t become popular through Shakespeare, either. The “heathen Greek” form was used in the first English translation of Don Quixote and in other prominent works.
(In Greek, by the way, as Stevenson points out, this was also a proverbial phrase, but they said “It is Hebrew to me!”)
Another example is “Give the devil his due.” This was a proverb in Shakespeare’s day, and he even has Prince Henry say so in Henry IV Part 1:
Sir John stands to his word. The devil shall have his bargain, for he was never yet a breaker of proverbs. He will give the devil his due.
Of course, “proverb” here could in theory refer to “the Devil shall have his bargain” or “give the Devil his due,” but Shakespeare removes all doubt in Henry V, Act III, scene 7, which occurs in the French camp as they await the battle of Agincourt. Orleans and the Constable engage in the common verbal game of trading proverbs:
Ill will never said well.
I will cap that proverb with ‘There is flattery in friendship.’
And I will take up that with ‘Give the devil his due.’
Well placed: there stands your friend for the devil: have at the very eye of that proverb with ‘A pox of the devil.’
So, apparently twice, Shakespeare explicitly identifies “Give the Devil His Due” as a proverb of his time. It’s still a proverb today, yet we are told by Levin that when we use it we are “quoting Shakespeare.”
What about the other phrases identified by Levin as quotes from Shakespeare? Many of them predate him by hundreds of years. Some appear to be classical. So, while Shakespeare never said “vanish into thin air” as Levin claims, he said both “vanish into air” and “into thin air.” Stevenson tells us that “vanish into thin air” was a Latin expression used in the Aeneid, which Shakespeare surely knew. Stevenson likewise locates the first use of “the game is up” in the Latin works of Terence.
“Make virtue of necessity” is a classical Latin proverb, whose English form was much beloved of Chaucer, used by him in Troilus and Criseyde, The Squire’s Tale, and The Knight’s Tale. Shakespeare knew the works of Chaucer, so maybe he was quoting Chaucer…but more likely, this too was folklore.
One of Levin’s phrases turns up in Old English: The useful website Phrase Finder tells us that “Flesh and Blood” can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, as a way of describing humankind. As a synonym for “family,” which is how Shakespeare uses it, the OED tells us the phrase goes back to about 1300, or about 300 years before Shakespeare used it.
Other of Levin’s expressions can be found in Middle English long before Shakespeare used them. The OED tells us that “lie low” goes back to 1250 and “high time” to about 1400. Stevenson provides many more examples: “cold comfort” (in the form “cold was his comfort”) was used in Patience (line 264), an anonymous alliterative medieval poem now believed to be by the same poet as Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; “dead as a doornail” was used as early as 1350 in the anonymous romance William of Palerne (page 29); and “to be in a fool’s paradise” shows up in letter 457 of the Paston letters, a famous set of English medieval correspondence, dated 1462.
Stevenson also misses some medieval examples: “dead as a doornail” was also used by Langland in the 1370s in Piers Plowman (In the A text, line 1.161). To sleep not one wink is recorded in the great 1303 preaching handbook, Handlyng synne, by Robert Manning of Brunne (lines 9145-9146): “Ne mete ete, ne drank drynke, Ne slepte onely a-lepy wynke.” And “to knit one’s brows” was used by Chaucer in the Knight’s Tale (line 270): “This Palamon gan knytte his browes tweye.”
Many expressions on the list have pre-Shakespearian provenance in the Renaissance. The OED tells us that “it is early days” was used by Sir Thomas More in 1535. “Hoodwinked,” in the literal sense of “blindfolded” (which is the way Shakespeare used it twice), dates to 1562, according to the OED. (In the figurative sense of “deceived,” it dates to Shakespeare’s time, but he doesn’t use it that way.) The OED also tells us that “tongue-tied” and “tongue-tie” go back to the early 16th century; that “by Jove” is first used in the anonymous 1575 play Apius and Virginia, and that “fair play” was first written down by Henryson in about 1500. “To have a tongue in your head,” the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs tells us, is first found in a 1564 translation of Erasmus. To “dance attendance” and “tut-tut” both go back at least to Skelton, writing in the 1520s, according to Stevenson and the OED, respectively.
Stevenson tells us that “foul play” was first used by Sidney in 1586 and that “play fast and loose” is first known from the anonymous “Tottle’s Miscellany” of 1557. He shows that “bag and baggage” is used in John Berners’ translation of Froissart in 1525: “”We haue with vs all our bagges and baggages that we haue wonne by armes.” (Incidentally, Shakespeare also uses “bag and baggage” in this original sense of army supplies and spoils of war.) Stevenson judges the first use of “what the dickens” to be from Heywood, two years before Shakespeare also used it. But it’s likely to be older, because Stevenson also shows that “dickens,” as a euphemism for the Devil, is first recorded in an Udall’s English translation of Rabelais in 1534. And speak of the Devil, Stevenson shows us that “devil incarnate” dates from 1570, 18 years before Shakespeare used it. From Richard Warwick Bond’s 1911 Early Plays from the Italian (page 128), we learn that “to send someone packing” was used in the play The Buggbears (line 96) by Johanus Jeffre, a translation of an Italian play of about 1580.
The Phrase Finder gives us information on some of the other Renaissance expressions. “Rhyme or reason” was used in 1460, and the negative, “neither rhyme nor reason,” also turns up before Shakespeare used the phrase, in Nicolas Udall’s 1548 translation of The first tome or volume of the paraphrase of Erasmus upon the Newe Testament. “Stony-hearted” was in use by 1569, when it turns up in in Thomas Underdown’s translation of the Æthiopian History of Heliodorus, and “bloody-minded” was in use by 1584, when Richard Greene used it in Gwydonius.
The Phrase Finder also reveals that “in a pickle” in the sense of a dangerous or difficult spot, is first attested as “in ill pickle” in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, 1573, which contains the following proverb:
“Reape barlie with sickle, that lies in ill pickle.”
In other words, if barley is in too tangled an area to use a scythe, you’d better use a sickle. (If you’re concerned that “in ill pickle” isn’t quite the same as “in a pickle,” you should know that Shakespeare also didn’t write “in a pickle.” He wrote “in this pickle” and “in such a pickle.” in both these phrases, as in “in ill pickle,” “pickle” could just mean “position” or “situation,” with the idea of misfortune being supplied by the context.)
The OED tells us that “eyesore” in its metaphorical sense of something ugly, goes back at least to 1530, when John Rastell used it in his A New Book of Purgatory, which was a then-controversial defense of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory in a Protestant country. Rastell was rebutted by John Frith, and they wrote a series of books back and forth arguing with each other. Amusingly, the OED also tells us that “Laughing-Stock” is first found in one of these books by Frith, in 1533, called Another Book Against Rastell. So we have the eyesore rebutted by the laughing-stock, at least 50 years before Levin suggests that Shakespeare coined both terms.
As we might imagine, several of these expressions go back to religious books. “It is all one” in Shakespeare’s sense of “it is the same” is found in one of John Wycliffe’s fourteenth-century treatises, and “teeth on edge” is found in his English Bible of 1382. A “tower of strength” is in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. The King James Bible gives us “lord and master”; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where he uses it, was performed before the King James Bible was printed, but not published until after. We can’t be sure the phrase was in the play as performed, and even if it was, it’s extremely unlikely that it influenced the Bible’s editors. Indeed, it’s unlikely the phrase originated with Shakespeare or the Bible anyway, since other versions such as “lord and sovereign” and “lord and sire” were well known in Middle English. (And of course the suggestion that Shakespeare coined “O Lord” is silly; this phrase turns up in all versions of the Bible.)
In some cases, the origin in Shakespeare is a matter of interpretation. So for example, to “stand on ceremony” usually means “to insist upon social niceties.” Shakespeare uses the phrase “stand on ceremonies” in Julius Caesar, but there it clearly means “believe in omens.” He never uses the phrase with the singular “ceremony” or with its current meaning. However, variants of the phrase with its current meaning predate Shakespeare, including “stand on titles,” “stand on invitation,” and “stand upon minute points of wisdom.” Other variants from Shakespeare’s time include “stand upon punctilioes” and “stand upon trifles.” So did he invent “stand on ceremony?” It’s hard to say, but it seems more likely that the phrase was just a variant of the many similar phrases current in his time.
Similarly, “the more fool you” existed in such phrases as “the longer thou livest, the more fool thou art,” dated by Stevenson to 1568 and “the more fool is he” dated by OED to 1530. The Phrase Finder tells us that to have “seen better days” was first printed in Sir Thomas More, a play sometimes attributed to Shakespeare with others; it could have been written by Shakespeare, but the evidence is not good. “Good riddance,” specifically, as far as we can tell, was first written down by Shakespeare, but as “fayre riddance,” The Phrase Finder tells us that the phrase was used by Rastell in 1525, and the OED shows us “clene riddance” in 1577. So did Shakespeare coin a phrase or update one, or (an option that seems more likely), was he simply the first to record one version of an idiomatic phrase that was current in oral tradition and changing with the language during his lifetime?
Likewise, Levin’s “the truth will out” seems to come from pre-existing phrases. It is in fact a truncated form of Shakespeare’s phrase, which was “at length the truth will out.” It occurs in Shakespeare in a speech that also includes “truth will come to light.” According to Stevenson, in 1592, English playwright Robert Greene, whose attack on an unnamed younger playwright as “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” is generally believed to refer to Shakespeare, mentions the French proverb “le temps met la verité au jour; time brings the truth to light.” It’s a short leap from this proverb to both “truth will come to light” and “at length the truth will out.” So, was Shakespeare coining a phrase or using a proverb? (Or was he beautifying his work with another feather pinched from Greene?)
There are some phrases in Levin’s list that are not found in Shakespeare at all. One is “but me no buts,” which was never used by Shakespeare. Another is “the long and the short of it,” which reverses the order of the line from Shakespeare. Shakespeare said “the brief and the long” in Henry V and “the short and the long” in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Stevenson tells us that this was a common proverbial phrase in Shakespeare’s time, going back at least to the fourteenth century, and that it had been used in prominent plays by Richard Edwards (1571) and Thomas Nashe (1589) that Shakespeare might have known. “Be that as it may” doesn’t seem to be in Shakespeare, but “be it as it may be” is, which is clearly an updated form of “be as be may,” which you find in Chaucer and elsewhere in the middle ages. So “be that as it may,” seems to be just another updated medieval phrase. In any case, these are things Shakespeare did not even say, but Levin claims we are quoting Shakespeare when WE say them.
Finally, some of Levin’s claims are just very difficult to check, so “if the truth were known” is very hard to verify because it is just a phrase made of common words and can occur easily in normal speech and writing with no intention to use a set phrase. As far as I know, no one has ever investigated it. Since Levin is obviously willing to claim almost anything IN Shakespeare, and some things not in Shakespeare, were originated by Shakespeare, I think his claim that Shakespeare originated it is really just a guess.
So, where does this leave us? Of the 62 phrases claimed by Levin to be quotes from Shakespeare, only 20 are actually attested first from Shakespeare’s writings. But given Shakespeare’s era, that’s not even a guarantee that he invented them. It’s almost certain that some of the phrases Shakespeare was the first to publish were things he heard and picked up from common speech. As David Crystal pointed out for individual words, phrases that occur in the writings of many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries probably weren’t created by him…he was just lucky enough to write them down first.
As an example, I haven’t found “too much of a good thing” before Shakespeare used it in As You Like It in about 1600. But Stevenson shows that it was used by Cotgrave in 1611, and was frequently called a “proverb” after that. Can we really claim Shakespeare invented it? Wouldn’t it be better to call it proverbial as The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations does? And while “as good luck would have it” is not attested before Shakespeare, “as ill luck would have it” was also current in his time, as Stevenson shows. Again, it seems likely these are two versions of a proverbial phrase. So, while it’s impossible to know if any one of Levin’s phrases was invented by Shakespeare, it’s certain that about two thirds of them were not, and very likely that three quarters were not.
Levin is not alone in falsely attributing common phrases to Shakespeare. It’s a rhetorical tactic that turns up wherever advocates for the great poet and playwright gather and publish. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s web page “Shakespeare’s Language,” for example, claims:
‘Elbow room’ (King John), ‘heart of gold’ (Henry V), ‘tower of strength’ (Richard III) and ‘Wild-goose chase’ (Romeo and Juliet) [are] just a handful of the many well-known English phrases that we’ve learnt from Shakespeare and use in our day to day lives more than 400 years later.
In fact, as Stevenson tells us, “elbow room” dates at least to 1540, when Andrew Boorde used it. “Heart of gold” was used in an anonymous 15th century poem known as “The Lamentation of Mary Magdalene.” In Shakespeare’s day, this poem was erroneously attributed to Chaucer, whose works Shakespeare knew. “Tower of Strength,” as we’ve seen, dates at least to the 1540s and the Book of Common Prayer. So “wild goose chase” is the only one of these phrases that weren’t certainly part of ordinary speech before Shakespeare’s use of them. Even that phrase is presented by Shakespeare as if its figurative meaning is obvious to the audience, so seems likely to be proverbial. It was used about ten years later by Chapman and 15 years after that by Beaumont and Fletcher, suggesting again on Crystal’s principle that it was probably a common phrase that Shakespeare’s work happens to preserve first.
Another institution with a vested interest in Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library, likewise promotes the notion that Shakespeare invented many phrases. Their pdf handout “Try Your Hand at Shakespeare” provides 33 phrases supposedly by Shakespeare, including “but me no buts,” which Shakespeare never used, and many others that we’ve already seen predate his use of them: “elbow room,” “bag and baggage,” “dead as a doornail,” “give the devil his due,” “in a pickle,” “laughing stock,” “make a virtue of necessity,” and others.
Given these findings, it might be interesting to ask: why do so many people want to claim that we are “quoting Shakespeare” when we are instead employing common proverbial phrases? This question breaks down into two parts: why do people want to identify the origins of these phrases at all? And, why do they want the origin to be in Shakespeare’s works?
An answer to the first question and part of the second can be found in the insightful essay “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” by Stephen Jay Gould, who points out that people tend to yearn for a definitive moment of origin for any phenomenon. One of the “creation myths” of the article’s title is the story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. This story is untrue, and Abner Doubleday has no known connection to baseball. As Gould points out, the background to the story is that in 1907, A. G. Spalding set up a blue ribbon committee to figure out the origins of baseball. Spalding himself delivered a letter to the committee, which he claimed to be from a third party. The letter claimed that in 1839 Abner Doubleday had interrupted a marbles game in Cooperstown to explain the rules of a game he called “base ball.” In 1908, the committee dutifully reported “that base ball had its origins in the United States;” and “that the first scheme for playing it…was devised by Abner Doubleday, at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.”
In fact, baseball is first mentioned in English chapbooks, diaries and letters beginning in about 1744, references which Spalding could not have known. (See the “timeline” on Major League Baseball’s Base Ball Discovered website.) But it was also prominently mentioned by Jane Austen in the novel Northanger Abbey, completed in about 1798 and published in 1817, which he should have known. Like claims about the origins of so many common phrases being found in the works of Shakespeare, this claim of American origin for baseball is clearly spurious.
Why was there even a commission trying to establish an origin for baseball? After all, it’s fairly clear that baseball must have evolved from other games involving a ball and a bat, such as rounders and cricket. Gould points out:
We yearn to know about origins, and we readily construct myths when we do not have data (or we suppress data in favor of legend when a truth strikes us as too commonplace). The hankering after an origin myth has always been especially strong for the closest subject of all—the human race. But we extend the same psychic need to our accomplishments and institutions—and we have origin myths and stories for the beginning of hunting, of language, of art, of kindness, of war, of boxing, bowties, and brassieres.
Although Spalding’s exact motivations for claiming this origin of baseball are unknown, Gould points out that it was a useful creation story. He observes first of all:
Hoopla and patriotism …decreed that a national pastime must have an indigenous origin. The idea that baseball had evolved from a wide variety of English stick-and-ball games—although true—did not suit the mythology of a phenomenon that had become so quintessentially American.
Gould also provides evidence that establishing such an indigenous origin had long been Spalding’s goal, based partly on a good-natured bet with an English-born friend.
Secondly, there was the specific figure of Abner Doubleday. For several reasons, he was an appropriate person to “invent” an American sport. I will quote again from Gould:
Abner Doubleday, as captain of the Union artillery, had personally sighted and given orders for firing the first responsive volley following the initial Confederate attack on [Fort Sumter]. Doubleday later commanded divisions at Antietam and Fredericksburg, became at least a minor hero at Gettysburg, and retired as a brevet major general.
So, as Gould notes, Spalding selected a culture hero to suit his myth: not just any American, but a decorated combat veteran who exemplified Spalding’s chosen virtues of patriotism and physical courage.
I think this applies to “On Quoting Shakespeare” in a number of ways. Gould’s general point, that people prefer creation myths to evolutionary narratives, is evident in the example of these phrases, too. The most probable explanation of most such phrases is that they developed from folk speech, emerged through a myriad of speech acts from ordinary people, and then were picked up by the literary class. Like the origins of baseball in vernacular ball games, this is less appealing to many people than the creation myth: the heroic playwright Shakespeare coined them all. When there is no data, an origin with Shakespeare is simply asserted, and when there is contradictory data, it is ignored or suppressed—just as Gould points out happens around “creation myths” in general.
Another question is: why is Shakespeare the chosen culture hero for this creation myth? We can begin with practical reasons: Shakespeare lived early enough in the language’s development to make the assertion that he originated all these common phrases at least plausible; we wouldn’t believe that about, say, Faulkner or even Jane Austen. His status as by far the most read English writer of his era, and the earliest English writer with whom many readers are acquainted, also helps: in trying to find an earlier example of a phrase, most people wouldn’t even know where to look, so it’s easy to claim Shakespeare invented any phrase.
On a similarly banal level, errors in math and selection bias make Shakespeare appear to be a genius. As we have seen, his apparently huge vocabulary turns out to be a function of the size of his corpus, and his apparently huge number of word coinages turns out to be a function of ignorance and bias: dictionary editors are much more likely to have read Shakespeare than any of the literature that preceded him. While both of these claims are being slowly debunked by modern scholarship, they provide a context in which it seems plausible that he coined phrases at a prodigious rate.
A more thorough answer would include “bardolatry,” a phenomenon much wider than claims about Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Since his own lifetime, but especially since the 18th century, Shakespeare has been highly esteemed as a great (perhaps the greatest) writer in the English language. He is, in short, a beloved figure to people who care about English, just as Doubleday was a beloved figure to Americans. Authors like Bernard Levin have a sincere love of Shakespeare, which may lead to wishful thinking.
Finally, Shakespeare is one of the few authors with a large number of full-time professional advocates. Well-funded organizations like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library engage in professional advocacy for Shakespeare’s works at a level most authors will never experience. This means that people with little experience at tracing the early history of words and phrases have a vested interest in claiming honors for Shakespeare—a sure formula for erroneous or spurious claims.
But part of the explanation goes deeper, I think, involving class. Although Shakespeare was himself what we would call middle-class, he is one of the English authors most favored by the wealthy and intellectually elite today. Knowing quotes from Shakespeare is associated with being intellectually impressive. After all, as Cole Porter’s song goes:
Brush up your Shakespeare
Start quoting him now
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow
In insisting that we’re all quoting this one writer, so beloved of intellectuals, Levin’s essay embodies a certain intellectual elitism.
To put this into perspective, let’s look at some editorial commentary from editor Arianna Huffington. In introducing the piece, Huffington wrote:
The following bit of Shakespearean amusement was concocted by my great friend Bernard Levin, who passed away last year. It was recited to perfection by Michael York at a dinner in Aspen given by Lynda and Stewart Resnick in honor of all the speakers at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival. After York’s rendition, the party erupted with requests (including one from Arthur Schlesinger) for copies of what York had just read. So instead of running out to Kinko’s, I’ve decided to post it here so that he — and all of you — can have it to download, print out, e-mail, link to… and enjoy.
So, in Huffington’s account, Levin’s essay is associated with a shining gathering of the rich and brilliant in Aspen, at which the intellectual Schlesinger and the multi-billionaire Resnicks were delighted by the cleverness of Levin and celebrity actor Michael York. Instead of “running out to Kinko’s,” as an ordinary person might do, she simply published Levin’s “amusement” on the three-hundred-million-dollar news website she happened to own at the time. It’s all quite openly—one might say refreshingly—elitist.
The rhetorical approach of Levin’s essay, similarly, is openly hegemonic. The rhetorical addressees of the essay, the “you” of “You Are Quoting Shakespeare,” are presumably the readers—us. We are instructed by the (apparently) better-informed narrator that when we use common phrases, we are “quoting Shakespeare.” We are repeatedly one-upped by the narrator, who knows (or thinks he knows) that the phrases are really quotes from Shakespeare, and who assumes that we do not know this. The narrator even inserts “tut-tut” and “but me no buts,” traditional ways by which pedantic speakers assert hegemonic authority. But of course, the narrator’s pedantry is empty, since in most cases we are not quoting Shakespeare.
If claiming that we are quoting Shakespeare is an understandable bit of myth-making on the one hand, on the other it reinforces a view of the world in which cleverness consists of asserting (without evidence) that items of folk speech are borrowed from an intellectual elite, and then subtly mocking ordinary speakers for not knowing this. The essay becomes a vehicle of this cultural hegemony: folk speech is appropriated by the elite and attributed an origin that only the elite are clever enough to know. Then this largely spurious origin is “taught” to ordinary people with “tut-tuts” inserted for maximum effect.
So as a corrective to this image, let’s remember a few things. Most of these phrases were certainly not created by Shakespeare. Of those few phrases for which Shakespeare furnishes the first known example, many still seem to have been current in oral tradition in his day. Others could still have been borrowed from oral tradition or from other writers. The evidence thus does not establish that any of these phrases was specifically coined by Shakespeare.
On the other hand, it is very likely that many of these items were created by ordinary speakers in the course of ordinary speech, and therefore have no known authors. Like baseball, they were invented at an unknown time by unknown people, and then refined by other unknown people. They are not the product of a famous artist or intellectual, but the common heritage of all English-speakers. They are, in short, folklore.
These observations do not in any way diminish Shakespeare’s genius or his accomplishments. (Or his honesty–after all, HE never claimed we were quoting him!)
If you think about it, the idea that a popular playwright would coin a vast number of words and phrases in his plays is counter-intuitive: why would he want characters who were supposed to be real people uttering words or phrases no one had ever heard before? As a playwright, Shakespeare’s job was to create believable characters and connect with audiences, not to make up words. It would be strange to give a character words and phrases unfamiliar to the audience unless it were part of the plot. Instead, Shakespeare’s genius lay in deploying language that sounded natural. Much of his art lay precisely in his ability to employ the speech patterns of real people to create believable characters.
So why invent unfamiliar words and phrases? A more obvious strategy for creating natural-sounding dialogue that the audience could understand would be to employ the best of the pithy, poetic proverbial speech that anyone might say, and that everyone could understand. Not surprisingly, this appears to be what Shakespeare actually did.
In other words, while a creation myth enjoyed by the Prince of Wales and by elite gatherings in Aspen may tell us that Shakespeare creates and we merely copy, we might want to rethink that idea. We hear ourselves in the language of the Bard not so much because we quote him, as because he so often quoted us–or rather, our intellectual ancestors: speakers of traditional folklore and everyday English.
An earlier version of this article was published in the academic journal Proverbium. The editors have given permission for it to be made freely available here.
“Quoting” can mean a number of things. Normally, simply saying something Shakespeare also once said, without intending to, wouldn’t qualify as quoting. (In the words of one commenter on Levin’s essay on The Huffington Post, “when you say ‘the’ you are quoting Shakespeare.”) Therefore, if you’re told you’re quoting Shakespeare without knowing it, the implication is that Shakespeare not only previously said the same phrase as you, but that he originated the phrase. Since Levin does seem to be suggesting that you don’t know you’re quoting Shakespeare, we have to assume he means that Shakespeare originated the phrases.