Bored By the Bard?

25 11 2009

Periodically I run across a grouping of words in the English language that originate from native American tongues, or from Italian or French, etc.

But I’ve been reading a surprisingly lively biography of William Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (called, and here he’s not too lively, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, 2007) and was astonished to see all the phrases he attributes to the Bard of Avon (p. 115):

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

to thine own self be true

salad days

foul play

tower of strength

be cruel to be kind

pomp and circumstance

foregone conclusion

Who knew?

Shakespeare’s plays have been obsessively analyzed, and we know they contain 138,198 commas and 15,785 question marks.  Ears are spoken of 401 times in the plays.  He uses damned 105 times and bloody 226 times.  He left 884,647 words in over 118,406 lines. (p. 19)

But of all that verbiage we have only fourteen words written in his own hand: six copies of his signature and the words “by me” on his will.  He was apparently not too picky about the spelling of his name.  Of the signatures that survive, every one is spelled differently, and none match the spelling we now commonly use. (pp. 8-9)

The Library of Congress has roughly seven thousand works on Shakespeare, which would require twenty years to digest if read at one a day. (p. 21)  Amazingly, there are estimated to be over five thousand books suggesting—or insisting—that the plays of Shakespeare were written by someone other than Shakespeare. (p. 181)

Between all those quirky statistics, Bryson provides an engaging account of the life and times of William Shakespeare, though he’s quick to point out how very much we don’t know.  All in all,  I found reading this biography to be a  pleasurable pastime (much more so than my recollection of reading the plays themselves when I was a mere high school student.)

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