Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare was not only a playwright of 37 plays or a poet of 154 sonnets, but he was an innovator. The famous man from Stratford-Upon-Avon, a small township some hundred miles away from London, took the London scene by storm and retrofitted the English language. He wrote some of the most memorable lines:
“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
“This above all – to thine own self be true…”
He introduced phrases and some 1700 words to the English language, changing many nouns into verbs:
“He tabled the motion…”
“Dead as a doornail.”
And he wrote those dreaded plays that High Schoolers have to “suffer through:” Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet.
So you'd be surprised that Shakespeare, glorified by your teacher and your teacher’s teacher, is also a plagiarist. Probably the most notorious plagiarist of all time. He ripped off plays, concepts and ideas left and right. Always altering the plot, juxtaposing this character with that character… but always taking. Though most of his plays were from novellas, histories or stories from his age; he innovated each story, making it his own.
Shakespeare was not an inventor. He was an innovator. He took stories, such as those stories in the Histories by Plutarch and transformed them into plays, like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra; he transformed a lithe novella into the beauty of As You Like it.
His additions to the English language, his additions to the stories he innovated and his additions to our culture can not be measured. But it can safely be said, like the bible before him, no story or tale that has been written since 1616 – since Shakespeare – Is untouched by his hand, by his words, by his way of story-telling. He changed the consciousness of culture – or according to Shakespeare historian Harold Bloom, he created it.
No one can deny Shakespeare his role and legacy. Though, some have tried.
In the 400 years since his death a lot has been doubted. Some people doubt that Shakespeare wrote some, if any of his plays. You see, Shakespeare didn’t go to college. Many doubt that a man of little education could write some of the most beautiful, philosophic and poetic words ever written in the English language. In the four centuries since his death no one has been able to come up with any evidence that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. Shakespeare’s name is on the plays; his fellow playwrights attribute them to him. Corroborative evidence. Case closed.
People doubt him because he wasn't educated. Do people doubt Steve Jobs created Apple; that Bill Gates created Microsoft? No. Neither went to college. All were innovators. Perhaps there’s something to think about: could a college grad innovate as freely? I think we can learn a thing or two from Shakespeare. A non-college graduate who changed the landscape of the English language, whose stories have shaped nearly every story since.
So today Shakespeare's been “dead as a doornail” for 400 years, but his work, his name and his legacy lives on in our language, stories and culture.