William Shakespeare, a man who lived some four hundred years ago, is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. He wrote poetry as well as plays, with some of his most famous plays being Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. For the importance of his work, in many English-speaking countries, Shakespeare is part of the curriculum in high school English, and it is not unusual for people to be able to quote phrases from his poems and plays.
“To be or not to be”
A famous quote from the play Hamlet, which most people have likely heard, is “To be or not to be, that is the question.” This line is uttered by Prince Hamlet, the central character of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, when he ponders if it is better to live or to commit suicide. In the end, Prince Hamlet does not take his own life, but since Hamlet is a tragedy, the ending scene of the play is still laden with tragic deaths. A thrilling finale, in fact, has both the prince and several other protagonists poisoned during a fencing duel.
Still popular today
The dramatic ending of Hamlet, as well as the narrative of several other Shakespeare plays, are by many considered timeless, and are therefore still performed by enthusiastic societies of men and women all over the world. However, with women for the most part playing the parts of women today, one very noticeable element has changed since the plays were first performed in England some four centuries ago. This is because, back in Shakespeare’s days, only men were actors, which meant that men had to assume the roles of women as well. William Shakespeare himself, in fact, may have played both male and female roles — perhaps including in his own plays — since he indeed was an actor before he became a playwright.
Leaving aside Shakespeare’s little-known acting career and focusing on his acclaimed writing again, it is clear to anyone who has studied Shakespeare in depth that his playwriting and poetry had a significant impact on the English language. The reason for this is that Shakespeare, creative with the English language as he was, enjoyed making up entirely new words and phrases, which he then incorporated into his popular literary works. Among the expressions we still use today that come from Shakespeare’s works, and which the 17th-century legend coined or at least popularized, are “break the ice” and “in my heart of hearts”.