What are William Shakespeare's contributions to English literature?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare made many contributions to English Literature and one of the ones that affects us every day is his contribution to the English language.  In fact, Shakespeare actually frequently made up his own words, which still live on in the English language today. Scholars point out that Shakespeare is responsible for coining about 1,700 of the English words found in our 25,000 word-long English vocabulary. The article "Words Shakespeare Invented" by Amanda Mabillard contains a list of a few words Shakespeare coined.

One word Shakespeare is known to have coined is the word accused. He took the Greek prefix acou-, acous-, acouso-, or acoust-, meaning "denotes hearing," which was already being used in Late Middle English, and combined it with the past tense ending -ed to refer to those who are on trial are those who need a hearing to determine their guilt or innocence (Prefix Dictionary, Oxford Dictionaries Online). Shakespeare first coined the word accused in the play Richard II, Act I, Scene I, when, speaking of those who are being formally charged of treason, King Richard II says:

Then call them to our presence; face to face,
And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear
The accuser and the accused freely speak. (I.i.16-18)

The word unreal was also coined by Shakespeare. He took the Latin prefix un- meaning "not" or "deprived of" and combined it with the Latin word realis being used in Late Middle English as a word in legal terminology meaning "relating to things, especially real property" (Prefix Dictionary; Oxford Dictionaries Online). The word unreal first appears in Macbeth in Act III, Scene IV when Macbeth exclaims of the ghost of Banquo, "Hence, horrible shadow! / Unreal mockery, hence!" (III.iv. 106-07).

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare has had an enormous influence on English literature. Shakespeare, who was never afraid to innovate, contributed more than 1,700 words to the English language. More importantly, he innovated with character. For example, Hamlet has been called the first modern play because of the intense interiority of its title character. Hamlet is always thinking, and the audience is allowed to hear those thoughts through his many soliloquies. 

Because Shakespeare had a deep understanding of people from all walks of life and created deeply imagined, well-rounded characters, so human they can seem nonfictional, the subjects of his plays sank deeply into the psyches of many great writers, as well as into the hearts of anyone else who experienced his work. His plots were also very well known, and by the late eighteenth century, he was revered even though he broke all the rules of Classical drama. Thus, writers frequently allude to him, to the point that unfamiliarity with Shakespeare can rob readers of much of the allusive richness of English literature.

A contemporary parallel to Shakespeare's influence would be The Wizard of Oz. This work has so permeated the American consciousness that most Americans understand immediately what such allusions as "we're not in Kansas anymore" or "the witch is dead" mean without needing them explained or told where they come from.

Likewise, allusions to Shakespeare show up everywhere in English literature, high literature and low. For example, in Jane Austen's Emma, considered one of the great novels in English, Emma quotes A Midsummer's Night Dream. In popular literature, Agatha Christie's mysteries, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes, allude to Shakespeare. One could make a pastime of locating Shakespeare allusions in English literature and find them all over.

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